Credit: GIN photo

“It is easy to break down and destroy. The heroes are those who make peace and build.”

Those were the prophetic words of Nelson Mandela, for whom the United Nations designated July 18 as Nelson Mandela International Day to remember the life and legacy of a legendary global advocate for dignity, equality, justice and human rights.

This past Sunday would have been Mandela’s 103rd birthday and eight years since his death in 2013.

But how disappointed Madiba might be to see the nations of South Africa and Eswatini, formerly Swaziland, convulsed in a fireball of unfulfilled promises, a widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the cancer of corruption coddled by public officials and overlooked by political leaders.

When ex-president Jacob Zuma was jailed last week for defying a South African court order to testify in a graft inquiry, it set off an outbreak of looting in KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home province. Some 800 stores were cleaned out and more than 100 were set on fire. The protests claimed some 212 lives, with thousands left jobless and homeless.

South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa called the violence “pre-planned,” and an attempt to hijack South Africa’s democracy. “We are going after them,” he promised.

Across the eastern border, in neighboring Eswatini, formerly Swaziland, the country’s monarch, King Mswati III, greenlighted a full-frontal assault on human rights in response to pro-democracy protests.  The protestors were “satanic” who are taking the country backwards, he said.

But what remained of social media presented another story. “Police have been shooting at crowds since morning, from as early as 7 a.m.,” Lucky Lukhele, spokesman for the pro-democracy Swaziland Solidarity Network, told the French AFP news agency.

A video posted to Facebook by the Swaziland United Democratic Front, a pro-democracy coalition of political parties, churches and unions, showed protesters singing and dancing in the street before fleeing as shots rang out behind them.

Owing to a massive unemployment rate and low wages that oblige 80% of Swazis to live on less than US $2 a day, the government has been under “increasing pressure from civil society activists and trade unionists to implement economic reforms and open up the space for civil and political activism”, attests the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

With an internet blackout and a crackdown on journalists inside the country, Chiedza Madzima of Fitch Solutions, blamed the current outbreak of protests on a generational conflict.

“The youth—weighed down by youth unemployment rates of near 50% in 2019 (and) likely worse with COVID-19 impact—have long-waited for economic opportunities that have been further thinned out” by the impact of COVID-19,” Madzima told Quartz, the online magazine.

She added: “The call now, from the youth, is for political representation in an effort to change a system that they feel benefits the few elite classes in the country. These protests are a de facto vote of no confidence in the government.”