Protesting student leaders in Swaziland forced to give up exams

The student leaders are facing disciplinary action for their leadership of protests demanding allowances due to them. However, the university administration is delaying these proceedings forcing the students to miss the exams

December 03, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch
Swaziland Students protest
Students of the Southern Africa Nazarene University (SANU) in Swaziland protest for the release of allowances due to them by the government. (Photo: Swazi Observer)

Student leaders of the Southern Africa Nazarene University (SANU) in Swaziland are being prohibited from sitting for their semester examinations which began on Monday, December 2. The students remain suspended until the completion of the disciplinary hearings initiated against them for leading a strike in November. They were demanding the release of allowances owed to students by the government.

On November 11, the university administration had suspended the entire Student Representative Council (SRC), the student body of SANU consisting of nine student representatives. Another student, who is not part of the SRC but took an active part in the strike, was also suspended. The student union has alleged that the university administration is deliberately delaying the disciplinary process against the student leaders, in order to force them to miss their examinations

On November 27, seven of the 10 suspended students were called for a hearing before a tribunal. They were also assured that its verdict would be given by the end of the week, before the commencement of their semester exams. However, the verdict is still pending. 

As a result of the delay, three of these seven students who are pursuing Bachelor’s of Science In Nursing and Midwifery from SANU’s Faculty of Health Sciences – including SRC vice secretary general, Gamedze Mfundo – were forced to miss their first exam on December 2.

Three suspended students, whose exams are also around the corner, are yet to appear before the tribunal. SRC president Simelane Gubevu Tholumuz, and its secretary general, Maseko Colani Khulekani, have been summoned on December 4, three days ahead of their first scheduled exam. In case of a delay in the final verdict, they are also certain to miss their first exam.   

Additionally, 20-year-old Phephile Sifundza, who is not part of the SRC, has also been forced to miss her exams. Sifundza was shot in the leg with a rubber bullet by the police, who were called on campus by the university administration to suppress the student protests that began on November 1. 

The administration maintains that the charges pressed by it against the students are still under “investigation”, causing a delay in the disciplinary process.

Rejecting this explanation, the Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS), which has the majority representation in the SANU-SRC, said in a statement, “This is being done deliberately by the administration to frustrate the students and destroy their future. An administration cannot be so incompetent in dealing with its own disciplinary processes of cases that they brought up themselves.”  

The students have been demanding that the government release their monthly allowances for food, books etc., which had been due since August. After a class boycott by protesting students in September, the government had assured them that the student allowance amount would be doubled and paid within 30 days. However, no payment has been made till date. 

In a country where more than 70% of the population languish below the poverty line of USD 2 a day, a majority of the youth are incapable of pursuing graduation without financial assistance.

The student body had even raised these concerns before the ministry of labor and social security, only to be told that the government does not have enough money. However, refusing to accept this excuse, the students pointed to the indulgences of the royal family of king Mswati III who virtually unilaterally controls Swaziland’s government. 

The last absolute monarch in Africa to reign above the law, Mswati III owns 13 palaces, two private aircraft, one of which is customized with VIP upgrades worth USD 30 million, and a large fleet of some of the most expensive motorbikes and cars. To this fleet, he added 20 Rolls Royce cars worth USD 15 million in October, when the students were preparing to start the agitations from November 1.

Three days later, on November 4, the police forced the protesting students out of the university campus and opened fire after they lit a fire on the main road outside. It was in this firing that Phephile Sifundza was injured and subsequently hospitalized by other students.  

“No member of the University administration, Council or Senate has bothered to check up on her in the hospital,” SNUS said in a statement. 

While Sifundza requires surgery, the Mbabane hospital in which she is admitted, like most other under-funded government hospitals in the country, “is short of drugs and relevant medical equipment needed for her operation.”

“The student will not only miss examinations but might also never walk,” SNUS added. The union has thus demanded that she be moved to a well-equipped private hospital and provided with the required medical care.

Student solidarity

SNUS has also called on the students to “use all means possible to stop the isolation and victimization of student leaders.”  It has claimed that the agitation to secure the allowance owed to the students “was welcomed by everyone and the attacks on individuals should be defended by every student. If the victimization is allowed to go unchallenged the same modus operandi will be used to [target].. student leaders in other [universities].”

SNUS president Mlamuli Gumedze told Peoples Dispatch that the union will also call upon all SANU students to boycott this semester exams, if the administration continues to drag its feet on the hearings against the student leaders. The union is also seeking to challenge the university administration in court, and has called on concerned citizens to provide financial assistance for the cause.    

Declaring its solidarity with the students, the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS), has said that all the “workers’ unions, faith-based organizations, students and the entire civil society movement have a duty to support the democratic demands of the students and also to fight for the dropping of the trumped-up charges. An inherent element of the #MswatiMustFall campaign is to unite in defense of the students, as well as defense of their union, the Swaziland National Union of Students.”