The king of Eswatini, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, shaken by a violent protest, called on Saturday for calm and announced that a national dialogue would be launched, the day after a visit by mediators from southern Africa.
But the opposition and civil society have already rejected the call for talks.
Formerly known as Swaziland, Eswatini, a small landlocked state of 1.3 million people where protests are rare, has been the scene of pro-democracy demonstrations by students, civil servants, transport workers and health care workers since June, leading the authorities to deploy the army.
“King Mswati III has announced that a process of national dialogue (…) will be initiated”, after the annual ritual ceremonies of Incwala – celebrating royalty – which begin in November and traditionally last about a month, said the king’s main representative, Themba Ginindza, quoted on the government’s Twitter account.
During Incwala, the king isolates himself and does not participate in any government activities.
According to Ginindza, the king has called for calm and “an end to all violence, as no dialogue can take place when tempers are so high.
But opposition political parties and civil society organizations called the call for dialogue “a ploy to mislead” the mediators.
“We have long lost hope in such forums and, as a result, we will not participate in the meeting,” they said in a statement.
“We will not let the king who has blood on his hands decide how and when the dialogue will be held,” they said, “There can be no calm or peaceful dialogue while the security forces continue to kill and maim people.
At least two people were killed and 80 injured Wednesday in clashes with security forces who fired tear gas and rubber bullets but also opened live fire.
Police say 37 people have been killed since the protests began in June, but a citizens’ group, the Leftu Sonkhe Institute of Strategic Thinking and Development, puts the death toll at around 80.
“His Majesty has instructed us to extend our sincere condolences to all those who lost loved ones during the unrest,” Ginindza also said.
On Thursday, the day the 16-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) mediators arrived, the government banned the demonstrations after severely restricting internet access the day before, which was finally restored on Friday.
During their two-day visit, the mediators met with the king, the government and civil society groups.
In a statement released Saturday, South African head of state Cyril Ramaphosa, who currently chairs the SADC security body, supported the idea of a national dialogue in Eswatini and called for “calm, restraint, respect for the rule of law and human rights on the part of all parties, to enable the process to get underway.
Crowned in 1986, Mswati III, who has 15 wives and more than 25 children, is reviled for his iron fist and lavish lifestyle in a country where two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line.