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Stop Using COVID-19 to Postpone Dialogue, Church Leaders in Eswatini Tell Government

Logo of the Council of Swaziland Churches. Credit: Council of Swaziland Churches

The Council of Swaziland Churches in Eswatini has asked the government of the Southern African nation to stop using the COVID-19 situation to postpone dialogue that they say will restore peace in the country that is experiencing protracted protests.

In a statement circulated Tuesday, October 19, the church leaders warn that failure to address people’s grievances is creating an angry generation, underscoring the need for dialogue in the country.

They find it baffling that while political activities have continued unmarred by the COVID-19 situation in the country, the pandemic is being blamed for the delayed dialogue.

“Currently the COVID-19 pandemic is used as an excuse for not starting dialogue, but we have seen many national gatherings taking place in the midst of the pandemic,” the leaders say in their statement.

They add, “The need for meaningful engagement cannot be overemphasized and dialogue cannot be postponed any further. The Council of Swaziland Churches believes that whenever there are differences of opinion and conflicts between people the only way to resolve them is through dialogue where all people will have a chance to present their views.”

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The church leaders maintain that it is only through dialogue that peace will return in the country saying, “This is what we have been calling for ever since the current crisis started and what emaSwati are asking for.”

They complain that the government of the Southern African country has not demonstrated commitment to walk the people towards peace.

“Apart from paying lip service to the idea of dialogue government has not done anything that demonstrates her desire for dialogue, let alone commitment to dialogue,” the church leaders say, and add, “We have said it in the past that the traditional structures that the government keeps referring to have too many limitations that will make it difficult for emaSwati to speak freely.”

In their statement, members of the Council of churches in the Kingdom of Eswatini, previously known as Swaziland, express their concern about the deteriorating security situation of the Kingdom as the government remains indifferent to the people’s grievances.

“The current situation that obtains in our country is concerning to all emaSwati and to the church in particular. As the Council of Swaziland Churches, we are concerned that if this situation is not addressed urgently, it will have long term effects on emaSwati. We are concerned that the government is not responding to the issues raised by emaSwati and that this will lead to the escalation of the conflict to more violence,” the religious leaders say.

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They lament the continued use of excessive force by security forces in the country, a situation they say is resulting in loss of lives and injuries.

The church leaders assert that as long as more blood is spilt and lives are lost in Eswatini, the country is far from finding a peaceful solution to the ongoing crisis.

“We are also creating an angry generation that will have no respect for the police and the army,” the leaders of churches in Africa’s only absolute monarchy say.

They call upon the authorities in the country that borders South Africa and Mozambique to learn from past situations of violence in neighboring South Africa saying, “We have seen such a behavior in South Africa during the apartheid time where police seen as a symbol of oppression and were always met with violence wherever they went.”

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.

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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. 

According to the members of the Council of churches in Eswatini, it has taken many years, even after independence, for the people of South Africa to have a trusting relationship with the police and the army.

They say, in reference to South Africa’s Apartheid regime, “We believe that this is not what we want and it is definitely not what the men and women in our security forces are called for. They are to serve with honor and protect all the citizens of this country without fear or favor.”

The leaders also call on the people of Eswatini to uphold dignity even amid protests and to avoid the use of abusive language while expressing their grievances.

“Whilst appreciating the right to peaceful protest, we condemn the use of abusive and vulgar language by some protestors. Protests must be done peacefully and with respect for the next person's dignity,” they say.

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The religious leaders highlight the education crisis in Eswatini and assert that challenges bedeviling the country’s education sector have been exacerbated by insecurity and unrest.

“The Council of Swaziland Churches believes in the importance of education and in the right to education for all children,” the faith-based leaders say.

They add, “We therefore condemn any disturbance of education and the destruction of schools and property during protests. While we believe in empowering children on their rights and on social justice, we condemn any irresponsible behavior from both adults and children.”

The church leaders call upon the government to follow the law when dealing with children, including following the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child when effecting arrests and prosecuting children.

They express their appreciation to the government for opening schools in stages and using the blended learning approach saying, “This allowed schools to easily follow COVID-19 protocols and assisted in the prevention of the spread of the virus.”

They say that some school closures, however, have been due to the protests that have been happening in the country, with demonstrators sometimes breaking into schools.

Apart from COVID-19, schools have also battled inefficiencies such as shortage of teachers, nonpayment of the orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC) and free primary education (FPE) funds and the political situation in Eswatini.

The faith-based leaders note that in certain instances, schools in Eswatini have been forced to close indefinitely regardless of the deployment of security forces to learning institutions. 

They however observe that the deployment of security forces in schools amid unrest made the situation more tense as the same forces were seen beating up children.

“While condemning the destruction of school property by pupils we also do not believe that the presence of armed security forces contributes to a conducive learning environment,” they say in their statement.

The church leaders condemn statements attributed to some of the country’s lawmakers to the effect that the government will withhold payment of fees to schools that are closed or for students involved in protest saying these pronouncements are misplaced. 

“The Council would like to remind the government that they are custodians of public funds which cannot be used to include or exclude based on one's loyalty to the state. All emaSwati should be treated equally as we are all equal in the eyes of God,” they say.

Meanwhile, the Council of Swaziland Churches has welcomed the decision by the government to once more close schools in the country amid unrest, and expressed concern about an indefinite closure.

They maintain that the reasons for the protests in schools are not only school related, adding, “if we do not address the main issues urgently, it may mean that schools will remain closed for a very long time.”

“Unfortunately, the Honorable Prime Minister did not say what will be done to ensure safe opening of schools again,” the members of the Council of church in Eswatini say.

They add, “We can no longer bury our heads in the sand and pretend as if we do not see what is happening or as if we do not know the cause of our crisis. We believe that it is time for emaSwati to engage on the governance issues through meaningful dialogue.”