Last week Wednesday Swaziland woke up to shocking news of a 28-year-old activist who was sentenced to 85 years in prison after confessing to a spree of petrol bomb attacks that targeted mainly police officers and government officials.
We all missed the story because Swaziland only makes headlines when King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch, has added a new virgin to his harem. But last week’s events are historic if not profound for the small landlocked kingdom: they mark a new era in the political landscape.
In case you just landed from space let me bring you up to speed. Thantaza Silolo, a defecting member of Swaziland’s banned opposition party, the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), was sentenced to 85 years in prison after confessing to the petrol bomb attacks.
After three years on the run he surrendered himself and provided the perfect succour to a frustrated local police battling with growing attacks of this nature. Over a period of 10 years Swaziland witnessed acts of sabotage that no one had claimed responsibility for.
After a detailed confession Silolo was found guilty on all 11 charges and sentenced to 85 years in prison. However, he will serve only 20 years as his sentences will run concurrently.
Silolo alleged that he was part group of Swazis trained in Mpumalanga for a military insurrection in Swaziland. His case followed a similar strong sentence meted to a member of South African Communist Party, Amos Mbedzi, who is serving an 80-year sentence for terrorism. Pudemo’s youth league president, Bheki Dlamini, and Zonke Dlamini are both on their third year in jail facing similar charges.
I am giving this background to demonstrate a salient point of a low-intensity war going on in Swaziland. While the allegations of terrorism as admitted by Silolo have been denied by his organisation it does seem like there is an increasing number of frustrated young people who see violence as the only means through which they can end the dictatorship in the country.
During the national elections in 2008 Swaziland witnessed one of its greatest security tests when a bomb exploded under a bridge the king was to use for an international trip on the same day. A Swazi lawyer and South African former member of Umkhonto weSizwe, Jack Govender, died at the spot while Mbedzi was arrested for the incident.
Swaziland continues to be a rogue state with the dubious title of being the last absolute monarchy in Africa and one of four countries on the continent without multiparty democracy. It also has the highest HIV rate in the world and lowest life expectancy. The monarch is rated by Forbes magazine as the 15th richest monarch in the world with a net worth of $100 million. It is not difficult to understand the frustrations of these young people but surely violence is not the way to go.
The struggle for democracy in Swaziland has been under-reported and for a long time. Swaziland has escaped the world’s human-rights radar such that King Mswati has acted with impunity, no one cares about a country of less than 1.2 million people. History will prove that there are probably more Swazis in South Africa and various parts of the world escaping from the archaic and medieval system of King Mswati’s rule.
In fact to believe that King Mswati rules Swaziland like his fiefdom would be an understatement. He has created himself as the alpha and omega of Swazi politics and holds huge stakes in monopoly companies in the private sector with MTN standing out like a sore thumb. The educated and liberal middle class is leaving Swaziland and in the process robbing the country of its important intellectual arsenal while the poor are mounting an increasing resistance to King Mswati’s misrule.
But with a conspicuously silent SADC and a “run with the hares and hunting with the hounds” ANC, Swaziland is fast descending into the abyss of conflict that could have serious repercussions for the region’s fight for stability and peace. We should have all heeded the warnings as early as 1998 when a bomb exploded at the deputy prime minister’s office leading to the death of one person. Activists were forced into exile as police intensified their investigations. Is SADC ready to save Swaziland from war?