Fighting for freedom in Swaziland

“Victim” is the name that Mphandlana Shongwe – a founding member of Swaziland’s democratic movement, PUDEMO – is commonly known by in the small absolute monarchy of Swaziland. He was given his nickname, after reflecting on his life in Matsapha Central Prison, while awaiting trial for treason in 1990.

It was here he started counting the many setbacks he had experienced. He has been expelled from college, been denied a living by the government because of his activism, been arrested on many occasions for trivial “offences” such as shouting “viva PUDEMO” and wearing a PUDEMO t-shirt, and been held in solitary confinement, beaten up and tortured by the police on several occasions.

More Sadness Than Joy

As with most other ordinary Swazis, “Victim” had to choose at an early age whether or not to accept the enforced poverty and culture of control that is a fundamental part of King Mswati’s Swaziland.

“My introduction to poverty and oppression at a tender age had prepared me for a life of activism”, “Victim” says of his childhood. “My life has seen more sadness than joy, more funerals than weddings, and more visits to police cells than parties”.

And he has had a life of struggle for justice and democracy that neither his daughter, his daughter’s mother nor his own mother has been able to understand.

Uneasy Beginnings

“Victim”, who was born on the 27 September 1960, did not have an easy childhood. When he was six, his father was arrested and charged with murder and died a few years later in prison. His mother suffered from a stroke that left her temporarily paralysed and that meant she had to return to her parents’ homestead.

“Victim” ended up in a mission school, where he got his first introduction to oppression and the struggle to end it. First, by being on the receiving end of whippings by his teachers, and second by hearing about the 1976 Soweto Uprising in neighbouring South Africa in history lessons.

“Victim” and his classmate Richard, who were two of the top students, both listened attentively. Later in life, they would put the learning of these lessons to very different use when they met on the streets of Manzini and Mbabane, “Victim” as a political activist, Richard as a police officer.

No Independent Thinking

It was in high school where “Victim” started to reflect on the influence of the unreflective “banking model” of teaching that was, and is still, employed as the manner of teaching in many schools in Swaziland.

“As students, we lacked independent thinking. We were treated as if we were empty containers which needed to be filled up with knowledge. I would later discover that this was intentional in order to keep the Swazi student docile. The school curriculum was designed, as it is still designed, to produce a student who accepts things as they are without question”, “Victim” says of his high school days.

He began to link the problem of Swaziland’s educational system with the broader lack of democracy, leadership and direction in Swaziland, and as a result of these reflections, Victim ended up taking a teacher’s degree after having finishing high school.

No Sleep Till Justice

It was at teacher’s training college that “Victim” truly became aware of the injustices of the Tinkundla-system of Swaziland’s absolute monarchy. And it was here that he started his “career” as a more-or-less full time activist.

“When people went to sleep, we went to distribute pamphlets”, he says of this period of his life.

It was as a result of “Victim”’s involvement in a seemingly endless rows of door-to-door campaigns, pamphlet distributions and political meetings that he ended up facing a long prison sentence for the first, but by no means the last, time.

Along with eleven other activists, including PUDEMO President Mario Masuku, “Victim” was arrested and charged with treason in 1990.

Amongst the charges was conspiring to form a political party with a military wing with the intention of overthrowing King Mswati’s government, organising trade unions and holding political meetings where overthrowing this government was discussed.

But as several prosecution witnesses claimed that their statements had been made under threats, and other prosecution witnesses’ statements seemed rehearsed, the judge ruled that any treasonable or subversive activities had not been proved.

A Public Face

“Victim” was given a six month-sentence, for a couple of minor charges, instead of the yearlong sentences that the prosecutor had called for. And instead of crushing the movement, the trial had given PUDEMO and “Victim” a public face both in Swaziland and beyond.

The High Court had also proved that there was no armed insurrection being planned by PUDEMO, but that the organisation was simply concerned with bringing true democracy to Swaziland.

As he had already been in jail for this duration, “Victim” was released immediately.

“It was that trial that registered the people’s movement, and from thereon we have been in and out of courts but never looked back”, “Victim” says of the importance of the trial.

The Usual Suspect

Another effect of the trial was that the state increased the victimisation of PUDEMO leaders. President Mario Masuku was dismissed in the local bank he had worked in for 18 years; “Victim” was expelled from college, and many others suffered a similar fate.

In fact it only took a couple of weeks for the police to detain “Victim” again, this time on consecutive detention orders without him and his two co-detainees being told what the charges against them were.

The trio went on a hunger strike that only ended after several weeks of agony, a royal pardon, and after “Victim” had suffered from heart failure and was told by a doctor that he could easily die.

A Bright Future?

Since the hunger strike, “Victim” has been in and out of prison and has been constantly harassed and on occasion beaten up and tortured by the police. He has also remained unemployed because of his PUDEMO activism.

In 1994 he was arrested for demonstrating peacefully against the government, and became an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience. In 2006 he was beaten unconscious by police under interrogation and dumped in a hospital bleeding profusely. In 2009 he was arrested for shouting slogans wearing a PUDEMO t-shirt, and charged with terrorism. And the list goes on.

“Long prison terms are a risk that anyone who stands up against the system faces”, says “Victim”. “But every time I face danger, I recall the words of ANC member Solomon Mahlangu, who, when leaving the court to be hanged by the apartheid regime in 1979, said: ‘Mama, tell my people that I love them and my blood shall nourish the tree of freedom’”.

No Personal Agenda

And regardless of the setbacks and endless victimisation, “Victim” is today a free man in an unfree country (although out on bail since 2006, and having to report to the police station every Friday).

He is optimistic about the future of Swaziland and believes that it is a matter of years, not decades, before it will become a democracy.

But “Victim” also warns of the dangers of the struggle for democracy and freedom, the closer victory seems at hand.

“The hour before dawn is a period where some people start pushing personal agendas at the expense of progress. And any agenda which excludes group representation is bound to keep the status quo intact”, he says, alluding to the fact that the struggle is not about personal gain but a constant fight for a better future for everyone.

He also insists that it is obvious that democracy will not be delivered on a silver plate or necessarily or automatically follow a collapse of King Mswati’s Tinkundla-regime.

“There is no scenario in history where the ruling class voluntarily handed over power to the oppressed”, “Victim” emphasises.

“The country is where it is today because people were quiet when they were supposed to speak. But change will only come when the people of Swaziland choose to die on the streets, so to speak, if necessary. There has never been a time when I thought of giving up the struggle and I have never looked back with despair, although I have nothing in material form except the willpower to hold, even when there is nothing to hold on to”.

This article was originally published at Pambazuka.

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