Sipho Shongwe and the murder of Victor Gamedze

In the Wretched of the Earth (1961), Frantz Fanon famously acknowledged that though gangs were often organisations of ‘thieves, scoundrels and reprobates’, when the gangster’s violence was directed against colonial authority, it became imbued with popular legitimacy.

I start this article by quoting Fanon because in my mind I think perhaps he is the lense through which the progressive movement looks at the controversial trial involving businessman Sipho Shongwe.

Mine is to caution that the analysis of the ongoing State versus Sipho Shongwe trial must rise above narrowingly  characterising the issue as merely a case of malicious prosecution against an innocent man.

In the main, it is just another criminal matter. However, the big concern is how the progressive movement has reacted to the events unfolding at the High Court of Swaziland.

Businessmen Sipho Shongwe consulting with his lawyers during his trial.

Amidst the revelations at the ongoing State Capture Commission of Inquiry in neighbouring South Africa, which has caused untold damage to the ruling party, the progressive forces in Swaziland need to carefully contextualize the struggle in relation to criminal elements and corrupt business people in society.

I argue that neither effectively advance the struggle for liberation. The narrative of a malicious prosecution in Shongwe’s trial has unfortunately been fuelled by some elements in the progressive camp who elevated a criminal trial involving two businessmen both driven by power, wealth accumulation, and the need to retain proximity to the King into a political matter.

This criminal case has clearly demonstrated the moral conflict engulfing the progressive camp and sparked a debate within the underground middle class support base of the liberation movement in the country.

Political dissent in Swaziland, which has historically been led by the movement, is at risk of being usurped by underworld figures who ordinarily should be characterised as nothing more than social bandits.

In Swaziland, when criminals act against powerful personalities associated with the state, and or harm the interests of the state, the progressive forces naturally ignore their transgressions.

In fact, they consider them heroes even as they may not necessarily align with the political ideology advanced by the progressive forces.

This misinterpretation of intent is precisely the manner in which the infamous cocaine drug lord Pablo Escobar gained access to political power in Colombia in the early 80s. He rode on the back of an alternative liberal ticket and subsequently got elected into parliament.

Consequently, there is then a real danger that even the vanguard of the revolutionary movement will find itself involuntarily forming an unholy alliance with the underworld and by doing so fortuitously isolate many law-abiding citizens that believe in a corruption free Swaziland.

The politics of patronage in our country imply that most opportunistic business people recognise that the quickest route to wealth is being close to the King and royalty. They have no ideological grounding of their own.

It has become a competition to see who can be the closest to power. Shongwe, unfortunately, is no exception. It is my contention, therefore, that the progressive movement as a whole has no right to choose sides in a matter that has no bearing on the ultimate objective of liberating the country.

If anything, the progressive movement has to effectively manage the often-overlapping objectives of transforming the political landscape in the country and the need to adhere to strict moral and ethical standards.

The High Court of Swaziland where the trial is currently being held.

Randomly supporting and embracing anybody seen to be actively harming the interests of the state regardless of their character, ideological posture or ethical bearings, may lead to criminal elements exploiting the struggle for their own selfish interests.

Naturally, this will spark an undesirable mass infiltration of the movement by underworld figures.  We have all seen what can happen to countries where there is a political and criminal nexus.

In “Nexus of Organized Crime and Politics in Mexico”, Stanley A. Pimentel observes that politicians in Mexico have used criminal underworld elements to gain funds for party political campaigns and personal enrichment whilst providing immunity from prosecution.

The resultant effect is a dysfunctional state that is effectively controlled by the underworld.  The danger of the liberation forces in Swaziland being subjected to such exploitative criminal elements as observed in Mexico and other perceived “Narco States” like Colombia is therefore not far-fetched an idea. 

Fortunately, history is replete with global examples of the problems that can arise if there is a political,business and criminal nexus in a democratic state. In South America, Mexico and Columbia have a long and unpleasant history with the cocaine cartels.

In Russia, the Kremlin has never really shaken off the lack of public confidence in the state due to its perceived relationship with the Oligarchs. In Africa, specifically South Africa, the EFF and its relationship with controversial businessman Adrian Mazzotti continues to undermine its political standing while the ANC is taking a beating at the Zondo Commission due to accusations that some of it’s most senior leaders facilitated state capture.

In Nigeria, the influence of the Oil majors and local barons on successive democratically elected governments over the years is a matter of public record.The progressive forces must therefore remain guarded.

They must NOT allow the struggle to be hijacked by both criminal elements and corrupt business people operating under the Tinkhundla system for convenience. Pertinently, the progressive movement needs to adopt a public and unambiguous stand in this respect to guide forces on the ground on the correct line of march.

The message needs to be clear and unambiguous that both corrupt business people that have benefited from state patronage and underworld figures that continue to accumulate wealth through illegal means under the Tikhundla system have no space in a liberated Swaziland.

The struggle cannot be achieved by any means possible, especially at the expense of morals and ethics. By not articulating a clear position on these issues, the movement may start to experience a decline in their support base through alienating some important sectors of the Swazi society.


NB: Thembeka Litchfield is a practicing Advocate at the Johannesburg bar. He writes in his personal capacity.

Thembeka Litchfield
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