Violence and persecution increasing in Swaziland

A few years ago I traveled to Swaziland as part of an effort of my then parish (Trinity in Bethlehem PA) to support the work of Swazi Hospice at Home. You can read my travel diary and see pictures from the trip here.

During the trip, especially during my journey to the southern parts of the country, there were hints that the government was beginning to prepare for a period of civil unrest. Around the time of my visit the presenting issue was the question of the proper relationship between the new Swazi constitution and the claimed absolute authority of the King. (King Mswati is sadly mostly famous in the West for the growing size of his harem.)

While we traveled it was hard to miss an obvious increasing military presence. While most of the population were very thin and wan looking, the military and police guards were large, strong and well equipped. Clearly they were not having any trouble finding good food to eat.

More ominously, I started noticing the big black anti-riot trucks (the Black Mariahs) that the South African government had built during the time of anti-apartheid demonstrations. I was told that the King and his tribal councils had decided to start purchasing them and deploying them around the country. They were parked in the forest – but not too far in. They were certainly not hidden…

I’d heard over the past couple of years that there has been an increasing threat of violence. But when I asked about it I kept being told that people were exaggerating.

Well perhaps not so much after all.

I just received an email press release this morning from Africa Contact. It reads in part:

The brutality of the Swazi regime, led by the autocratic King Mswati, has always been evident, as documented by numerous reports from Amnesty International. This brutality has recently escalated, however, to include a desperate hunt for anything or anyone carrying the name of Pudemo or Swayoco, Swaziland’s leading democratic party and its youth league. The latest example of this brutality is the death in detention of Pudemo activist Sipho Jele. Sipho Jele was in good health when arrested and detained on 1 May for wearing a Pudemo t-shirt but was found dead in his cell the next day. The police claimed that he had committed suicide but Jele’s aunt, a former nurse who saw the body the next day, insists that his face was bruised and battered and that any claims of suicide are manifestly and evidently untrue. Jele’s torture and death at the hands of Swaziland’s police forces is unfortunately by no means the first time such torture and deaths in detention in Swazi prisons have occurred, and we are worried that the student leader, Pius Vilakati, who was at Jele’s funeral but has not been seen since, could be the next victim of the Swazi regime if the international society does not act quickly by putting pressure on the Swazi regime.

The torture and deaths in detention of pro-democracy activists are chillingly reminiscent of similar occurrences during in apartheid South Africa, where deaths in detention were also routinely claimed to have been self-inflicted, and the response from the international community of governments, civil society movements and NGOs should therefore be equally vigorous in demanding observance of the rule of law and democratisation in Swaziland.

The full email follows after the jump.

Please do join me in keeping the gentle people of Swaziland in your prayers. The country with the highest incident of HIV/AIDS infection in the world (mostly because of government inaction) surely needs good and wise leadership. Not a crackdown on democratic activists.

Africa Contact press statement on the situation in Swaziland

Africa Contact (Denmark) has been actively involved in the struggle for democracy and human rights in Swaziland for over ten years by supporting the democratic movement through organisations such as Foundation for Socio-Economic Justice and Swaziland United Democratic Front. Swaziland, an absolute monarchy, is one of the most unequal and Aids-ridden societies in the world, but the ruling minority continue to squander the resources that Swaziland do have on luxuries that the majority of the Swazi population can only dream of.

The brutality of the Swazi regime, led by the autocratic King Mswati, has always been evident, as documented by numerous reports from Amnesty International. This brutality has recently escalated, however, to include a desperate hunt for anything or anyone carrying the name of Pudemo or Swayoco, Swaziland’s leading democratic party and its youth league. The latest example of this brutality is the death in detention of Pudemo activist Sipho Jele. Sipho Jele was in good health when arrested and detained on 1 May for wearing a Pudemo t-shirt but was found dead in his cell the next day. The police claimed that he had committed suicide but Jele’s aunt, a former nurse who saw the body the next day, insists that his face was bruised and battered and that any claims of suicide are manifestly and evidently untrue. Jele’s torture and death at the hands of Swaziland’s police forces is unfortunately by no means the first time such torture and deaths in detention in Swazi prisons have occurred, and we are worried that the student leader, Pius Vilakati, who was at Jele’s funeral but has not been seen since, could be the next victim of the Swazi regime if the international society does not act quickly by putting pressure on the Swazi regime.

The torture and deaths in detention of pro-democracy activists are chillingly reminiscent of similar occurrences during in apartheid South Africa, where deaths in detention were also routinely claimed to have been self-inflicted, and the response from the international community of governments, civil society movements and NGOs should therefore be equally vigorous in demanding observance of the rule of law and democratisation in Swaziland.

The witch-hunt of members of the democracy movement is not necessarily an act of strength, however much it must seem so for those who bear the brunt of the brutality of the Swazi regime, but an example of the desperation of the regime. We should therefore be encouraged by this as an indication that the Swazi regime is feeling the pressure that the democratic movement is putting on it. We should also be encouraged by the fact that the South African Trade Union federation, COSATU, and many other unions and organisations are calling for international solidarity with the democracy movement in Swaziland together with Africa Contact, as well as for a campaign of global mobilisation and isolation of the Swazi regime.

Although the can of worms that is the Swazi autocratic regime will only open from within, all organisations, governments and individuals who claim to uphold the ideals of democracy, human rights and the rule of law throughout the world must speak up and act to put pressure on the Swazi regime. As the example of South Africa’s liberation shows, it is only through both internal and external pressure that autocratic regimes can be toppled.

Because of the urgency of the situation in Swaziland, Africa Contact has sent letters to the South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation and Delegation of the European Union to the Kingdom of Swaziland in Mbabane, Swaziland and Lesotho, respectively, urging them to put pressure on the Swazi regime to desist from further human rights violations and start a process of democratization.

Contact Morten Nielsen for further information at morten@afrika.dk or phone +45 35 35 92 32 or +45 25 39 65 57

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...