Early on the morning of Wednesday, July 13, King Mswati III’s police raided the home of Bongi Nkambule, a member of the Communist of Swaziland (CPS), which is banned along with all other political parties in Africa’s last absolute monarchy.
Nkambule, whom the police identify as a key organizer of the pro-democracy movement locally, had already been tortured in custody less than four months ago. When around 30 heavily armed policemen “invaded” the Msunduza township on the outskirts of capital Mbabane at about 6:30 in the morning, he knew he was the target.
“They were misled in the wrong direction when they asked for me. That gave me just enough time to get out of the house and make a run to the forest to escape,” Nkambule told Peoples Dispatch, speaking on phone from a hideout.
“Without showing any search warrant to my wife who demanded it, they then broke into my house and ransacked the whole place. Then they arrested my wife and dragged her to the police station at around 8 am. She was held there in custody, and beaten and harassed for several hours before she was released by 2 in the afternoon,” he said. “She is not safe, they have threatened to come back and kill her.”
The couple have two children – one aged 11 and the other a two year old infant. Nkambule used to support his family, laboring as a painter. He had been struggling over the last four months to make ends meet on losing his regular job when his employer got intimidated after he was picked up by the police without a warrant on March 23.
At that time, the police assaulted him for several hours in custody, and then, without pressing any charges, dumped him just outside the capital, with injuries to his arms, legs and head.
Sunset Rallies to symbolize the monarch’s nearing end
“Since then Comrade Bongo had been under continuous surveillance,” CPS International Secretary Pius Vilakati told Peoples Dispatch. Nevertheless, even under surveillance, “he had continued his work as a community organizer in Msunduza and was playing an important role in organizing the Sunset Rallies there.”
To signify to the communities the nearing end of the monarchist reign over Swaziland, which the King has arbitrarily renamed Eswatini, the CPS started organizing what it calls Sunset Rallies in March. Soon after, Nkambule was abducted by the police.
In the four months since, Vilakati said, these rallies have almost become a weekly event. Marches have been held in the townships of Msunduza, Maphala in Mbabane and KaKhoza in Manzini city, the commercial hub of Swaziland. For now, these rallies remain relatively small, mobilizing a hundred or so community members each time.
Nevertheless, Mswati, who had fled his kingdom briefly amid an unprecedented country-wide pro-democracy uprising mid-last year, appears rattled by this increasing willingness of local residents to raise the red flag and call for his overthrow. Slogans “Mswati must Fall!” and “Democracy Now!”, which were promulgated by the CPS years ago, have become a mass cry in the country.
The Msunduza township has attracted much police attention after residents took part in three Sunset Rallies here. Most of the residents are informal laborers who travel to the capital daily in search of work. During the raid on Wednesday, the police also broke into houses of several other community members, claiming to be in search of weapons. As in the several other raids in the recent past, no weapons were found, Vilakati observed.
“While the police claimed to be looking for guns and grenades, ostensibly to be used in an impending armed revolution against Africa’s last absolute monarchy, the true reason for the raid was to instill fear among community members and victimize political activists,” CPS said in a statement.
However, the rallies have not only continued despite these raids, illegal arrests and torture, but have also grown increasingly assertive in the nature of the speeches made publicly at them.
Community-based Security Councils to defend against police ‘invasion’
Addressing a Sunset Rally on June 26 in KaKhoza township in the city of Manzini, the commercial hub of the country, CPS National Organizer Simphiwe Dlamini called for the formation of community-based “Security Councils”. These councils, he said, should inspire “intense fear” in the police “whenever they think of invading communities. The minority regime should not be allowed to rule over us any longer. We’re the majority.”
Speaking to Peoples Dispatch over phone on Friday, June 15, while en route to another Sunset Rally in Macambeni township, about 45 kilometers from the capital, on the outskirts of Piggs Peak town in Hhohho region, Dlamini explained: “What is happening in the country today is that the police never respond to distress calls by people faced with crimes or violence. The only task they undertake in the country is to attack the pro-democracy movement and the communities in which this movement is rooted.”
“The police”, he added, “is no longer a force from which people can expect any security. They are left to defend themselves. So the cadres of the Communist Party, the vanguard of the struggling masses, are working in the communities to unite them and organize to form Security Councils.”
A key task of these Councils, he explained, will be to ensure that “at least one person from every family is on the frontlines of the revolution. Because when police invade communities, they are primarily targeting a few households from which members have taken to the frontlines. It is time now for every household to respond by contributing at least one member to the frontlines to overwhelm the police with numbers.”
The other important task is to organize an alarm and response system. One proposal on how to implement this has received a very positive response from communities, Dlamini explained: “The Security Council should ensure that all community members are carrying whistles. The first person to see armed policemen approaching the community will raise an alarm by blowing his whistle and everyone hearing it will follow up with their own whistles, and it will continue so on.”
This chorus of whistles, he explained, should in itself be a deterrent “because the community is telling the police even before they have arrived that we know you are coming, and we are ready. The police are afraid of this. That is why in all of the recent raids, they avoided detection till the last moment and caught the households they were targeting by surprise. We should not let them have it easy anymore.”
What if the police proceed, undeterred by the whistles? Then the dozens of heavily armed and armored men will not find themselves confronted by one lone woman with an infant, demanding to see the warrant with a furiously waving fist as she is dragged off for custodial torture.
“On each raid, the police will then have to fight off members from all households of the community, organized and ready to defend each other and fight back against police brutality,” he said, confident that such readiness is already in groundswell among the masses. “The task now is of organization,” he said.
‘A basis to build democracy after the King is overthrown’
Along with Security Councils, the CPS is also at work in communities to organize Welfare Councils, Dlamini explained. The monarchy, he argues, has virtually abandoned the people to fend for themselves in a country where up to 70% of the population eke a living on less than a dollar a day.
With the bulk of the economy owned by the King and run to sustain his indulgences – palaces, private jets, a fleet of Rolls Royce cars, million-dollar parties etc – his government is unable even to pay the wages of its public servants. Little can be expected from the government by the people living in the countryside.
“The only way forward is for the communities to organize themselves for their needs of education, housing, health, food and all the basic needs the government cannot fulfill,” he said. By undertaking these tasks of catering to their own security and welfare through grassroots organization, Dlamini argues, the communities in the countryside can decide how to govern themselves and totally defy the authority of the chiefs, who are the King’s local representatives.
“When we overthrow Mswati, these community-based councils will provide the basis to build a bottom-up democracy in Swaziland.”