King Mswati’s forces in Swaziland attack public transport workers during strike action

Speaking from the hospital where he was admitted after being allegedly tortured by the security forces, union leader Mbhekeni Dlamini told Peoples Dispatch, “I will keep on fighting until all my comrades are freed from prison, until all Swazi people are freed from the monarchy”

November 21, 2022 by Pavan Kulkarni

(The article contains graphic visuals of police violence on protesters)

Several public transport workers were shot, abducted, and tortured by the army and the police during a strike action on November 15 and 16 in the Kingdom of Swaziland. The strike followed another two-day strike on November 10 and 11.

Condemning “the brutal attacks by the armed forces opening fire on bus drivers,” International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) general secretary Stephen Cotton said on November 17, “Murders of transport workers have increased over the past year.” 

He said that the ITF will hold the authorities of this southern African country, which is the continent’s last absolute monarchy, “accountable to its actions at all international levels including the International Labour Organization (ILO).”

Despite the police violence, ITF’s national affiliate, the Swaziland Transport Communication and Allied Workers Union (SWATCAWU), successfully brought most cities and towns in the kingdom to halt with their strike action. The union represents over 3,000 of the around 5,000 public transport workers in the small land-locked country, with a little over a million people.

“Even the sugar-mills owned by the King, which is the largest employer in Swaziland after the government, had to be shut down because of our strike. The mills are a key source of the monarch’s income. We know we have delivered a blow to the regime when we shut these mills,” Sticks Nkambule, general secretary of SWATCAWU, told Peoples Dispatch

Times of Swaziland reported that buses remained parked and most businesses remained shuttered due to the strike on November 15 and 16. The usually busy streets of capital Mbabane, commercial hub Manzini, and other cities and towns wore a deserted look – except for instances where security forces attacked the striking workers. 

Many of the larger businesses that were brought to a halt by the strike are owned by King Mswati III and his cronies, who control most of Swaziland’s economy and run it for the benefit of the royal family, Sticks points out. 

The monarch’s indulgences, including palaces, private jets, a fleet of Rolls Royce cars and extravagant celebrations and parties, have become an eye-sore in the country where up to 70% of the population survives on less than two dollars a day. Wages of public transport workers, who are government employees, start at R2,400, which barely adds up to USD 4.5 per day. 

Along with demanding an increase in wages and better regulation of the sector, the public transport workers are also insisting on the release of incarcerated pro-democracy members of parliament (MPs) Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube.

The MPs were arrested last year after they came out in support of the demand for a multi-party democracy as put forth in the mass-demonstrations and rallies that for the first time spread across rural areas, largely thought to be loyal to the King.   

When these peaceful rallies that had unprecedentedly spread across Swaziland faced a violent crackdown by the army and police, an insurrection erupted in the industrial areas around the cities, which have long been a hotbed of anti-monarchist sentiment.

Mass attacks on properties and businesses owned by the King and his cronies began by the end of June last year, whereupon the king briefly fled the country, returning only in mid-July when the insurrection had been put down by the army which killed over 70 and injured hundreds. 

In the several protests and strikes witnessed since – be it by students demanding scholarships to access education or public workers and civil servants demanding living wages and decent working conditions – “Mswati must fall!” became a common slogan across Swaziland. 

King Mswati III appoints the prime minister and other ministers of the cabinet, as well as the top jurists, 2/3rds of the upper house of the parliament, and 12% of the lower house. No political parties, all of which are banned, are allowed to participate in the “elections” for the remaining seats in the lower house. Only individuals approved by the King’s local chiefs can contest these seats.

Mabuza and Dube were two MPs within this undemocratic setup who however rose to popularity after taking the side of the masses against the monarch by calling for democratization of Swaziland.

‘We will paralyze the state with another strike’

The demand for multi-party democracy and the release of political prisoners including the incarcerated MPs has consistently been raised alongside the different economic demands put forward in the demonstrations and industrial actions by different groups.   

These political demands are not incidental but central, Sticks reiterates. “If the MPs are not released during their next hearing in court in December, we will paralyze the state with another strike,” he said.

The first day of the transport workers’ latest strike was intentionally scheduled to coincide with the court hearing of the MPs on November 15. Deputy chairperson of SWATACAWU in Manzini, Mbhekeni Dlamini, along with other union members, were headed to the court in Mbabane to express solidarity with the MPs on trial. 

Just before reaching Mbabane, they were confronted by a group of armed security personnel who threatened to shoot if they did not return home. “We were not even marching or shouting slogans. We were only walking in our union T-shirts. The government had said only a day ago confidently that November 15 will be a normal day. And yet, the security forces were behaving as if there was a curfew,” Mbhekeni told Peoples Dispatch. “When we were walking back home, we were suddenly attacked by heavily armed policemen.”   

The policemen allegedly fired shots and chased those who fled, while Mbhekeni, who was held at gunpoint, was forced down into the leg-space of the backseat of a private SUV with a South African number plate. Held under boots with his face covered, he was kicked all the way as the vehicle was driven to a jungle on the outskirts of Manzini, where he was lashed repeatedly with a leather whip.

“They were seven. They took turns one after another. One kept beating and lashing me till he got tired and handed over to another. It lasted for two hours. Then they dumped me in the bush and drove away,” Mbhekeni recalled.

“I was dizzy, in too much pain – did not know where I was. A passerby found me and asked what happened. I told I was kidnapped and tortured by the police. He helped me out. We made a phone call to my comrades who came to pick me up in a car.”  

At the Raleigh Fitkin Memorial Hospital in Manzini, where he was admitted for treatment, he found that his comrades who had tried to flee the abduction attempt by the policemen were also later admitted in a wounded state.

“There are policemen in civil clothes roaming the corridors outside. They are keeping a constant eye on who comes to visit us,” he said on November 16, speaking on phone from the hospital ward where he was admitted. Nevertheless, he added, “I have been receiving many visits from my comrades,” reiterating that the transport workers are not intimidated.

But the regime imposes a high cost on those who dare. “I am a bus driver. They have dislocated my elbow. I cannot drive for at least one month now,” Mbhekeni said, adding that he doesn’t know how he will make ends meet. “I only know that I will keep on fighting until all my comrades are freed from prison, until all Swazi people are freed from the monarchy.”

‘Monarchy is an economic liability to workers’  

The workers calling for the overthrow of the monarchy are not necessarily motivated by a political ideology, explains Sticks. “It is because they understand that the monarchy is an economic liability to them. They understand that so long as the monarchy exists, they will never secure decent wages and labor rights. That is why they are willing to fight for democracy and make all sacrifices necessary.” 

At least two protesters were reportedly shot that day. The Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku, however, said on November 15, “We note that today was generally peaceful, despite a few skirmishes as a result of provocation from those few individuals who decided not to heed the Government’s pronouncement about the illegal protest march and that no one should engage in it.”

“His Majesty’s Government would particularly like to acknowledge the role played by State security officers in maintaining peace, the rule of law and order across the country, despite several attempts by small groups of people to disrupt operations,” he added.

Many more transport workers had been shot during the earlier strike on November 10. Sticks explained that while the November 15 strike had been planned in advance, the strike action on November 10 was not.

After “nothing substantial came out of the commissions set up in October by the government,” which was forced to the negotiating table when the strike by public transport workers had gone on for two weeks last month, the union had decided to strike again on November 15.

“To disrupt our planned strike on the 15th, the police arrested five of our key activists on November 9,” he said. These activists had earlier complained to the police that registered transport workers were being undercut by private vehicles illegally ferrying customers. “But the police did not act. So the union had intervened to stop this practice,” he added.

The police painted this intervention as an offense, and the five activists were in and out of court for some time when suddenly, “less than a week before the planned strike, the court handed them into police custody. We knew the purpose was to disrupt the oncoming strike. So we struck the very next day on November 10, demanding their release. And we succeeded in securing their release on November 11.”

This success came at a cost. Several workers were shot and injured by the army and the police during the agitation on November 10, which continued into the next day. 

The Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) said in a statement on November 11, “We celebrate the bravery of this important sector of society, who despite being the most downtrodden and marginalized, are always able to defend their own.” 

“[W]hen one of their own is unjustly incarcerated, SWATCAWU is their first and last line of defense. This is something we must aspire to make a culture in the Mass Democratic Movement,” it added. “SWATCAWU membership braved and held fort even when the military was deployed into the streets. They stood firm on their demands even when the state’s security forces used live ammunition.”