During the week preceding the elections, marches were planned by striking civil servants, teachers and nurses in the four major cities and towns of Mbabane, Manzini, Nhlangano and Siteki. The Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) and its affiliates are leading the protests calling for salary increases and better working conditions. The marches were planned for three days from the 18 to 20 September to protest a stalling of wage negotiations. This was in response to the government’s refusal to award them a 6.5 percent cost of living adjustment. In a Government Press Statement dated 18 September 2018, the government showed its dissatisfaction with the planned protests and ordered schools to remain open. Police officers were deployed across the country to maintain peace as workers blocked roads during the protests. Several workers were wounded after police fired stun grenades to disperse the crowd in Manzini. These police officers then unleashed a wave of assaults against striking workers in an effort to quell the protests.
The protests are taking place in the context of vast inequality and where the monarchy maintains a lavish lifestyle. In April, King Mswati held a lavish 50th birthday party alleged to have cost millions of dollars. Public servants were ordered to contribute to his birthday celebrations. Days prior to his 2018 the birthday celebrations, the king had received delivery of his second private jet, an A340-300 Airbus.
SALC condemns these police attacks on protesting workers and urge the police to act with restraint. The Public Order Act of 2017 encouraged a new dispensation in which protests ought to be allowed to take place with minimal police interference. The Act specifies that police may only intervene in a gathering when there is an immediate danger, and any action taken by the police must be necessary and proportionate. The videos circulated on social media relating to police interventions yesterday indicate unlawful police actions, and require urgent investigation. Since the passing of the Public Order Act, many similar gatherings have been marred by police brutality, indicating that the new law is not being implemented. We note that the Police Service Act of 2018 specifically states that members of the Police Service shall respect and protect human dignity and human rights, and that police officers are prohibited from inflicting or tolerating any act of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In this context, it is critical that the police officers who were in command when the attacks on protesters occurred are held publicly and firmly accountable. We also urge elections observers to call on the Swazi government to respect the right of all citizens to protest.