Amid dispute over wages, Swaziland police resumes persecution of teachers’ union leader

Earlier this month, Mbongwa Dlamini’s residence was sprayed with a hail of bullets by a highly militarized unit of the police called the Operation Support Service Unit (OSSU), putting the lives of his children in danger

April 19, 2022 by Pavan Kulkarni
Mbongwa Dlamini Swaziland
Mbongwa Dlamini.

Amid an ongoing dispute with public sector labor unions over salary review, the Swaziland police has resumed the persecution of Mbongwa Dlamini, president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), the country’s largest union.

Earlier this month, Dlamini’s residence was sprayed with a hail of bullets by a highly militarized unit of the police called the Operation Support Service Unit (OSSU), putting the lives of his children in danger. Charges against him, which previously had to be withdrawn due to lack of evidence, have been reinstated.

One of the charges is obstructing the police from carrying out an arrest. The hearing on this charge has been scheduled on May 29 at the magistrate court in Matsapa, a town on the outskirts of Manzini city. 

“This charge of obstructing the police from arresting a certain comrade was first pressed against me by the police at Sigodvweni station in 2020. I had never tried to obstruct them. Surprisingly, the officers who charged me for obstruction were general duty officers, while the comrade was being arrested by traffic police,” Dlamini told Peoples Dispatch.

“I’ve been in and out of court since these charges were made. The police eventually withdrew these charges in early 2021 because they had no evidence,” he said. “But now, even though the comrade who was arrested was himself released with no charges, they reinstated the case against me in March 2022,” he added.

Dlamini’s children’s lives put at risk

The attack on Dlamini’s house took place on April 3, when the Marula Festival 2022 was underway at the Hlane Royal Residence. It is a festival in which Marula fruit is fermented to make beer. “Millions in Swazi lilangeni are spent by the king on this festival, which is essentially a drinking spree,” Dlamini explained.

Dlamini’s house in Helemisi is close to the road where escorts on the way to this event at the royal residence had to pass by. The security forces were jittery. Although the unprecedented anti-monarchist uprising, which had forced King Mswati III to briefly flee his kingdom mid-last year, was put down by the army that killed at least 70 and injured hundreds, strong anti-monarchist sentiment prevails across the country.

With the security forces persisting with violence to crack down on peaceful pro-democracy protests, properties and businesses owned by the billionaire king and his cronies have come under petrol bomb attacks. Houses of several pro-democracy leaders have also been bombed in retaliation, allegedly by the security forces.

While the festival was underway in this tense atmosphere, some members of the Swaziland Liberation Movement (SWALIMO), who were on their way back after attending a party program, gathered at a bus stop near Dlamini’s house. 

The OSSU immediately opened fire on them. Running for their lives, they scaled the fence and jumped into Dlamini’s house. The police pursuing them opened several rounds of fire at the house. 

“Even though they had already crossed into neighboring houses, the police continued to fire into my residence,” Dlamini said. 

Dlamini was not home at the time. He was informed about the firing on a phone call by his children, one aged 15 and the other 19. Both had to escape from their house to a neighboring homestay.     

“When I rushed back, I saw a huge police presence around my house. I had to keep away from the house for safety for a few days before I could return,” Dlamini said. “They had my house under continuous surveillance.”

Government goes after his job once again

The Teaching Service Commision (TSC) is also going after Dlamini’s job and has reinstated old, unsubstantiated charges of professional misconduct against him.

Only months after he became the president of SNAT in October 2018, this charge was first made against him by the TSC in January 2019. 

“Claiming that I did not write a date somewhere in the scheme book (where teachers pen down a timelined plan for covering the syllabus), they framed me for professional misconduct and suspended me from teaching for over two years. I never got a trial,” he said. 

During this period, he was not allowed to teach. “I could not even access the premises of my workplace, not even to pick up my son who studies in the same school. I was cut off from all access to his teachers. Even at the parents-teachers meeting, I was not allowed to enter the school,” he claimed.

It was only in October 2021 that the TSC lifted his suspension and assigned him to another school, further away from Manzini which is the center of SNAT’s head office. However, within three months, in January 2022, TSC reinstated the case against him.

Dlamini has approached the industrial court to stop the TSC from proceeding with this charge. The court has scheduled a hearing in the case for June 9. Until then, the TSC shall not proceed with any action on the basis of this charge.

Labor dispute with 44,000 public servants

This resumption of Dlamini’s persecution began with the build up to the government’s dispute with the Public Sector Associations (PSAs), a coalition of four unions – of accountants, nurses, teachers, and public services and allied workers. SNAT is the largest of them, representing around 14,000 of the estimated total of 16,000 teachers in the country.

According to the July 2016 Collective Agreement (CA) between the government and the PSAs, which was later reinforced by an order of the court, the salaries of the country’s estimated 44,000 public servants had to be reviewed in the financial year 2021-22. However, the government has failed to hold the review so far with this financial year coming to a close. 

Backtracking on the commitment made in the agreement to review salaries, the ministry of public service has instead offered a simple Cost of Living Adjustment (CoLA). The PSAs have rejected the CoLA, arguing in a joint statement on April 8 that what is offered as CoLA will not amount to any significant hike.

The government’s refusal to review salaries in the backdrop of the “recent increases in prices of basic commodities and goods such as fuel, electricity, water and bread means that many of our people shall be further condemned into the abyss of poverty and deprivation and we are not going to allow that to happen,” the PSAs stated.

Further undermining the job security of teachers, the TSC announced on April 13 that all teaching posts in primary and secondary schools will be contractualized and none of the teachers will be employed this year on a permanent and pensionable basis.

Even before this announcement, many teachers had been working for as long as 16 years on fixed term contracts renewed every two years, Dlamini said. Now the government is seeking to make this a norm for all teachers. “Teachers on contract are not entitled to maternity leave, housing allowance, traveling allowance and many other benefits. So we will not accept this. We demand permanent employment,” he said, reiterating the permanent nature of the job.

The government has cited poverty to justify the contractualization and is going back on the promised salary review of public servants who are essential for running government services. Nevertheless, the king, who controls most of the economy and runs it for the profit of himself and his cronies, continues to spend billions of dollars every year on grand festivities, his birthday party, palaces, jewels, a fleet of Rolls Royce cars, private jets and other indulgences.

It is for this reason that even economic struggles of unions take the political form of an anti-monarchist, pro-democracy struggle in Swaziland, renamed Eswatini by Mswati. “Democracy Now!” and “Mswati must fall!”, originally the slogans of the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS) of which Dlamini is a member, have thus become the common slogans of a cross-section of the people, including the public servants who are only seeking decent living wages.