Swaziland transport workers’ leader remains defiant despite threats from King’s Deputy Prime Minister

Swaziland’s Deputy PM Themba Masuku has threatened to imprison Sticks Nkambule, the leader of transport workers’ union whose members withdrew labor and brought Swaziland to a halt on December 13-14

December 19, 2022 by Pavan Kulkarni
Trade union leader Sticks Nkambule (left) and Swaziland Deputy PM Themba Masuku.

Swaziland’s Deputy Prime Minister, Themba Masuku has threatened to imprison Sticks Nkambule, union leader of transport workers who once again brought the country to a halt on December 13 and 14 by staying home and not reporting to work.

Masuku – who like other ministers is not elected, but appointed directly by King Mswati III – said that his government had secured an interdict against the strike action from the court, whose judges, Sticks points out, are also appointed by Mswati.

With all political parties banned, some members of parliament (MPs) are directly appointed by the King, while others are chosen by vote from among a narrow list of individuals who are vetted and approved by his local chiefs.

However, the grip on power of Africa’s last absolute monarch has become increasingly slippery since last year, when his southern African Kingdom, which he has renamed Eswatini, was rocked by unprecedented country-wide pro-democracy protests.

Over 70 were killed and hundreds were injured by the police and army to put down an uprising that erupted in the industrial areas, with attacks on king’s properties, after his security forces used violence to disperse peaceful rallies aimed at submitting demands to the MPs.

Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, two MPs who had come out in support of these demands, which included multi-party democracy, have since been imprisoned.

A political strike

Calling for their release and reiterating the demands for democratization, the Swaziland Transport Communication and Allied Workers Union (SWATCAWU), had already led strike actions for two weeks in October, and another four days in November.

Several members of this union, which represents over 3,000 of the roughly 5,000 transport workers in the small land-locked country, were shot, abducted, and tortured by security forces during the action in November.

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

The union’s general secretary who is now threatened with imprisonment, Sticks Nkambule, had explained at the time that the workers are raising a political demand for democracy because they know that the “decent wages and labor rights” cannot be secured under a monarchy. “If the MPs are not released during their next hearing in court in December, we will paralyze the state with another strike,” he had told Peoples Dispatch.

While the mobilization for this strike was underway, Sticks was summoned by the Police National Commissioner, William Dlamini. At the police headquarters, where Sticks presented himself for an “interview” with the commissioner on December 7, he was interrogated about organizational details. “They were basically trying to intimidate and convince me to withdraw the strike that was planned for the 13th and 14th. I refused,” he said.

In the meantime, “they had also sent armed police officials to my mother’s house,” which is located on the outskirts of Manzini, while Sticks resides in the capital city, Mbabane. “I am not staying with my mother, and they know that. They went to her home with guns and told her their boss was looking for me and they had come to provide transport” to the police headquarters, he said, calling it “an act of intimidation and harassment.”

Deputy PM: Workers have no investments here, except disruption

When the union remained defiant, Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku – who is also the Acting Prime Minister and the cabinet’s chairperson – made an appeal to the employers on December 10. He reminded them that “transport owners would be the biggest losers in this action since the other stakeholders in this shameful act,” i.e the workers, “do not own any vehicles or anything at all. They have no investments here, except disruption.”

Such unconcealed display of contempt for the working class and an open appeal to the employers to carry out a class struggle against the workers is not common, and marks “a new level of desperation,” Pius Vilakati, International Secretary of the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS), told Peoples Dispatch.

“While the government could in the past always rely on the employers to threaten the workers with expulsions and so on,” it has now lost their support too, Pius said. “Things have now gone so bad that it is not just working-class interests at stake. Even running a business is becoming unviable. Interests of the national business-persons, including in the transport sector, have been badly affected, partly because the royal family itself intends to enter the transport business” by plying “their own private buses,” he said.

“In the past, you find that the workers struggled for higher pay, and against harassment by the police and so on, today we find that the demands of the workers are political, and are resonating also with the employers in Swaziland,” Pius explained, adding  that more and more employers are now joining in the national voice for democracy

Why are employers supporting workers’ strike?

This conjecture, he adds, has been the result of “years of revolutionary work” – culminating in last year’s country-wide uprising – which has convinced the employers that the monarchy cannot govern the country, and businesses cannot flourish in this unstable environment.

Mlungisi Makhanya, President of People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), among the largest of the country’s political parties, told Peoples Dispatch, “We are currently witnessing the broadest of fronts in the struggle,” which includes the middle class and small businesses.

Faced with this anti-monarchist alliance of the cross-section of Swazi society, the larger domestic and foreign businesses in the country have also begun to distance themselves from the monarchy, he said.

“We come from a past where a mere mentioning of your association with the King used to gain you mileage” for the business. “But now,” Mlungisi explained, “we are in an era where a mere suspicion of association with the King will bring misery” to one’s business.

So several businesses have been issuing unsolicited statements denying any association with the King or royal family. This has rattled the government to the extent that its spokespersons have taken to complaining about it in the media.

Unable, in this backdrop, to convince the employers to take action against the workers, Themba, instructed all the shops, businesses, schools and commercial establishments to remain open, promising that the state will provide its own buses.

“Less than a hundred or so workers came to the depots in each town. But there was no transport. People were very angry. There was serious pandemonium in the country,” SWATCAWU general secretary Sticks Nkambule said.

The insufficient number of buses that were provided were driven, reportedly without public driving permits, by soldiers and police who collided one of the buses head-on with a passenger vehicle, killing a foreign tourist.

Deputy PM threatens union leader with imprisonment

Amid this crisis, the government issued a statement from Deputy PM Themba Masuku on December 13, informing that the cabinet had sought from the industrial court an order interdicting “Sticks Nkambule, SWATAWU, EKABAWU and SCATA” from proceeding with the strike.

Adding that the government was granted an interim order on December 9, “which was subsequently confirmed as final” on December 12, Themba said the “final order was duly served upon the four respondents.”

Accusing that they nevertheless proceeded with the strike in contempt of the order, Themba added that “the Industrial Court does not have the power to commit to gaol (jail) those who are in contempt of its judgements and orders. Instead, the case of contempt is reported to the police for prosecution in a criminal court” which can “sentence the violator to a term of imprisonment.”

He concluded the statement by announcing “I now therefore lay a criminal charge of contempt of court against Mr. Sticks Nkambule, SWATAWU, EKABAWU and SCATA.” SCATA is the employers’ association which had refused to take action against the workers. EKABAWU is a new union, which recently split from SWATCAWU.

However, “SWATAWU is Swaziland Transport and Allied Workers Union. That is not my organization. My organization is SWATCAWU – the Swaziland Transport, Communication and Allied Workers Union,” Sticks said. Pointing out that “they got the name wrong,” he argued “the interdiction order therefore does not apply to my union.”

“Secondly, it is not true when the Deputy PM claims the interdiction order was served to us. We have not been provided with any court order. All we have is his statement on social media,” he said. “And thirdly, we never went on a strike,” Sticks claimed.

“There were no marches, demonstrations or pickets. Our position is that workers simply chose to stay home because they were afraid of violence by security forces. There is no basis in the law to interdict a worker from staying home.”

He also argued that the law grants only the employers the right to seek interdiction. In this case, the private owners of buses etc, represented by SCATA, are the employers, who did not seek to interdict, and are in fact implicitly supporting the action.

“The government does not provide any public transport. How can the government then interdict our strike when we are not government employees? It has clearly overstepped its authority in seeking this interdiction. Any independent court would have thrown out its application,” he insisted.

Further, “since it was the industrial court which granted the interdict, the government ought to go back to this court to first confirm that our action amounted to contempt of its order. Instead”, he said, “it has chosen to go to the police, which they find much simpler to control.”

“There will be pandemonium”

Also pointing out it is “very odd” for an Acting Prime Minister to name an individual leader and threaten imprisonment in his personal statement, Sticks said it was “an indirect attempt” to intimidate him into going into exile. In the backdrop of bombings of houses of pro-democracy leaders, their abduction, torture and imprisonment on charges of terrorism, many “freedom-fighters” have been forced to go into exile, usually in South Africa.

“But we have taken a conscious decision not to do that. We will not run away,” he said. “We have notified our local federation, which is the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) about the state repression and persecution we are facing. We have also notified our global federation, which is the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF),” he said.

“Our members are on high alert. Should the state try to arrest or harm any of the leaders,” Sticks warned, “the country will be grounded. There will be pandemonium.”