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Eswatini’s youngest MP ready to empower the youth amid tampered hopes

Zombodze Emuva Constituency MP, Ntando Mkhonta in Parliament after he was sworn-in as an MP. Photo: Nondududzo Kunene, bird story agency

The 2023 Eswatini General Elections will remain one of the historical elections in the history of Africa’s last absolute monarchy as it elected its youngest-ever MP.

Nonduduzo Kunene, bird story agency

A spark of trust, hope and faith has been ignited in the youth of the Kingdom of Eswatini, all thanks to Zombodze Emuva Constituency in the Shiselweni Region, in the southern part of the country, who chose to elect Thando Mkhonta, 28, as their MP.

Bible in hand and with a serious look on his face, Mkhonta was among 59 elected as well as 10 appointed MPs who were sworn-in on October 6, 2023 for the 12th Parliament in Eswatini, Africa’s last absolute monarchy.

In an interview just after the swearing-in ceremony, which was combined with the election of Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House of Assembly, Mkhonta heaved a sigh of relief as he stated that; “Finally the youth has a voice in parliament.”

Mkhonta highlighted that he hadn’t anticipated that he would ever be a legislator in his life as he doesn’t come from a line of politicians.

After his IT graduation from Limkokwing University of Technology in 2016, Mkhonta started working for several non-governmental organisations that were running various projects along his home area among other rural communities in Eswatini.

“As I was working with organisations and growing up in my community, people were noticing my life,” he said.

Uplifting the youth

In addition to his IT qualification, Mkhonta is also in the public transport sector as he operates a fleet of vehicles around the Shiselweni Region.

He said his interest in joining politics was sparked by what people said they wanted in their MP and the concerns raised by young people about the perceptions that were drawn about them in parliament.

“As we were engaging during several stages that included civic voter education, I discovered that people were looking into re-electing the then MP of Zombodze, yet they were expecting different results,” he said.

“It was then that I felt the strong need and urge to join politics and uplift young people, not only those from my constituency but the country at large through legislation that will be passed in the 12th Parliament,” he added.

Mkhonta has ambitions not only to uplift the youth but also to advocate for the welfare of elderly people.

"My dream is to see change in this constituency and that is what I was preaching during when I was campaigning and seeing everyone being committed to the cause as what can fuel change is everyone's commitment. The change l am talking about is all about development as we have always been lagging behind, the youth in particular and increasing the elderly grant from 500 lilangeni (US$27) monthly through moving motions that will see the review of some of the Acts related to the subject matters.”

The MP said he would further ensure that every law that is passed by the 12th Parliament would also work to advantage the youth. He highlighted that sometimes young people end up being clueless about the legislative business because they are not part of the system.

Mkhonta pledged to ensure the youth stayed abreast of every law that is lobbied in parliament.

“I will work with the Ministry of Sport, Culture and Youth Affairs to capacitate the youth and further ensure that the youth make contributions in all the laws and policies that the parliament would be busy with,” he said.

Eswatini does not conduct multiparty elections. The country uses a system of government called Tinkhundla System or Monarchical Democracy. Candidates and the electorate join the elections on individual merits not through their political parties since they do not have recognition under the Tinkhundla System. The general election is divided into three categories which are the nominations stage, Primary Elections and Secondary Elections.

In 2023 the nominations were conducted on July 22 2023. During the nominations stage, members of the community nominate people in three categories which are bucopho (councillor), indvuna yenkhundla (constituency headman) and lilunga lephalamende (MP). The maximum number of people that can be nominated in each category shouldn’t be less than three but not more than 20.

Eswatini held the secondary elections on September 29, 2023 in 59 constituencies.

Mkhonta was part of the entire process when was first nominated under Zombodze Emuva Constituency. During the primary election, he defeated the the 11th Parliament Zombodze Emuva MP, Muzi Kunene.

In the secondary election that cemented his seat in the 12th Parliament, Mkhonta obtained 2,246 votes from all four communities under the constituency beating 9th Parliament Zombodze Emuva MP Titus Thwala, who obtained 1,646 votes and 10th Parliament MP Johan Ndlangamandla.

Hopeful community

Most members of the Zombodze electorate have high hopes for their new MP.

One of them is Nozipho Madonsela, a resident of Mampondweni, a community under Zombodze Constituency. Madonsela was at the forefront of canvassing votes for Mkhonta.

"I was pleased to learn that the people trusted Ntando. I can't wait to see Ntando standing up for young people and changing the narrative about them in Parliament," she shared.

Madonsela mentioned that in 2021 the country had civil unrest and most young people were part of it.

“Among other things, the social unrest was fueled by the fact that young people were not heard and they didn’t have a voice in Parliament. We were side-lined in a lot of things and for that reason we were frustrated. Instead of the then legislators to see our frustration and see things from our point of view and meet us at a point of convergence we were bashed and called "those that don’t vote" by some MPs,” she disclosed.

“We are hopeful that Ntando will rewrite the history of young people and make the entire country see that their youth has so much to offer but needs an enabling environment and be included in the formation of the peaceful and prosperous nations,” she added.

Eswatini’s highest population is the youth which forms 70% of the total. This is according to statistics by the Ministry of Economic Planning. During the 2023 election, 584 710 people registered to vote. According to Chairman of the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) Mhlabuhangene Dlamini, this was above 91.2% of the population that is eligible to vote.

The election had over 80 observers, both from the SADC Region as well as the African Union (AU).

On October 1, 2023, Head of the SADC Electoral Observation Mission (SEOM) and Former Vice President of Zambia, Enock Kandivele, lauded the peace that surrounded the voting process.

Kavindele highlighted the “inclusiveness, impartial, free and fair elections”.

He added that in as much as political parties were not incorporated in the Tinkhundla System, the electoral process by virtue of being on individual merit does not prohibit people to join as individuals.

Tampered hopes

While much is expected to be achieved by Mkhonta for Eswatini youths, a political analyst and lecturer at the University of Eswatini (UNESWA), Dr Petros Magagula felt the need to address the entire system of government and its current limitations.

Magagula first highlighted that in the past year, people were calling for dialogue.

“The type of dialogue should be according to the recommendations of the SADC, not the 'Peoples Parliament', which occurs after every five years after the general elections,” Magagula stressed.

He further stressed that before Eswatini could celebrate the election of young people to parliament, the house should be a neutral and safe ground to debate national issues.

"Unless serious national issues are debated in Parliament without the fear of being arrested or made out to be an outcast that attacks the system or authorities, we can celebrate young people and women in Parliament," he said.

However, Magagula noted that since MPs have an obligation to also look after their communities besides politics, Mkhonta can make a difference in his constituency by bringing opportunities for young people through the connections he will make.

“If these young MPs, including Mkhonta, could capacitate the youth with legislative business, there will be an increase in youth participation in the formation of laws. I'm looking forward to the youth dominating stakeholders' submissions when a new legislation is proposed," Magagula said.

Mkhonta urged former legislators as well as those who didn’t make it in the 2023 General Elections not to abandon their goals as they can help him and other newly elected MPs.

“To those who were part of the race, I am requesting them to support me as I need their ideas, which they brought up when we were campaigning. We are supposed to work together and also need their experience more especially the former politicians. We can achieve a lot when we are united,” he concluded.

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