‘Taiwanese people should support democracy in Swaziland': Interview with activist Tanele Maseko

Tanele Maseko in Taipei.. Photo by Brian Hioe, used with permission.

The original version of this post was written by Brian Hioe and published in New Bloom on November 2, 2023. The following edited version is published on Global Voices under a content partnership agreement.

New Bloom editor Brian Hioe interviewed Tanele Maseko, human rights defender from Eswatini and the wife of Thulani Maseko, an opposition politician and human rights lawyer who was killed by unidentified gunman in January of this year. As this took place after comments by Swazi monarch King Mswati III suggesting that his critics should be killed, it is thought that this killing was ordered by the monarch. Tanele Maseko was visiting Taipei for the Oslo Freedom Forum on October 18.

Despite the questionable human rights record of the country previously known as Swaziland, which was renamed Eswatini by Mswati III in April 2018, it is one of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen most recently visited Eswatini this September.

Brian Hioe (BH):  Could you introduce yourself?

Tanele Maseko (TM):  My name is Tanele Maseko. I’m a human rights defender from Swaziland. And I am married to the late Thulani Rudolph Maseko, human rights lawyer and human rights activist from Swaziland. I am now CEO of the newly founded Thulani Maseko Foundation. I continue to push for his legacy, his ideals, what he stood for, what he fought for, and eventually what he died for.

Taiwanese president (Center-left) meeting Swaziland Monarch King Mswati III (Center-right) in September 2023. Photo from Tsai Ing-wen Facebook page.

BH: Taiwan went through an authoritarian past but in this case is backing an authoritarian regime. What would you want the people of Taiwan to know about the situation in Eswatini?

TM:  I want the people of Taiwan to know that Swaziland is in a dire situation. We have a lot of our colleagues and comrades who are living in exile. Political participation is not allowed, as parties are banned. Human rights defenders, political activists  are labeled terrorists. What is also critical when it comes to Swaziland is our education system is collapsing. Our health system is also in a crisis.

I would urge the people of Taiwan to encourage and put pressure on the king to discuss the future and democracy of Swaziland openly, freely, and honestly. Taiwan complains of China. How then can you complain of China and yet you continue to support a dictatorship like Swaziland?

BH: For example, after the protests in past years, the Taiwanese government contributed money to the reconstruction and there was little public discussion of what happened in Eswatini. Could you comment on that?

TM:  The youth in Swaziland are educated. But in terms of job opportunities, there is nothing. Because the economy is concentrated on the royal family, its cohorts, and its supporters. Teachers are actually leaving Swaziland, coming to Taiwan. Nurses are leaving Swaziland, going to Ukraine, because they feel they deserve better pay.

We do not even have elections. We have selections. You go there and you pay your allegiance to the king, his heirs, and successors — and not the interest of the people of Swaziland. You do not represent the honest Swazi on the street when you go into parliament. It is just about you getting your salary, and not caring about creating policy that will assist in improving the lives of Swazis.

The monarchy has shares in most of the companies in Swaziland. And the fact that His Majesty the King is doing business in Swaziland, leaves us with no option because then if the king is in business, he’s above the law, you can’t take him to court. Even if you have an aggrievance as an employee, you cannot take the company that belongs to the king to court. The chief justice is chosen by the king. The chief justice is a headsman of the king. The judges are appointed by the king.

BH:  What would you like to see Taiwan do in this case? 

TM:  We need to have an honest, open dialogue on a free Swaziland, on a new constitution for Swaziland with the king. We need a dialogue that the people will have, will contribute in, where the people will have a say on the economy, and have a say on the running of the country. We need to recognize political parties. We need to unban political parties.

So we need the Taiwanese president to be honest and talk to her allies. She cannot support a dictator, and yet she too is complaining of dictatorship by China.

How is the government of Taiwan benefiting from Swaziland? Recognition and diplomacy at the expense of the Swazi. So I feel the Taiwan government needs to come out clearly to say, why are they supporting His Majesty the King? How are they benefiting? And does that benefit the man on the street? It doesn’t.

BH:  It’s deeply ironic that Taiwanese president Tsai visits your country and claims Taiwan stands together with Eswatini as fellow democracies, and yet this is happening.

TM:  Yes. It is quite shocking and very upsetting that political leaders continue to be dishonest. I mean, here you have the president of Taiwan having close ties with Swaziland. She travels to Swaziland, a place where human rights violations are dire, a place where in 2021, there are massacres committed by the security forces, by the army. She doesn’t say anything about that. She owes us that explanation, or at least to assist us to attain our democracy.

Tanele Maseko speaking at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Taipei on October 18. Photo by Brian Hioe.

BH:  Have there been responses from the Taiwanese government?

TM:  We met with the speaker of parliament. We met with different members of the legislative. We also met with your deputy minister of foreign affairs. I cannot, unfortunately, divulge what went into those meetings. Those were closed meetings.

BH:  What do you think that the people of Taiwan should do if they want to stand in support of the democracy in Swaziland?

TM:  The people of Taiwan should talk to their government and hold them to account as to why they continue to support a dictator. And the people of Taiwan need to stand with the Swaziland people to support us in seeking democracy. They must stand in solidarity with us in calling out their president to say, Madam President, if you believe in the value of human rights, let us support the Swaziland people, and let us not support this dictator.

In closing, I’d honestly want to say: Taiwan is a beautiful place where people are warm. But Taiwan people need to support the Swaziland people for us to be like them, for us to flourish. We can do this only when we are honest with each other and if we stand in solidarity with each other. I plead with the Taiwanese people to push their government to put pressure on His Majesty the King, to stop killing innocent civilians, to stop killing political activists, to stop arresting and torturing human rights defenders, and to seek dialogue on behalf of the people of Swaziland.

For more on Taiwan's diplomatic allies, read Highlighting Taiwan's international invisibility.

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