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Catholic Bishops in Southern Africa Urge Change in Eswatini’s Governance to Tame Violence

Members of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) at a press conference in Manzini Diocese. Credit: Manzini Diocese

Members of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) are calling on the government of Eswatini to listen to the cry of the people and to phase out absolute monarchy, which has been blamed for the violence and insecurity in the country.

In a statement shared with ACI Africa Friday, October 15, Catholic Bishops in the three-nation conference propose a set of recommendations to restore peace in the country that has been said to be experiencing “sporadic episodes of violence” since May.

SACBC members’ recommendations were an outcome of a five-day solidarity and pastoral visit to the Southern African nation, formerly known as Swaziland, from October 6.

In their statement, the SACBC members acknowledge that while monarchy had worked for Eswatini for years, the people no longer find the system attractive.

“While in the past, Eswatini enjoyed a common appreciation of the form of government, these days, from what we have heard, there appears to be a call from some avenues for a consideration of a different form of government. The reasons for this call are too numerous to narrate here,” the Catholic Church leaders say in their two-page statement that was signed by the SACBC President, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka.

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The SACBC members say that the call by the people to have a different form of government was “not new.” They however expressed concern that failure to heed the people’s call may lead to an “escalation of violence” in the country. 

“While perhaps this call is not new, given the unprecedented violence and the apparent determination to stick to this call, we humbly propose that attention to this call be given,” they say, and add, “We are concerned that a failure to heed this call may lead to escalation of violence that will see more loss of life and destruction of economy and infrastructure happening.”

The Bishops said that they had gathered many other opinions from the people of the Kingdom of Eswatini when they visited the Kingdom during which they made a passionate appeal to the people to understand the severity of the instability in their nation and make conscious efforts to build “a peaceful and just society.”

Unrest in Eswatini began in May when university students took to the streets to call for accountability for the death of their colleague, 25-year-old Thabani Nkomonye, allegedly at the hands of the police.

The protests grew into daily pro-democracy marches in June, with protesters voicing deep-seated political and economic grievances. At least 50 people were reported dead. 

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Last month, Bishop José Luis Ponce de León of Eswatini’s only Catholic Diocese, Manzini, expressed concern about the situation of uncertainty in the country following the pro-democracy protests in July.

The Local Ordinary of Manzini described the situation in Africa’s only absolute monarchy as “calm with sporadic episodes of violence.”

In their October 15 statement, Catholic Bishops in Botswana, Eswatini, and South Africa exude confidence that those that the SACBC delegation spoke to during the solidarity visit to the Southern African nation had expressed willingness to embrace dialogue to restore peace in the country.

“We are encouraged by the fact that all those that we spoke to, the government included, expressed openness about dialogue and negotiations,” SACBC members say, and add, “We are however, concerned that there are different opinions about the format of dialogue and negotiations, and given these differences, it appears that such dialogue may not take place, or at least may not be as effective as hoped for if the format is not mutually agreed to.”

Given the varied opinions of the people about dialogue, the Bishops have proposed a “dialogue about dialogue” approach to ending violence in the country.

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“While Eswatini is known for its traditional structure of dialoguing, all the people that we spoke to, except the government, have expressed opinions about considering other structures of dialoguing. Given this clear wish, unfortunately accompanied by violence, it appears to us that ‘dialogue about dialogue’ would be a constructive starting point and that this begins sooner than later,” SACBC members said.  

The Bishops also say they spoke to people who indicated they felt alienated by the King in the country and called on the country’s leadership to restore “a felt symbiotic and caring relationship between the King and His people.”

The Bishops lament that Eswatini, traditionally known to be a country of peace and a home to those who had been displaced in their own countries, is now plunged in turmoil.

They say it was now the turn for Eswatini’s neighbors to return the favour and to restore the country’s peace and prosperity.

According to the Bishops, the Kingdom of Eswatini is known as a peaceful country with a culture of courtesy, humanness, and hospitality. 

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“We remember its hospitality and solidarity when it received the South African refugees and exiles who were fleeing the oppression of the Apartheid state, in South Africa. We also remember the hospitality with which the people of Eswatini received refugees from Mozambique in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, fleeing the violence of the civil war in that country,” SACBC members say.

They add, “Both these countries owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the people of Eswatini. Exiles benefitted from the superior quality of education in the Kingdom and returned well equipped to serve their countries.” 

The leadership of the three-nation conference note that like many countries, Eswatini had been hit hard by the HIV pandemic, which had been compounded by other social, political, and economic challenges and lately by COVID-19, forcing many into abject poverty. 

“Over the years, the eMaswati have, true to their peace-loving nature, been navigating these difficult times peacefully. The recent upsurges of unprecedented violence, that swept the country in the middle of this year and resulted in loss of life and limb as well as the large-scale destruction of property, seem to suggest a loss of patience that must be regained if this beautiful country is not to descend into civil war and the concomitant suffering that has befallen other countries,” SACBC members say. 

The Catholic Bishops say that they have seen a lot of suffering in Eswatini and express their fear that “worse still to happen” in the country unless something is done to salvage the situation.

They express their gratitude to the people of Eswatini for their support during the solidarity visit saying, “We are grateful to the government of Eswatini for welcoming us and talking to us about the situation in the country.”

“We are equally grateful to the Eswatini Catholics, consecrated women, Priests, Eswatini Council of Churches and the multiple civic groups as well as individuals who shared their views about the situation in the country,” SACBC members say in their October 14 collective message titled, “A statement following the solidarity and pastoral visit to Eswatini by the SACBC.”