MBABANE, June 29 (Reuters) – Demonstrators in the small southern African kingdom of eSwatini demanded reforms to its system of absolute monarchy on Tuesday, and security forces tried to repel them with gunfire and tear gas.
“I can hear gunshots and smell teargas. I do not know how I will get home, there is nothing in the bus rank, there is a strong presence of riot police and the army,” Vusi Madalane, a shop assistant in the capital Mbabane, said by telephone.
Acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku denied some media reports that King Mswati III had fled the violence to neighbouring South Africa.
Anger against Mswati has been building for years, and protests occasionally turn violent, with police using tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons to disperse stone-throwing protesters.
Security forces set up road blocks to prevent access by some vehicles to the capital, Mbabane, on Tuesday. Some banks said they had shut until the unrest — which started on the weekend and turned violent overnight — subsides.
Government spokesperson Sabelo Dlamini said schools and bus stations had been ordered closed. Reuters saw school children hurrying home on the outskirts of the capital.
Campaigners say the king has consistently evaded calls for meaningful reforms that would nudge eSwatini, which changed its name from Swaziland in 2018, in the direction of democracy. They also accuse him of using public coffers as a piggy bank, funding a lavish lifestyle off the backs of his 1.5 million subjects, most of them subsistence farmers.
“His Majesty King Mswati III is in the country and continues to lead in working with government to advance the Kingdom’s goals,” the statement from Masuku said. “We appeal for calm, restraint and peace from all emaSwati (eSwatini citizens).”
The 53-year-old king denies being an autocrat, and is impenitent about the lifestyle enjoyed by him and his fifteen wives, who between them occupy several state-funded palaces.
A spate of crackdowns, such as the arrest of opposition leaders and activists in 2019, has done little to discourage anti-monarchy sentiment in the former British protectorate.