Suspected police hand in death of youth in Swaziland sparks mass protests

The alleged role of the police in the death of Thabani Nkomonye has led to huge protests. Security forces attacked his memorial service and arrested student protesters, including Bafanabakhe Sacolo, secretary general of the Swaziland National Union of Students

May 28, 2021 by Pavan Kulkarni
Bafanabakhe Sacolo, secretary general of the Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS), on the right, Simphiwe Dlamini, national organizer of the Communist Party of Swaziland and former secretary general of the union, lead a demonstration on May 17 outside Sigodvweni police station where the car of the murder victim was hidden.

On Wednesday, May 26, the Secretary General of the left-wing Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS), Bafanabakhe Sacolo, was received by a jubilant crowd of students who carried him on their shoulders after his release from the maximum security prison in the town of Matsapha. Two other students of Swaziland University, Khumbula Nxumalo and Siphosethu Mavimbela, were also released. 

A final-year nursing student at the University of Swaziland, Bafanabakhe, along with four other students, was arrested on May 21 by the police who had fired tear gas and violently dispersed those attending the memorial service for Thabani Nkomonye, who was allegedly killed by the police earlier this month. 

Two of the arrested students, Bongumenzi Gamedze and Hlengiwe Magagula, were granted bail on Monday on a guarantee of E3,000 each. Bafanabakhe, Khumbula and Siphosethu were granted bail on May 25, but had to remain in prison for another day till the student union could make arrangements for the bail amount of E50,000, imposed on each of three by the High Court in the capital city Mbabane. 

This amount – over five times the annual fees at the university – is not easily affordable in Swaziland, where an estimated 60% of the population is below poverty and the unemployment rate is hovering around 24%.  

Shuffling between Manzini, Mbabane and Matsapha round the clock, the students were able to arrange for the bail by the afternoon of May 26, by raising funds from the public and seeking out sympathizers willing to mortgage their property or vehicle as a guarantee for the bail amount.  

The future course of action would be “to continue the protests, of course,” Simphiwe Dlamini, the union’s former secretary general, told Peoples Dispatch, adding “Thabani has not received justice yet.”

On May 8, after dropping his brother at his residence in Ngwane Park, Thabani drove on to spend the Saturday night at his brother’s guest house, promising to return the next day. The caretaker of the guest house in Fairview – about five kilometers from Ngwane Park in the same city of Manzini – told the family that he had never arrived. His phone was out of reach throughout Sunday.

Police role suspected

On Monday, his sister went to the Manzini police station and Sigodvweni police station to check if he was in custody. The police denied. Giving a description of his car and its registration number, she asked the police to check if any accident involving such a car had been recorded.  

“Both police stations denied knowledge of any record fitting Thabani’s description or the car he was driving. The Manzini police suggested that if he does not emerge by lunch time we must file a report of a missing person with the police,” reads a statement released by Thabani’s family.  

His brother filed the missing report on May 11 at Manzini police station, after which his photo and a description of his car was circulated on social media by the police and the family members. When she went to follow up at the Manzini police station again on May 12, she was told that one of the leads indicated that his car was seen to be driven by a person of South Asian origin across the border into South Africa on the evening of May 10. 

The next day, on May 13, the family received a lead on Facebook that his car was seen being towed on the night of May 8 in the area of Nhlambeni. As soon as the investigating officer was notified, the family received a call from the Manzini police station informing them that the car had been found in Sigodvweni police station. 

“According to the police, the car had been involved in an accident at Nhlambeni on the road on Saturday.. and was subsequently towed by the police to Sigodvweni police station,” the family said. “They made us search for a car that was in their possession,” his sister, Thabile Nkomonye, exclaimed to Swaziland News. When the family questioned his whereabouts, the police maintained that they had searched for a body at the site of the alleged accident on May 8, but could not find any. 

However, when his family members reached the site, the 25-year-old’s body was found under some thorny shrubs, “no more than 30 meters from where the car allegedly landed after it allegedly veered off the road,” according to his family’s statement. 

Police who arrived at the scene soon after the body was discovered “theorized about what could have happened, including that Thabani was probably flung out of the car when the car overturned.”

The car, family claims, had a bullet hole and missing wheel, which they pointed to the police on May 13. However, when they returned to inspect the car again on May 15, “the car had been tampered with.. the bullet hole was partially closed and the wheel had been found”.         

Protests seeking justice for Thabani

Demanding answers, on May 17, 3,000 students marched from the university to the Sigodvweni police station and delivered a petition in the name of SNUS, seeking an inquiry and action against the police personnel involved in what they alleged to be a murder. 

After the station commander received the petition, the students proceeded peacefully towards Manizini police station, which is the regional police headquarters, to deliver another petition.

On their way, while entering the city from this industrial town, they were confronted by police who fired tear gas and rubber bullets, one of which struck Phiwayinkosi Dlamini, a graduate from the university, in his eye. 

Three students were arrested, but later “released by the Manzini police after the protestors invaded the police station and demanded their immediate release,” a member of Economic Freedom Fighters of Swaziland (EFFSWA) told The Swati Newsweek

In the meantime, other students who were dispersed by the firing regrouped and pressed on to reach the Manzini police station, whereupon the regional commissioner came out to receive the petition. This petition was delivered under the name of Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF), which is an umbrella platform including SNUS, along with trade unions, civil society organizations and opposition political parties. The commissioner was given 72 hours to respond. 

Later in the evening, when the issue had become a national controversy, the Acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku called the family to express condolences personally and committed to investigate the matter. A coroner was appointed to conduct an inquiry.  

Then, on May 21, ahead of the memorial service for Thabani, about 200 to 300 students gathered at the office of Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) in Manzini, and marched on from there to the police station.

They delivered another petition regarding Phiwayinkosi, who’d lost his eye to the firing on May 17. On demanding a response to the previous petition regarding Thabani’s killing, Simphiwe said that the regional commissioner handed a paper and went back in. “But even before we could read what was written on it, the police started attacking us. In the chaos that ensued, we lost the paper he had handed us,” Simphiwe told Peoples Dispatch.

Scrambling for cover as the police opened fire, some students ran into Manzini bus station, into which the police indiscriminately lobbed tear gas, inhaling which a four month old baby died in the arms of her mother who was waiting for a bus, he claimed. “They chased us all around the city,” he said.

Managing to regroup in different areas, the students reached the grounds of the St. Paul Methodist Church in Fairview where Thabani’s memorial service was being held. The police, who followed them soon after, disrupted the proceedings by firing more tear gas and charging with batons.

After escaping the ground, some students hurled stones and damaged a nearby police post, following which the five students were arrested. Bongumenzi Gamedze and Hlengiwe Magagula, who were granted bail on May 24, were accused of attacking the Manzini police station. The remaining three including the union’s secretary general, who were bailed on May 25, were accused of attacking the police post in Fairview. All five claim that they were not involved in any attack. 

In the meantime, the widely circulated clips of the police attack on a memorial service – from where the mother in her black mourning dress, gasping for breath, had to be carried to a hospital after choking on tear gas – provoked an outrage across the country. 

The slogan “Justice for Thabani” has become a powerful mobilizer. “Justice”, as articulated by the protesting students – and the teachers union, civil society and opposition parties supporting them – is not limited to the identification and prosecution of those involved in his murder. 

‘Justice for Thabani’ becomes a slogan against the monarchy 

“Thabani” Simphiwe says, “has become the face” of the ongoing movement against the monarchy, because his murder, and the treatment meted out to his family and fellow-students seeking justice, is “typical of how Mswati regime disregards the value of human life in this country.”

Pro-democracy slogans were raised at the protests, targeting King Mswati III – the last absolute monarch on the continent, ruling this small landlocked southern African country with a population of slightly over a million. 

His extravagant indulgences in palaces, jewels, a fleet of Rolls Royce cars and private jets is an eyesore in the country where over half the population struggles to survive on less than two dollars a day.

The king himself appoints the Prime Minister, ministers of the cabinet, the top jurists, 2/3rds of the upper house of the parliament and 12% of the lower house. Political parties remain banned in Swaziland since 1973, when King Sobhuza II, father of Mswati III, suspended the then constitution, dissolved the legislature and assumed absolute power.

While freedom of association is recognized in law, protests and strikes are often met with batons, bullets and tear gas. Charges under Suppression of Terrorism Act are frequently pressed on union leaders.

“But we will be the last generation of youth to live under the oppression of this monarchy,” Simphiwe says, confident that he will see the monarchy fall in his lifetime. “Mswati must fall!” is a slogan popularized over the years by the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS), of which he is the National Organizer.

The left wing may not be the only section of Swaziland who see the monarchy ending. The attendance of some members of the King’s parliament at the memorial service – and one of them going so far as to declare support for multi-party democracy and then waver back and forth with unsure statements – may be an indication of doubts within the ruling elite about the longevity of the monarchy.