Oppression and resistance in eSwatini

Two New Frame journalists were swept up in the tumult in eSwatini. They are now safely across the border, but opposition to the dictatorship continues to face severe repression.

The battle for the future of eSwatini continues. A coalition of five political parties, including the largest, the People’s United Democratic Movement, has documented more than 40 deaths. They claim that about 1 000 people have been seriously injured and 500 have been arrested.

New Frame dispatched two journalists, Magnificent Mndebele and Cebelihle Mbuyisa, to report on the uprising and consequent repression. Over a few days they were regularly followed, stopped, threatened at gunpoint and forced to delete material from their digital devices.

Just after 9am on Sunday, soldiers stopped them on the MR3 highway near the town of Matsapha. They were taken to the Sigodvweni police station where they were interrogated, assaulted and tortured. New Frame appointed a local lawyer through a trade union law firm in Johannesburg. He was quickly able to find Mndebele and Mbuyisa, and to secure their release just after 3pm. They were then taken to a hospital to have their injuries treated and recorded.

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It was not safe for them to head for the border straight away. They were offered a place to spend the night, hot tea and access to a phone by an ordinary citizen working as a cleaner. They crossed the border into South Africa at 3.30pm on Monday. 

Mndebele and Mbuyisa, acting with courage and integrity, and in the best traditions of journalism, have produced important reports on the murderous repression meted out against the uprising by the dictatorship.

Decades of oppression 

The current wave of intense repression in eSwatini is not a new phenomenon. Journalists, trade unionists and other activists have been subject to sustained repression under the rule of King Mswati III, an absolute monarch, since he first assumed office in 1986. Mswati did not inaugurate the dictatorship. His father, King Sobhuza II, banned political parties in 1973.

Under Mswati’s rule, freedom of speech, assembly and association have all been restricted. Dissidents have been subject to arbitrary searches of their homes, arrest, torture and imprisonment. There have been repeated claims of extrajudicial killings. 

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Homosexual sex is criminalised, sexual minorities harassed, mixed-race people subject to discrimination, and child labour and forced marriage enabled. While almost 60% of rural people live on less than R30 a day, Mswati has accumulated grotesque excesses of personal wealth. One report estimates his personal wealth at R2.8 billion. He has a car that costs R7 million. It has been reported that in the 2014 national budget he was allocated R861 million for his annual household budget, and in 2018 his birthday gift to himself included a plane and a private airport worth a total of R2.6 billion.

Mswati has repeatedly been accused of abducting women for forced marriages. It has been reported that in 2000 he called for a meeting to discuss the proposal that HIV-positive people should be “sterilised and branded”.

Shameful complicity and collusion

There is a long history of solidarity with trade unions in eSwatini from progressive unions in South Africa. But the fact that Mswati and his dictatorship are not opposed by the South African state and that Mswati, a tyrant, is received with public displays of respect is scurrilous. The South African state is not alone in this. There is a long and shameful history of mutual support by the violent and predatory elites that rule across much of the region. 

On 2 July, a Southern African Development Community statement issued by Mokgweetsi Masisi, the president of Botswana, acknowledged only one death in eSwatini and called on “all stakeholders to channel their grievances through the established national structures”, structures established and managed by the dictatorship. The statement from the African Union was equally anodyne. 

The conduct of MTN in eSwatini has also been scurrilous. The corporation is notorious in progressive circles for a range of reasons, including claims that it has, elsewhere in the world, blocked and monitored activists’ communication. In Nigeria, trade unions have accused the company of engaging in anti-labour practices. In South Africa it has been excoriated for exploitative pricing and gross profiteering. The Communication Workers Union recently accused it of being non-compliant with Covid-19 regulations and victimising employees, claims MTN has denied.

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In eSwatini, the company is, like others, firmly entwined with the local elite. Mswati is the largest independent shareholder in MTN Eswatini. In 2012, following a common practice in the country, MTN appointed Sikhanyiso Dlamini, Mswati’s eldest daughter, who was then 25, to its local board of directors. When Ambrose Mandvulo Dlamini was appointed by Mswati as prime minister in 2018, he was the chief executive of MTN Eswatini.

Following a request from the state, MTN shut down its internet services across the country on 29 June, giving cover to the repression being imposed by Mswati’s regime. The company, whose South African board is chaired by Mcebisi Jonas, said it made the decision to accede to a demand from the dictatorship to shut down services after “carefully assessing” what it called its “digital human rights due diligence framework”. 

The fact that the state demanded MTN shut down its network is one action, among many, that reveals its cynicism. In late June, thousands of people delivered pro-democracy petitions to tinkhundla authorities. In response a decree was issued banning the collective delivery of petitions and people were instructed to email them instead. With the network shut down, even that limited and no doubt entirely ineffective avenue for expressing dissent was closed.

Grasping at straws

The way Mswati’s despotic and predatory power is legitimated through claims of tradition – bogus claims as every serious scholar of precolonial Africa knows – is not unique to eSwatini. The ideological legitimation for the Ingonyama Trust, formerly controlled by King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, has taken a similar form.

The ideological project to defend Jacob Zuma and the kleptocracy that he led is completely inchoate and opportunistic. But its many currents, often wildly contradictory, include spurious claims about tradition.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a war was fought in what is now KwaZulu-Natal and on the Rand in what is now Gauteng by forces in favour of democratic and non-ethnic forms of citizenship against violently reactionary mobilisations of ideas of ethnic authority and tradition, ideas that were given material force in direct collaboration with the apartheid state. 

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Zuma is often lauded for bringing a peaceful resolution to that war. In fact, what he did is to open the progressive forces to the entry of a new version of the reactionary forms of politics that had characterised Inkatha. This politics must now be defeated at the gates of Nkandla, on land owned by the Ingonyama Trust, as well as in eSwatini. 

New Frame salutes the courage of Mndebele and Mbuyisa – bangamadoda anesibindi – and everyone on the front lines of the struggle against the dictatorship in eSwatini. At the time of writing, the army remains in control of the streets and factories are still operating. Mswati’s state has not been defeated. But the resistance continues. 

When Mndebele and Mbuyisa were able to make their first call after their release from prison, on a phone lent to them by an ordinary worker, the cleaner who took care of them after their release, Mbuyisa said there are only two sides in this war: those with guns and everyone else.

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