Communist Party of Swaziland to launch campaign for release of its member Mvuselelo Mkhabela and other political prisoners

21-year-old Mvuselelo Mkhabela, a Central Committee member of the banned Communist Party of Swaziland, who had continued organizing anti-monarchist resistance underground after escaping police custody with a bullet wound, was arrested in April and tortured again

June 02, 2023 by Pavan Kulkarni
Communist Party of Swaziland Central Committee member Mvuselelo Mkhabela who is currently in prison. Photo: CPS

The Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS) is set to launch a “Break the Chains” campaign to demand the release of political prisoners, including its Central Committee (CC) member Mvuselelo Mkhabela, whose bail hearing is scheduled for June 22.

The campaign will include protests and roadblocks in rural communities, starting with Mvuselelo’s small town of Hluti in the Hosea constituency in Shiselweni, the poorest region in rural Swaziland, where he had organized the communities against the monarchy. In the course of this work, Mvuselelo has been tortured thrice by the police in the last three months, and even shot once.

On February 7, the police broke into his house at 4 am and abducted him along with another CPS member Bongi Mamba. They had organized a successful demonstration and roadblock the previous day, demanding the release of political prisoners and agitating for the boycott of the “undemocratic” elections scheduled in August.

With all political parties banned in the country, only individuals approved by the King’s local chiefs can contest these elections to a parliament which has no authority to hold to account the executive, which is directly appointed by King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch. The CPS describes the elections as a farce, meant only to legitimize the monarchy.

As part of the CPS campaign to “Boycott, Disrupt and Stop” these elections, Mvuselo had been carrying out regular agitations to convince his community members to not participate in this election, and to actively disrupt it.

After a day of torture, the police released the duo, charging Mvuselelo with possession of marijuana and of burning property. After recovering from the torture in a hospital, Mvuselelo returned to his community, and resumed his organizational work.

“From our experience in detention, we are…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,” he had told Peoples Dispatch at the time.

Read  |Communist Party of Swaziland continues campaign to boycott ‘farcical’ elections despite arrests and torture

Later that month, when the officials of “Election and Boundaries Committee” arrived with police at his town on February 28 to hold a campaign to convince people to vote, Mvuselelo quickly mobilized the youngsters in his area to stop them from entering the community.

Carrying banners proclaiming ‘No to Mswati Election,’ ‘Democracy Now!,’ ‘Mswati Must Fall!,’‘Unban political parties,’ and ‘Free all political prisoners,’ they blocked the road, chanting a protest song against King Mswati to a feet-stomping dance.

The police shot him in his thigh, and fired several rounds to disperse others who were trying to grab their guns. Without stopping at the nearest clinic, the police drove Mvuselelo in the back of a van for 40 kilometers, beating and torturing him throughout the way, including by allegedly fingering his bullet wounds. At Hlathikhulu police station, he was interrogated about party activities and tortured again, before finally being taken to hospital.

When the police had briefly dropped guard that evening, another CPS member sneaked into his ward with clean clothes. Covering his bullet wound under a clean pair of trousers, he quietly escaped from the hospital, leaning on his comrade’s shoulder for support.

“We made it out of the hospital quickly, but I had to sit down on the road every now and then, because my leg was extremely painful. But I could not sit for long. Police vehicles were patrolling the main road,” he recalled during an interview with Peoples Dispatch a few days later.

Quickly getting off the main road into the bushes, he limped through the forest in the night to his comrade’s homestead, from where another CPS member drove him to a hideout where a partisan doctor treated his bullet wound.

Read | Shot and tortured by police, Communist Party of Swaziland’s Mvuselelo Mkhabela escapes, calls for continued anti-monarchist resistance

“But Mvuselelo would not just sit quietly and wait,” recalled Mancoba Motsa, a party commissar and CC member. Soon after recovering from the bullet wound, he resumed anti-monarchist activities.

“Our struggle necessarily takes a guerilla form”

“Mvuseleo himself comes from a neglected part of rural Swaziland, with much experience organizing among peasantry. But after escaping from the hospital, he found himself in a completely different urban environment. We had hid him amid the students of University of Swaziland in the capital, Mbabane. But in no time, he threw himself into the struggles here,” Mancoba, who was himself a student in the university, told Peoples Dispatch.

At the university, teachers were on strike, demanding Cost of Living Adjustment (CoLA). “Even though Mvusello is only a 21-year old who has not even entered university as a student yet, he was on the frontline of the lecturers’ strike for two weeks in the end of March and beginning of April,” added Mancoba.

“He was also spotted with the protesting students who had also gone on a strike for scholarships and unpaid allowances. The party was worried about his safety,” he said. The CC, of which Mvuselelo was not yet a member, considered whether he should be sent on exile to South Africa or instructed to remain underground in hiding.

“But we concluded that the nature of our struggle in these repressive circumstances necessarily takes a guerilla form. And Mvuselelo is an extremely committed and competent guerilla, who has worked among the peasants and workers, teachers and students, in rural and urban areas, while continuously evading the police. So we thought, why not, and allowed him to continue working,” explained Mancoba.

Ahead of the party congress that was held in South Africa between April 7 and 9, the party’s youth and student commission held a preparatory meeting to discuss the formation of a Communist Youth League, during which he was elected as its Propaganda and Agitation Officer.

He then successfully crossed the border into South Africa for the Congress, where he was elected to the CC, which made him in charge of the peasant commission.

“As its head, he was responsible for leading our land-for-food program to stop the land’s handover to imperialist corporations and to bring its control and ownership under the community. Currently, all land in Swaziland is owned by the King, and administered by his local chiefs,”  explained Simphiwe Dlamini, who was elected the party’s International Secretary in the Congress.

“People are forced to pay the monarchy to use the land to grow food. In some areas, land-rent is as high as USD 7,000 a year. Rural communities will never be able to lift themselves out of poverty without taking over the land and building cooperatives. And Mvuselelo was expected to lead this crucial work,” he told Peoples Dispatch.

After the CPS members returned from the Congress in South Africa to Swaziland, the regime was holding another campaign to convince people about the virtues of this election on April 15, this time in Matsapha, an industrial area on the outskirts of Mbabane.

“I had studied in the primary school where they were organizing this campaign. We had to disrupt it. Since Mvuselelo had already disrupted previous campaigns, we took him along,” Mancoba said. The party members quietly sat through the presentation. Once the election commission officials finished their address and opened the floor for discussion, Mvuselelo took over.

“He told the same audience that the parliament they were being asked to vote members for was a puppet of the King, meant to legitimize him, not to serve the people. An election can never be free and fair until the monarchy is abolished and the ban on political parties is lifted. Then I spoke. Other comrades followed,” added Mancoba.

Amid this disruption, the policeman who had shot Mvuselelo earlier came into the hall in civil dress, spotted Mvuselelo, and rushed out to alert more policemen. “Mvuselelo tried to escape, but he was captured by more than 20 heavily armed policemen pointing guns at him,” Mancoba said.

Simphiwe added that the police tortured him for hours at the Sigodwii police station, before driving him to Hlathikhulu police station near his hometown, where he had been previously tortured after being shot.

Severe injuries

“When he was finally taken to Nhlangano Prison, he was so badly hurt from torture that the prison authorities refused to take him without a medical checkup. He was bleeding from his ears. We don’t know what kind of medical care he was given, but on May 28, when our Vice-President Lucky Mamba went to the prison to hand him medicines, he saw Mvuselelo was very sick,” he said.

Mvuseleo has been charged with five counts, mostly of property damage in connection to a windshield of a police vehicle that was broken in the scuffle that had ensued when they shot him, Simphiwe said.

The police had also charged him with escaping custody. However, after his escape, when questions were being raised about whether the police had disappeared him, they had maintained that they had not put him under arrest.

“Our lawyer asked in court whether he was handcuffed to the hospital bed. The police said no. The argument was made that since he had not been held under arrest at all, there was no question of him escaping custody. So this charge was dropped,” Simphiwe explained.

When he was produced in court on April 26 and again on May 2, the CPS members demonstrated outside the court in solidarity with Mvuselelo, defiantly waving the banned party’s flag and donning its red-shirt with hammer and sickle.

“We will now relaunch the Break the Chains campaign. We had first initiated it at the time South African communist Amos Mbedzi was arrested in Swaziland in 2008. The campaign for release of political prisoners will now be integrated with the campaign against this farcical election,” said Mancoba.

Read | South African communist Amos Mbedzi, who fought apartheid, dies a martyr for liberation of Swaziland

“If we succeed in stopping this election, it will seriously weaken the enemy. And we are determined to do it. The monarchy is a parasite, sucking away the people’s labor, without contributing anything at all to production. People of Swaziland can never be free until this monarchy is destroyed,” he insists.