Bongi Nkambule, an activist of the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS), was abducted by police from capital Mbabane on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 23. Without pressing any charges, the police “heavily assaulted him and dumped him very late at night just outside the capital city Mbabane,” CPS said in a statement on Thursday, March 24.
“As the police were assaulting me, they accused me and the CPS of burning a police camp in Mbabane,” Nkambule said on the morning of March 24, before seeking treatment for his injuries on legs, arms and head.
He added that the police complained of what is known as Sunset Rallies. These rallies are being led by the CPS in several parts of the country to signify that the reign of King Mswati III, the last absolute monarch in Africa, is nearing its end.
At the time he was abducted by over 40 policemen in a truck, 33-year-old Bongi was returning from the Manzini court where charges against two other activists, Bafanabakhe Sacolo and Sethu Nkumbule, were being heard.
The duo were arrested on May 22, 2021, on accusations of vandalizing and burning the Manzini police station. The said incident had occurred after police forces attacked the memorial service for a student, Thabani Nkomonye. The body of the student had been found earlier that month, four days after he was allegedly killed by the police who tried to cover up the murder.
Bafanabakhe, who was at the time the general secretary of the Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS), and Sethu, who remains a student at the Limkokwing University of Creative Technology, were both subsequently released on bail.
While court proceedings dragged on, protests against police brutality in the aftermath of Thabani’s killing had by June snowballed into unprecedented country-wide anti-monarchist and pro-democracy protests. For the first time, protests swept across rural Swaziland as well.
When violence was unleashed on these protesters by the police and the army, an uprising broke out in industrial areas, especially in and around Manzini city, which is the country’s economic hub. Businesses and factories owned by King Mswati III, who controls most of the economy and runs it for personal profit, were key targets.
Amid this situation, the King allegedly fled the country briefly. He returned only in mid-July after the army had put down the uprising by killing at least 70 protesters. However, despite the crackdown, a strong anti-monarchist sentiment continues to persist.
Be it students protesting for scholarships, or nurses, teachers and other civil servants protesting for better work conditions and living wages, “Mswati must Fall!” and “Democracy Now!”, originally the slogans of the communist party, are now raised by all.
Meanwhile, persecution of CPS activists has intensified. Earlier this week, on March 21, 40 heavily armed soldiers invaded the home of Ayanda Ndwandwe, a national organizer of the CPS, in the rural area of Lubulini in the Lubombo region. After failing to find him at his residence, they briefly kidnapped his five-year-old son. Ayanda and other CPS members in his area, who had been attacked by the security forces while leading a Sunset Rally on March 19, remain underground.
While torture in detention is very widespread, charges against arrested activists are seldom proven in court. On Wednesday, March 23, police told the Manzini court that they had lost the case docket of Bafanabakhe and Sethu.
“Consequently, they have no case against the two comrades. They are already looking to withdraw the case against them. They will, however, be returning to court on March 28, when the official withdrawal of the case is expected to take place,” Pius Vilakati, international secretary of the CPS, told Peoples Dispatch.
After forcing the two activists to regularly report to the police station for 10 months in accordance with the bail conditions, “the police have discovered that they have no case,” CPS said in a statement. The long and repeated travels to the court have inflicted financial losses as well as academic losses due to missed classes.
Bafanabakhe, who is now a Central Committee (CC) member of the CPS, said that the “police have been claiming over the months that they are waiting for footage to prove the case. Our case has been postponed repeatedly. This is in addition to spending six days in police cells and maximum prison in Matsapha following arrest. After all this, the police claim they have lost the docket. It is clear that they never had a case against us.”
On March 23, the same that Bongi Nkambule was kidnapped, protesters who were demonstrating in solidarity with the jailed pro-democracy MPs in parliament – Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube – were also attacked and abducted from Mbabane.
Among them were two women members of the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), known to be among the largest political parties, all of which are banned. The women were reportedly stripped and beaten by over 50 male police personnel in a truck, before being abandoned in another part of the city.
Pro-democracy political parties and organizations have asserted that such desperate means of repression by the security forces is only a sign of the fear and uncertainty felt about the future by Africa’s last absolute monarchy.