JOHANNESBURG — As Africa’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III of Eswatini chooses his country’s prime minister and cabinet, and possesses the power to dissolve Parliament. His grip on the nation’s limited economic resources has underwritten a lavish lifestyle of luxury cars and palaces, and his children flaunt their opulent birthday parties on social media.
About six out of 10 of citizens, meanwhile, live in poverty. Many in this tiny landlocked nation, wedged between South Africa and Mozambique, are on the brink of hunger and have to cross into South Africa to find work — their lives in stark contrast to their leader’s abundance.
Now, it seems, many of the kingdom’s 1.1 million inhabitants have had it with this imbalance: Over the past week, the tiny southern African nation, formerly known as Swaziland, has descended into the most explosive civil unrest in its 53 years of independence.
Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in the executive capital, Mbabane, and elsewhere, with many burning and looting businesses in which the king holds a stake. The government has responded aggressively, with witnesses, activists and hospital staff reporting that the military and the police have fired live rounds at protesters and looters.
Hospitals are overwhelmed with an influx of gunshot victims, several nurses said. Their supplies of oxygen and medications are depleted, their staffs are overworked and they are running out of food for the high volume of patients.
Gas and food are in short supply across the country, as supply trucks idle at the border, unable to enter the country amid the unrest, according to news reports. And there have been internet blackouts, which activists believe to be a deliberate attempt by the government to suppress information.
“If the regime does not accept that people want change, I think it’s high time that probably we as a country, we might get into civil war,” said Nkosinathi Zoro Kunene, a nurse at Hlathikhulu Government Hospital in the southern part of the country. “So many people are dying. The king should just humble himself and accept that people are sick and tired of this absolute monarchy.”
Since Monday, Mr. Kunene said, his hospital has taken in four people who were mortally wounded, 15 who were shot but lived and four others who suffered severe injuries, including two who appeared to have been bashed in the head by police batons.
Some victims said they were shot while protesting or vandalizing properties, Mr. Kunene said, while others reported being hit by stray bullets or being shot at simply for being out past the 6 p.m. curfew.
In his two decades working at the hospital, Mr. Kunene said he had never seen this volume of gunshot patients.
Nurses at three other hospitals said their facilities also treated gunshot victims in numbers they had never seen before.
“The army and the police are everywhere, and the situation is so tense,” Thulani Maseko, a human rights lawyer in Mbabane, said by phone on Wednesday. “People are being shot at, people are being detained, people are being hurt. It’s not safe to be out in the streets.”
Messages left for a government spokesman and for Themba Masuku, the acting prime minister, were not returned.
But in a statement released this week, Mr. Masuku, who serves at the pleasure of King Mswati III, stressed the importance of rooting out all violence and vandalism.
“Unfortunately, the protests we are seeing of late have been hijacked by criminal elements,” the statement said. “Our security forces are on the ground to maintain law and order.”
Things appeared to calm down in the cities on Thursday and Friday as the military took control of areas of widespread unrest and protesters grew concerned about being shot, said Brian Sangweni, the spokesman for the People’s United Democratic Movement, a pro-democracy political party that the Eswatini government has deemed a terrorist group. Much of the protest activity had shifted to rural areas, where the security forces are more thinly stretched, he said.
Mr. Sangweni said his sister, Simile Sangweni, was fatally shot on Tuesday by security forces that were trying to disperse protesters in an industrial area in Matsapha, where she worked in a textile factory.
“We joined the struggle for freedom in this country knowing very well what the consequences could be,” he said. “In honor of my sister, I think I should fight even harder.”
This nation, no bigger than New Jersey, is nevertheless no stranger to major unrest. After the country gained independence in 1968, Sobhuza II, whom the British colonizers had designated the top chief, became king. Just five years into his reign, he tore up the constitution and banned political parties, placing most of the control of the country in his hands.
That power was passed down to 18-year-old Prince Makhosetive, King Sobhuza II’s son, in 1986, four years after the king’s death. The prince took the title King Mswati III.
Even though King Mswati III, now 53, acceded to popular demands for a new constitution in 2005, he has maintained absolute power. His family holds a stake in numerous business ventures, including at least a 25 percent cut of mining deals in the country. Much of that wealth goes toward supporting his sprawling family — 15 wives and more than 30 children.
That grandiose spending, while so much of the population suffers, has sparked protests over the years.
Part of what has made the current protests so intense, activists said, is that some members of Parliament have taken the rare step of openly criticizing the monarchy and calling for democracy.
The roots of the current uprising lie in the death in May of a University of Eswatini law student — in a car accident, the authorities said, but students said it was at the hands of the police. That led to major protests, with dissident lawmakers standing with the demonstrators and calling for the nation to move to a system with an elective prime minister.
Last Saturday, as protesters sought to deliver petitions to members of Parliament stating their demands, they were met with hostility from the police, said Mduduzi Simelane, one of the dissident lawmakers. The police put him under house arrest temporarily so that he could not go to meet the demonstrators, he said, and they manhandled him when he tried to leave.
The government then declared a ban on the in-person delivery of petitions, requiring them to be sent by email instead, sparking the fierce protests now unfolding.
“We cannot give up now,” said Mr. Simelane, adding that he was now in hiding in Eswatini because of threats from the security forces. “We have lost so many lives. Giving up now would be a betrayal to the people who have died for this struggle. We are going for change at whatever cost.”
In his statement, Mr. Masuku, the prime minister, said that banning the delivery of petitions was “a conscious decision to maintain the rule of law and de-escalate tension that had turned this exercise into violence and disorder.”
Eswatini activists have demanded a more assertive response from the international community to help them push for democratic reforms.
The African National Congress, the ruling party in South Africa, responded with a statement urging the Eswatini government to take up democratic reforms and stop its “brutal repression of legitimate civilian concerns.”
Nathalie Ndongo-Seh, the United Nations resident director in Eswatini, said it was difficult to obtain information about events on the ground. She urged restraint on both sides and said the country’s path forward demanded nuance.
During a series of dialogues that the U.N. hosted in the country last year, citizens expressed pride in the cultural heritage of having a royal family but also wanted a more democratic system, she said.
“They always say that they want a system that would be like in England,” Ms. Ndongo-Seh said, adding that many expressed confidence that change would come.
But they didn’t think the process would look like this.
“Everyone,” she said, “hoped this would be done in a peaceful, almost natural manner.”