Mvuselelo Mkhabela (21) and Bongi Mamba (28), members of Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS), who were arrested and tortured by the police last week, have resumed their campaign against the parliamentary election to be held in August in Africa’s last absolute monarchy.
“The parliament does not have any real power,” CPS International Secretary Pius Vilakati told Peoples Dispatch. “It does not make policy. It is only a tool used by the absolute monarchy to sanctify King Mswati’s decision. It does not even have the power to hold to account the executive, which is appointed directly by the King. So it is a futile exercise meant to elect a puppet parliament.”
Members for 10 of the 59 seats in the parliament’s House of Assembly, will be appointed directly by the King. The remaining can be contested, but in an “undemocratic manner, since all political parties have been banned since 1973,” Pius said. Only those individuals approved by the constituencies’ traditional chiefs, who act as the local representatives of the King, can contest these elections.
“The chiefs deny candidacy for all sorts of reasons. It could be because you don’t provide free labor on his field. They control all community land. In Swaziland, people do not own the land. The land is held under the control of the chief on behalf of the King,” Pius said, highlighting the stranglehold they have on the daily lives of the people.
Elections under these circumstances are seen as devoid of any democratic value, aimed only at legitimizing the monarchy, which has grown increasingly violent against the pro-democracy movement since the unprecedented anti-monarchist uprising in mid-2021.
“They beat us with clubs and chairs and anything they could lay their hands on”
Among the latest acts of crackdown by the regime was the arrest and torture of Mvuselelo and Bongi on February 7, two days after they had led a protest in the small town of Hluti on February 5. “We blocked a road by burning tires in protest, demanding the release of political prisoners. We were also calling on people to not legitimize Mswati by voting in these sham elections,” Bongi told Peoples Dispatch.
About 100 people had participated in this protest in Hluti, about 50 kilometers from the city of Nhlangano in southern Swaziland, and over 180 kilometers from its capital Mbabane. Despite the relatively small size of this demonstration, the security forces are jittery about unrest in the rural hinterland, areas which were assumed to be largely loyal to the King until the rallies demanding multiparty democracy spread across the country ahead of the 2021 uprising.
Two days after the protest, around 4 am on February 7, 10 to 15 heavily armed policemen wearing civilian clothes barged into Mvuselelo’s house in Hluti, where Bongi was also staying after the anti-election campaigns in the town, which had carried on late into the night.
“They took us to the police station and accused us of burning properties and possessing marijuana. Then they beat us with clubs and chairs and anything they could lay their hands on, while interrogating us about the Communist Party. They wanted to know who recruited us, what positions we hold etc.,” Bongi said.
The following day, on February 8, Bongi was produced at the Nhlangano Magistrate Court in an injured state, and released without any charges. Mvuselelo was also released, but faces charges for which the trial is to begin months later. They were hospitalized after their release.
By February 11, both had returned to Mvuselelo’s home and resumed their campaign against the elections. “From our experience in detention, we are also holding discussions with community members about the need to organize local security councils to be able to quickly respond and defend one another when the police invade our communities,” Mvuselelo told Peoples Dispatch.
Swaziland’s police is an entirely political police, increasingly unable and unwilling to respond when distress calls are made by those facing crimes, Pius claims.
“The only task they undertake is to crush the monarchy’s political opponents. So the security councils are meant to safeguard the communities, both from criminals and from the regime’s police,” he said. “Often, when they invade communities, there is no one to defend the family or the individual from the wrath of the regime. This cannot go on.”
Mvuselelo and Bongi are also leading community initiatives to fix roads and secure water supplies, in an effort to organize a local “welfare council”—proposed by the CPS as a means to help communities democratically organize to cater to their needs, independent of the regime.
Breaking the monarchy’s back through community organizing
The independence of democratically organized local communities is the key to enabling communities to defy the local chiefs, who, Pius described as the monarchy’s backbone that needs to be broken by community organizing. “We are working deep inside the communities to organize Revolutionary Community Councils,” under which the Welfare Council and Security Council is envisaged, he said.
“Bongi and Mvuselelo are on the forefront of community organizing in the Hluti town. Their success in organizational work was the reason they were targeted,” he added.
Their success, Pius said, was evident in that “as soon as they were picked up by the police, the community members instantly mobilized themselves and barged to the police station demanding their release, without waiting for any call from the party. This is the result of grassroots organization by our cadres who are rooted inside the communities. We are not relying on the elites to fight for democracy, but building strength within the communities which can defend and look after one another while challenging the monarchy.”