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Eswatini, Democracy, and Youth Rebellion

Maryam Khalif

Source: AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, File

Eswatini sits on the precipice of civil unrest. The king, King Mswati III, has ruled as the absolute monarch of Eswatini since 1986. There are few concessions granted to the population of Eswatini, such as the ability to vote for some members of parliament, with a general election held in September 2023. However, these elections are heavily restricted. Voters are only able to vote for the 59 members of the lower house of parliament, who serve as mere advisors to the king. The results of this vote are seen as a foregone conclusion - the party that will win is the party most loyal to the monarchy. Notable youth activist Sakhile Nxumalo has said this election “cannot be taken seriously” as its overall purpose is to continue serving the interests of those already in power, and has called for a boycott of the vote.

Recent Civil Unrest

The death of Thabani Nkomonye, a law student at the University of Eswatini in May 2021 triggered protests across Eswatini. In June 2021, these protests escalated and around 500 people protested in the streets of Manzini to demand democratic reforms. In response to this, authorities criminalised protests.

In July 2021, two members of parliament who were supportive of the pro-democracy protests were arrested on terrorism and murder charges. Throughout September 2021, high school and university students across Eswatini organised and held demonstrations to support democracy. One particular school, William Pitcher College, had their students mobilise and march to a Ministry. However, the army was deployed against them, and students were brutalised, with some requiring medical attention.

These examples illustrate the reasoning behind the burgeoning of youth activism. It is clear that their age is not a shield against the violence of the state. Even their education can be wielded as a weapon against them - after student protests in October 2020, schools were indefinitely closed across the country by King Mswati. Their actions can and have had disastrous ramifications. As a result of this repression, the youth of Eswatini have largely been at the forefront of rebellion, fighting for their future and the future of the country they will inherit. 

A Generational Divide

By and large, democracy and associated societal attitudes are a generational issue. Some older Eswatinis are loyal to the king, seeing his rule as a feature of their traditional society. Others, who may disagree with the absolute power of the king, are nonetheless silenced by the threat of repercussions towards them and their families. These worries are well-founded, as criticising the king can put you in prison.

Per the human rights protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, everyone has a fundamental right to participate in their country’s parliament. Eswatini’s current political laws, which bar political parties from participating in elections, do not meet international standards for the conduct of democratic elections.

Part of the reason why the youth are ready and willing to protest the lack of democracy in Eswatini is directly due to the fact that Eswatini has a staggering youth unemployment rate of 58%. This is sharply contrasted with the fact that King Mswati lives a vastly opulent lifestyle, one that affords him luxuries far greater than his population will ever see.

An additional factor behind the generational divide is the age discrepancy between the leaders of Eswatini and their youth. Eswatini and other African nations all make up the top 10 countries with the biggest age discrepancies in the world between the leaders and the median age of the populace. As a result of this, many Eswatini youth may find that their leaders that should be looking out for their interests are, in reality, using their power to solely benefit themselves.

Education and Youth Activism

Youth across Africa have, by and large, been more educated than their parents and grandparents before them, with the continent making considerable progress in education. The number of tertiary education students, for example, has risen from less than 800,000 in 1972, to over 17 million today. The increase in levels of education could explain the generational divide in political viewpoints, and illustrates why the driving force of the pro democracy movement is Eswatini youth.

One prominent youth activist is Monqoba Motsa. He was directly radicalised by the clear discrepancy of wealth between the Eswatini populace and their king. His family, traditionally supportive of the monarchy, encouraged him to enter the service of the king through a soldier’s regiment. Instead, just like many of his generation, Motsa was completely unable to find work. As a result, he participated in democratic movements, including by joining the Communist Party of his university and calling for a boycott of the national election. Indicative of how rebellion against the government is a generational issue, Motsa’s activism has resulted in strained relations with his own family. In addition, the importance of education as the focal point behind democratic activism is shown with Motsa, as he began working in democratic activism only after he entered university and was able to organise with his fellow students.


The recent years of civil unrest have shown both the Eswatini population and the world that the youth will not simply take repression lying down. Their activism has continued through police brutality, government crackdowns and their own schools being shut down. They will continue to fight to achieve true democracy, and it is only a matter of time until this is achieved.


Maryam Kalif is a Law/Arts student with an interest in refugee law and global gendered violence against women. Maryam volunteers at community legal clinics, and her overall ambition is to help people with her legal knowledge.



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