Renowned human rights lawyer and leader of Swaziland’s largest pro-democracy coalition, Thulani Maseko was shot dead in his home in Luhelko, 50 kilometers from capital city Mbabane, on Saturday, January 21. Thulani was out of prison on bail in cases of sedition and terrorism.
The bullets, fired through Thulani’s window, “completely shattered his head. His wife Tanele, who was with the children in his house, saw two gunmen fleeing,” said Mlungisi Makhanya, president of the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO).
Thulani was a member of PUDEMO, which is among the largest political parties in the country. It is a key component of the Multi Stakeholder Forum (MSF), a pro-democracy coalition of civil society organizations, unions, and political parties, all of which are banned in this small southern African kingdom. Thulani, who had played a key role in bringing this coalition together, was its chairperson.
At the time of his assassination, police officers who had allegedly camped outside his house, let the killers get away without a chase, Swaziland News reported. Hours before his assassination, Africa’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III, had effectively declared in a speech that the pro-democracy activists complaining about attacks by hired mercenaries had invited it upon themselves. Mswati, whose rule has been facing an unprecedented challenge since the anti-monarchist uprising in mid-2021, threatened more retribution this year in that speech.
“There is absolutely no doubt that the assassination was carried out at the King’s order,” Mlungisi told Peoples Dispatch, adding, “Thulani’s assassination by King Mswati represents one thing and one thing only – the assassination of peace. Comrade Thulani was a man of peace. He was a principled leader who gave his all in the fight for human rights and democracy, but always employed peaceful methods.”
His death might prove to be a turning point in the nature of the struggle. “By killing comrade Thulani, the King has killed any possibility and prospect for the continuation of the peaceful method. Because for us, he has demonstrated that the employment of peaceful methods means we are inviting death for ourselves. There comes a time in the life of every nation when these choices have to be made,” he said. Swaziland, he argued, is facing such a decisive time now.
Arrested and charged with terrorism and sedition
“I have personally known Thulani for thirty years since 1993. He has been in and out of detention a number of times during his student days. There was a time when he was a part of an organization of the landless workers,” reminisced Mlungisi.
Thulani became a prominent figure when he was first arrested in 2009. It was a turbulent period in Swaziland’s politics. In April 2008, PUDEMO’s then deputy president, Gabriel Mkhumane, had been assassinated, allegedly by agents of the King. The following month, the draconian Suppression of Terrorism Act was passed by the parliament, whose members are either directly appointed by the King or elected from among a narrow list of individuals approved by the King’s chiefs.
In September that year, a car bomb went off on the Lozitha bridge, leading to one of King’s many palaces. PUDEMO member Musa ‘MJ’ Dlamini and a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) Jack Govender died in the car, while another South African Communist Amos Mbedzi was injured at a distance from the vehicle.
The state initially made a case of terrorism, arguing that a bomb meant to target the King had gone off prematurely, killing the perpetrators. However, on failing to substantiate the case, it eventually charged Amos for murdering Musa and Jack, and imprisoned him.
Denied medical care in prison, Amos’s health degenerated. When it had become evident that he would not survive much longer, the veteran of the armed struggle against Apartheid was sent to serve out his last days at a prison in South Africa where he died in 2022.
Read: South African communist Amos Mbedzi, who fought apartheid, dies a martyr for liberation of Swaziland
Despite being unable to prove that any terrorist act had been committed, a month after the blast, PUDEMO and its youth wing Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO), along with two other organizations, were banned and designated as terrorist organizations.
Mlungisi’s predecessor, late Mario Masuku (passed away in 2021), the then President of PUDEMO, was arrested and charged under the terrorism act, and incarcerated for 340 days until his release in late-2009, when he was acquitted of all charges.
Earlier, in June that year, Thulani, who was Mario’s defense lawyer, was arrested for having allegedly said while addressing a workers’ rally on May Day that “MJ Dlamini and Jack Govender died for the liberation of this country. One day the Lozitha bridge will be called MJ and Govender bridge.”
He was charged under the Suppression of Terrorism Act, and the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act. With the prosecution being unable to make a case, he was released on bail later that month. But the charges against him remain to date, Mlungisi said.
Arrested for contempt of court
Then, in March 2014, he was arrested again, on charges of Contempt of Court, along with the editor of The Nation, Bheki Makhubu, who had co-authored articles critical of the then chief justice. Mlungisi, who was then the General Secretary of PUDEMO, was arrested the following month from a protest against the arrest of the duo.
“I was in the same prison as him. I have seen his resilience,” Mlungisi recollected. “I was charged of terrorism and sedition, but I was granted bail.” Thulani, who was already facing the same charges since 2008, was sentenced two years in prison for Contempt of Court in July 2014.
“Note that the very chief justice Thulani and Bheki had criticized in their articles was later arrested for corruption, along with the judge who had sentenced them for contempt,” he said. In this backdrop, “when Thulani appealed against the decision in 2015, the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that their incarceration was wrong even before the case went to the stage of arguments.”
In the meantime, PUDEMO President Mario Masuku had been once again arrested, along with the then general secretary of SWAYOCO Maxwell Dlamini, for their speeches on May Day in 2014. They too were charged with terrorism and sedition, only to be released on bail in 2015.
Thulani’s legal victory against laws on terrorism and sedition reversed
While still in prison in 2014, Thulani, along with Mlungisi, Mario and Maxwell, went on to challenge the constitutionality of the Suppression of Terrorism Act of 2008 and the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act, enacted in 1938 under British colonial rule.
In September 2016, the High Court struck down vast portions of the two acts, deeming them unconstitutional. After launching its appeal against the High Court’s judgment, the King’s government “did not file the substantive papers for two years. By 2018, the appeal period had lapsed,” Mlungisi said.
That year, when the King renamed Swaziland as Eswatini, Thulani took to the High Court again to challenge Mswati’s arbitrary decision as unconstitutional. Thulani also coalesced together the diverse pro-democracy forces in the country and established the Multi Stakeholder Forum (MSF) in this period when he and his comrades were freed from charges of terrorism and sedition.
But it was only a respite. In an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court passed a judgment in September 2022, reinstating the state’s appeal, on the grounds that in such a high-stakes case involving constitutional matters, an exception had to be made.
“This case reflects the highest rot, corruption and lack of independence and impartiality of the judiciary and the highest court in the land,” Thulani had told Daily Maverick at the time. Deeming its reasoning as “flimsy, baseless, both factually and legally incorrect,” he accused the Supreme Court, all of whose judges are appointed by the King, of bending the law “to assist the government to prosecute and persecute us.”
Aftermath of the insurrection
“Remember, this is the same court which dismissed the bail appeal of the arrested pro-democracy MPs, on the grounds that it had not been filed within the appeal time,” Mlungisi remarked.
He was referring to Mduduzi Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, two members in the King’s Parliament who had come out in support of the demands for multi-party democracy during the unprecedented country-wide protests in mid-2021. When rallies were taken out to submit petitions to MPs in every constituency of Swaziland, including, for the first time, across the rural areas, which until then were thought to be largely loyal to the King, the monarchy panicked.
Security forces attacked these peaceful rallies, whereupon an uprising erupted in the industrial areas, which have long been a hotbed of anti-monarchist sentiment. Angry workers hurled petrol bombs on businesses and industries of the King and his cronies, who own most of the economy and run it to finance the palaces, fleet of Rolls Royce cars, private jets, and decadent festivities of the royal family.
Such indulgences by the monarch, while nearly 70% of the population eke out a living on less than a dollar a day, has popularized the King’s properties as legitimate targets of attack in Swaziland. With several of his properties ablaze, the monarch fled his kingdom in late-June 2021, returning only in mid-July after his army had put down the insurrection with a crackdown killing at least 80.
“Mswati must fall” has since become a common slogan. The demands for multi-party democracy and the release of the arrested MPs, whom Thulani was representing legally, have been figuring prominently alongside the specific economic demands in nearly every memorandum submitted after protests and strikes, be it by students or by trade unions. Even businesses, which earlier used to publicize its connections with the monarch to curry favors, soon began publicly distancing themselves from the royal family.
Finding himself increasingly isolated a year after the insurrection, Mswati told security forces to take an “eye for an eye” in an aggressive speech he delivered during the ‘Police Day’ in August.
A month later, on September 20, 2022, Mlungisi’s residence was bombed. Mlungisi survived, having moved to South Africa two months earlier, on receiving credible intelligence of the impending attack. “This attack comes in the backdrop of threats from Mswati’s traditional governor, Timothy Ginindza, to the effect that the regime has trained an arson squad whose sole purpose is to target and burn down the homes” of pro-democracy leaders, PUDEMO had said in a statement at the time.
It was only two days after this attack that the Supreme Court reinstated the state’s late appeal against the High Court’s 2016 judgment which had ruled that the Suppression of Terrorism Act and the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act as unconstitutional.
“What this means in effect is that the judgment of the high court has already been reversed,” Thulani had told Daily Maverick. “We will go to the appeal for the purpose of going through the legal process, knowing that the case has already been determined against us.”
Foreign mercenaries to crackdown on the pro-democracy movement?
Amid a continued increase in cases of attacks on pro-democracy activists – including murders, abduction and torture – the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN), which was among the organizations designated as terrorist in 2008, alleged that King is using foreign mercenaries.
South African “Bastion Risk Solutions” which is “owned and run by former Apartheid operatives and recruits mostly white right-wing Afrikaner males”, has been hired by King Mswati “to help Swaziland’s ineffectual security forces to suppress and quell rising opposition,” SSN said on January 15.
Without denying the accusation, the monarch said, in his address at the conclusion of the annual Incwala ceremony on January 21, “People should not shed tears and complain about mercenaries killing them. These people started the violence first, but when the state institutes a crackdown on them for their actions, they make a lot of noise blaming King Mswati for bringing in mercenaries.”
Labeling pro-democracy activists as “mentally disturbed people.. possessed by demons,” Mswati went on to declare, “Whoever continues with this demonic behavior will face the consequences this year.” Hours later, Thulani was gunned down.
“We shall pick up the spear where Comrade Thulani fell and continue the struggle”
Conveying its condolences to PUDEMO, the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS) said “under the current circumstances, democracy in Swaziland will be achieved only by rendering the Mswati regime unworkable, making all of its state organs ungovernable.” Its statement paying tribute to Thulani added, “The abnormality of the current situation must also be practically felt by the autocracy! The revolutionary fire must rise and burn down the entire system!”
The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, the country’s largest union, condemned the “latest violent and brutal attack on freedom fighters in Eswatini,” adding that it supported “the demands of the people of Eswatini who are fighting for freedom and democratic reforms.” NUMSA also expresssed its support to the people of Eswatini who are struggling for democracy.
South Africa’s largest trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), said in its statement: “Comrade Maseko lived his life by the words ‘until freedom is achieved in my country Swaziland, I will be on the road to justice,” and to honor his legacy and how he lived – ours is to continue with the fight for a free and democratic Swaziland.”
Calling for an international investigation, Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network said, “As one of the founding members of SouthernDefenders, Maseko made an immense contribution to the advancement of justice and human rights not only in Eswatini but throughout the Southern Africa region. He has carried out several fact-finding missions to countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi where he reported on the deterioration of civic space in the region.”
Calling him “a flagbearer for democracy and human rights,” executive director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) Anna Meerkotter remarked, “Even in the darkest hours, Thulani stood strong, defending those who were persecuted, despite huge risks to his own safety. We call on SADC to investigate the killing of Thulani, and to call out the continued impunity against those who target critics of the monarchy.”
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk commented, “Thulani Maseko was a stalwart of human rights who, at great risk to himself, spoke up for many who couldn’t speak up for themselves… His cold-blooded killing has deprived Eswatini, Southern Africa and the world of a true champion and advocate for peace, democracy and human rights,”
“But we want the world to know that the struggle against the monarchy will continue,” Mlungsi reiterates. “We shall pick up the spear where Comrade Thulani fell and continue the struggle. Thulani was a pillar of our struggle for democracy in Swaziland. We will make sure that his death is not in vain.”