Social media users are once again bringing news of human rights violations in Swaziland to the attention of the world.
This time the world-famous hip-hop and soul singer Erykah Badu is their target.
People are angry because Badu sang Happy Birthday at a private party for King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, and then gave him a lucky stone and a US$100 note as a gift.
The Swazi King rules his kingdom with an iron grip and while he lives in luxury with 13 palaces, fleets of Mercedes cars, and a private jet airplane, seven in ten of his 1.3 million subjects live in abject poverty on less than US$2 a day. Forbes magazine once reported King Mswati had a personal fortune of US$200 million.
King Mswati’s grip on power in his kingdom is so great that at present editor Bkheki Makhubu and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko are on trial in Swaziland for contempt of court after calling the independence of the Swazi judicial system into question in articles in a small circulation magazine, the Nation.
Also, seven people are in jail awaiting trial for wearing T-shirts supporting the pro-democracy group PUDEMO.
It was against this background that people rushed to their Twitter and Facebook accounts to condemn Badu, who in the past has been a vocal supporter of human rights. Mainstream media quickly picked up on the story and it went global.
Badu was so stung by the criticism that she went on Twitter to defend herself. She refused to apologise, saying, ‘I can’t be held responsible for the situation in the kingdom because I signed up as an artist, not as a political activist.’
Groups supporting the call for human rights in Swaziland joined in. Human Rights Foundation director of institutional affairs, Alex Gladstein, in a press release said, ‘She claims to want to improve the lives of the disenfranchised and impoverished, but unapologetically does favors for a corrupt tyrant who jails those who challenge his ill-gotten wealth and power. She should be the first in line asking the king to release Makhubu and Maseko.
‘The authenticity of Badu’s philanthropic efforts is called into question by her celebration of Mswati.’
He added, ‘The king is a kleptocrat who lives in the lap of obscene luxury while most of his countrymen toil in abject poverty for less than $2 a day. Badu’s performance for him is a slap in the face of all human rights defenders inside Swaziland and is a mockery of Badu’s work inside the US.’
Social media is being increasingly used by supporters of democracy in Swaziland, by-passing mainstream media in the kingdom, all of which supports the monarchy. Activists have been Tweeting each day from the Swazi High Court as the trial of Makhubu and Maseko continues. They have also drawn the world’s attention to human rights violations concerning, among other things, violence against women, discrimination against gays and lesbians, ill treatment of juvenile prisoners and the rape of young girls.