Members of the ANC at a rally

How Ordinary Swazis helped ANC during Apartheid

The contribution of the then Front Line States in the liberation struggle in South Africa is a complex issue because it can take place at different levels.  

Present analysis concentrates on the actions of the state as if it compasses actions of all citizens.  This tends to hide the contributions of lower levels of society behind the façade of the ideological contradictions of the leadership.  

The fact of the matter is that at times civil society acted outside the perimeters set by the state in terms of policy and existing legal frameworks. 

 It is therefore my argument that any analysis of Swaziland’s contribution to the liberation struggle in South Africa should separate the actions of the state from the actions of individual or corporate members of society. 

The purpose of this article is to provide an analysis of how members of Swazi society contributed to the struggle as a result of individual.  This is a subject that has been neglected by most scholars and other commentators.  

The article reveals that while the state was busy concerning itself with diplomatic hesitations and policy limitations, members of society concerned themselves with practical elements of the struggle. 

 At the end of the day, the ideological inclinations and contradictions of the state were largely ignored by ordinary members of Swazi society.

The analysis that follows is not concerned with scale and intensity but with presence and demonstrable belief in the virtues of the independence of African people from the clutches of colonial domination and exploitation. 

The contribution of the people of Swaziland were well expressed by  King Mswati III on the occasion of the 18th anniversary of South Africa’s National Day when he said, “The freedom we are celebrating today came through the support of many African countries and the world at large. 

We note with  satisfaction that as neighbours of the republic, our contributions to your liberation are inscribed in the annals of history for the new South Africa.”[1]

Foundation for the contribution of Swazi society to the liberation struggle

It can be argued that Swazi contribution to the liberation struggle in South Africa partly had a royalist foundation. Leading members of the Swazi royal family under the leadership of Queen Regent Labotsibeni were amongst the founding members of the SANNC (later renamed the ANC).  

Queen Labotsibeni was a card carrying member of the SANNC and later the ANC, so was her grandson, Sobhuza II in later years.  She systematically aligned Swaziland with the SANNC with the hope that the Congress would also assist Swaziland to get back its land alienated to British and Afrikaner concessionaires.[2]

Nelson Mandela pictured with Swazi lawyer and former Attorney General Douglas Lukhele. Lukhele was part of Nelson Mandela’s defence team[

The boundaries of Swaziland and South Africa are colonial constructions, so too is the composition of the individual polities.[3] Several population groups in South Africa share historical and cultural affinity with Swaziland and this played a crucial role in integrating Swazi society into the South African liberation struggle. 

This is especially the case with population groups in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga where people from Swaziland were able to walk in and out of the country without raising the suspicion of the South African security forces. In addition, the issue of similarity of language allowed the Swazi to perform certain tasks inside South Africa on behalf of the liberation movements. 

Evidence indicates that many Swazi nationals were engaged as ANC operatives between Swaziland and what is now the province of KwaZulu-Natal and between Swaziland and what was then called the Transvaal.[4]

The most important material condition that enabled Swaziland to contribute to the struggle in South Africa was that the liberation movements, especially the ANC, established a strong and visible presence in Swaziland. 

This was mainly after the ANC resorted to armed struggle and had to operate underground. Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, when the level of repression increased in South Africa, refugees poured into Swaziland. In the early 1960s a sizeable number of South Africans such as ‘Chicks’ Nkosi, James Hadebe and Mendi Msimang were in Swaziland and they were soon joined by others who came to seek refuge.

Swazi civil society and its contribution to the liberation struggle in South Africa

For historians and other scholars, sometimes historical developments are not driven by state policies but by the actions of the ‘men and women on the ground’. The challenge faced by researchers here is that the contributions of the people at large are not recorded anywhere but remain embedded in the memories of those who lived through those troubled times. It is a process of historical reconstruction, on which a great deal of research still needs to be done. 

The period after the 1976 Soweto uprisings, when a large number of young South African refugees poured into Swaziland across different parts of the border, is still vividly remembered by many local people. Most of these student refugees were affiliated to the ANC and were eager to undergo military training in ANC bases beyond Swaziland. 

The movement across the border was as good as ‘charting the maze’ because many of them had no clear idea of where they were heading.  However, as discussed in the section about the underground and various networks leading to Swaziland and Mozambique, the ANC must be commended for having constructed strong contact points and activists who could facilitate the movement of these refugees from area to area. 

However, it is highly doubtful if this would have been possible without the assistance of Swazi nationals. Mandla Dlamini related his experience:

My home is located in the southern part of Swaziland next to the border in an area called Makholweni. One day in the late afternoon I was walking next to the border when I saw two young men who were maybe five or so years older than me running to cross the border line. Once they were on the Swaziland side they started asking me where Manzini was and that they needed to get there. But it was impossible for them to get to Manzini at that time and it became obvious that they needed a place to sleep in order for them to take a bus in the morning. I introduced them to my father who allowed them to sleep in our house and the following day they took the first bus to Manzini. They told me they were involved in umzabalazo and that did not make sense to me at the time. They were however, very stingy on information about themselves, and my mother suspected them to be tsotsis.[1]

Many people came forward with similar testimonies of ANC members being helped across the border into Swaziland. This was particularly so in the southern part of the country, where refugees were either from Natal or the then Transvaal. According to these testimonies, many refugees had no money but wanted to reach places such as Nhlangano or Manzini, where they claimed to have contacts.

Another interesting experience was that of Sifiso Simelane who stayed with a South African couple in the small town of Nhlangano in the southern part of Swaziland:

I stayed with a Ngubeni family for a long time. The wife was a teacher and the husband was a health inspector. They were originally from South Africa and they had been in Swaziland for a long time. I am not sure if they belonged to any political movement. 

From 1976 I from time to time had to collect people from the bus terminal, they would sleep over and in the morning I would take them to the bus terminal and showed them a bus to Manzini. I did this for a long time and I was happy to help these people because they knew nothing about our buses.

 It was only later when I went to university that I realised that I was assisting people who were going to liberate South Africa. I was happy with myself because the Boers were very nasty to black people even if you were not South African.[2]

The contribution of Swazi communities located along the border should not be underestimated. This was especially the case in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the ANC intensified attacks on strategic establishments in South Africa. 

Swazi communities hid MK cadres in their homes until South African border patrols had cleared. It was also members of these communities that studied the day to day patrols made by South African security forces and knew exactly when it was safe to cross the border and when it was not. 

This information was given to MK members and they were helped by Swazi people to cross the border, usually by night. Samson Mabuza from southern Swaziland related his experience:

At times it is very difficult to live along the border because you witness all sorts of things from car thefts to cattle rustling. During the days of umzabalazo most of us were involved in helping MK members to cross the border into South Africa. 

However, they never told us where they were going and what they were going to do there. I am sure they also gave us false names and surnames. They would come to this area in the evenings and we hid them in our houses while monitoring the movements of the border patrols. 

What was funny is that the border patrols were very predictable because we knew exactly when they would pass by. It was during the times when we knew that they were not coming that we told ANC members to cross. Personally, I did this more than 20 times and at no time were the ANC members caughAnother interesting testimony came from Zakhele Macu:

In the 1980s helping ANC members cross the border here was a very common thing.  It was sometimes an issue of assisting both ways because some were running away from South Africa into Swaziland. However, in the majority of cases they were moving from Swaziland into South Africa and usually at night. 

What was interesting was that our assistance was also sought by South African security people who wanted to trap the guerrillas who were infiltrating the country through this area. I am not sure if it happened, but I do not remember a time when members from this community gave them correct information. This was despite the fact that they bribed us with all kinds of foodstuffs.[3]

It must be realised that the relationship between the Swazi border communities and the ANC was not simply random assistance. – it was a consciously constructed relationship to facilitate MK movements through Swaziland into South Africa. 

This was the responsibility of the ANC’s operatives inside Swaziland. Nyanda has attested to this fact in the section about the TUM. Evidence indicates that the ANC encouraged the border communities to share information by providing them with gifts (often food) such as tinned fish and fish oil. 

The homesteads of these communities in southern and north-western Swaziland were transit points for MK members who were well supplied with security information. Commenting on how this information was gained, Solomon Nxumalo said:

It was actually easy for us to gain knowledge about the movement of South African border patrols. For most of the time this information was not collected to assist MK members but to assist us as a community because we ourselves cross the border on a daily basis.

 As for me, I was not employed but was looking after my cattle, so I would observe their movement on a daily basis including during the night. This involved studying for a whole week to catch even the slightest variation per day or per week. I am not sure what was happening but it appears that they had an established routine.  

Through daily observation we knew all their movements. This information became very handy to those members of the ANC who wanted to cross the border illegally.[4]

These information networks in Swaziland have thus far been neglected by researchers on the struggle for South African liberation, but actually formed the central point of the ANC’s conduct of its underground activities. Were it not for the wealth of information MK cadres received from Swazi rural communities along the border, some of the MK missions might not have succeeded.

Elias Masilela’s book details how his Swazi family contributed to the anti apartheid struggle

Pressure on Swazi communities living along the border, also came from the South African security branch that was constantly harassing the communities to divulge information on the movement of MK cadres across the border. The authors of this chapter were unable to establish the exact nature of relations between the security branch and Swazi border communities. 

Almost all the respondents interviewed admitted to knowledge of MK connections. Available evidence seems to suggest that the apartheid regime’s security branch did not have much success because there is no mention of MK cadres being captured while crossing the border. It appears that all the deaths of South African activists occurred inside Swaziland.

The contribution of ordinary Swazi citizens to the liberation struggle was also demonstrated by their willingness to join the ANC and become members of MK.  Some of these Swazi people left the country to go to countries such as Zambia and Tanzania to be trained for armed struggle. Others left never to come back and even today it is still not clear what happened to them. Zodwa Nyawo had this to say about her son:

In 1977 my son left home and the following day his friend came to my house to inform me that my son had joined the ANC and left with other young men from South Africa for Tanzania. 

I was not aware that he was politically minded and that he felt very strongly about the situation in South Africa. Throughout the years I remained with hope that one day he would come back home.

 However, when South Africa was liberated and all the freedom fighters came back, my son did not show up. Up to now I am not sure whether he died or he is still alive. If he died, I am happy that the cause he died for was successful and South Africa is a free country today.[5]

The testimonies of some respondents show that a prominent role was played by Swazis who became couriers into South Africa in the service of the ANC. It was generally believed that the Swazi would be less recognisable as couriers on entry into South Africa. 

A large number of them went there to deliver messages to ANC activists in South Africa. Gordon Fakude, a former MK member stated:

Swazi citizens assisted the ANC mainly as couriers of information and money since they could enter South Africa legally. They rarely carried small arms as this would pose risks for themselves and even jeopardise their travel into South Africa. But they were very effective as information couriers and could deliver critical messages timeously, especially to the ANC people operating underground in South Africa.[6]

In a few instances these couriers delivered guns and small-scale weapons of war for missions inside South Africa, but this was very uncommon. The main destinations for the Swazi couriers were Johannesburg and Durban. A respondent who spoke on condition of anonymity said:

The experiences of some of us regarding the liberation struggle in South Africa are painful because of the involvement of our family members. This is especially the case when the contributions of our relatives are not mentioned, even in passing. In the early 1980s my daughter was killed in South Africa after she was caught by the police in that country.

 I am not exactly sure what she did but I learnt that she went under-cover as an ANC operative but was exposed and was detained by the security branch.  We never saw her again and the obvious conclusion is that she was killed. This was very painful to us as a family because she was a very bright girl and she was doing her third year at university. I just hope what she died for was worthwhile.[7]

The problem which researchers face at the moment is that it is extremely difficult to know the number of Swazi nationals who were actively involved in the struggle for liberation in South Africa. It appears that those who died in Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia, died as MK cadres and not as Swazis. 

Those who died on missions to South Africa are hardly accounted for. This uncertainty was expressed by Gordon Fakude who said, ‘I do not remember the names of the people caught in the process, but I know for certain some were caught and others were killed’. [8] 

A more organised contribution by Swazi society took a religious angle and tends to be overlooked by analysts. This is a contentious issue because much as the colonisation of Africa had a strong religious element to it, so too did the liberation of the continent. 

Swaziland Christians through their collaborative forums took it upon themselves to communicate the message of freedom to South African Christians. This was largely in appreciation of the message by Desmond Tutu that the oppressed should rid themselves of ‘the awful sense of self-hatred and self-disgust which are the ghastly consequences of oppression’.[9] 

These Christians are cautious not to express elements of black racism but emphasise the need for justice for the sake of all. They hoped that the oppressors would recognise the full import of their un-Christian acts and would realise that God sides with the oppressed.[10]

In their endeavour to contribute to the liberation of South Africa, they resolved to advocate that Christians should free themselves from the power of materialism and individualism.[11] 

They attempted to impress upon their fellow Christians in South Africa the concept of corporate personality in which an individual is related to everyone else. In order to move towards freedom, the oppressed should be aware that they need a sense of oneness. 

Preaching this concept was in recognition of the fact that in the liberation struggle, a spirit of solidarity needs to be maintained, and that a sense of social consciousness should prevail. The problem faced by a researcher on the role of the church is that there is no indication of when and how these messages were transmitted. 

Also, it is extremely difficult to assess their success. They were clearly important because these people were anchored to building spiritual strength which was bound to make a positive contribution.

On the religious front, the contributions of the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church stand out. In the post-Soweto uprising era, many young people arrived in Swaziland looking for the opportunity to gain a good education. 

They were in effect protesting against the poor standard of Bantu Education which was provided in South Africa. Many of them and also some teachers were integrated into Anglican and Roman Catholic schools such as St Christopher’s in Luyengo; St Mark’s in Mbabane; and St Michael’s in Manzini which were all Anglican schools.[12] 

A considerable number of young South Africans were also educated at Salesian and St Theresa’s, run by the Roman Catholic Church. Stanely Mabizela who was an ANC strategist and a school teacher at Salesian in Manzini, was instrumental in receiving and strategically placing MK cadres in the country.

 Among others, there was also R.B. Ndziba of the PAC, who was Mabizela’s colleague at Salesian. Father Larry MacDonald, who was the principal of Salesian at about this time, revealed that ‘the Bishop of the Catholic Church in Swaziland accommodated many refugees at his place’.[13] 

MacDonald pointed out that he was personally unaware that these refugees (who included both students and teachers) were freedom fighters. He mentioned that it only dawned on him who these people were during the funeral of Ndziba when the arena was decorated with PAC and ANC flags.[14]

Addressing the Rotary Club in Manzini in early August 1977, Bishop Mandlenkhosi Zwane of the Roman Catholic Church expressed concern at the unavailability of emergency aid for the estimated 700 refugees in the country.[15] 

While in Swaziland these students and their teachers continued to serve the cause of the South African liberation struggle in various ways. For example, some served as couriers, transporting messages to and from political activists in South Africa. Cosmo Nkonyeni who was a student at St Christopher’s in the 1960s recalled that during the school holidays he conveyed messages to ANC cadres in South Africa.[16] 

David Hynd of the Church of the Nazarene was also involved in a number of activities which sought to assist South African refugees in Swaziland. 

Furthermore, it is worth noting that there were some charitable individuals who contributed to the education of the South African youth who arrived in Swaziland as refugees. According to Cosmo Nkonyeni, Joe Mkhwanazi of the PAC personally paid the fees of many South African youths who were educated in Swaziland, regardless of their political affiliations.[17]

The liberation struggle in South Africa had many players and little is known about the details and nature of some of these contributions. What has been highlighted in the past is the general involvement of neighbouring states, without a nuanced exposure of the role of non-state actors.

It has been shown that an analysis of Swaziland’s contribution to the liberation struggle in South Africa cannot end with an assessment of the role of the state because substantial contributions were also made at the individual and community levels. 

 Ordinary Swazi living in the rural areas along the borders with South Africa were the silent drivers of this process. Thus far, their voices have not been adequately researched, but this chapter has led evidence to show that they were the source of important information, and were the strategists on when it was safe for ANC cadres to cross the border. 

They marshalled the movement of ANC cadres while at the same time spying on the South African security forces that patrolled the border. In addition they refused to divulge any information that might jeopardise the safety of ANC cadres to the regime’s officials. These are the unsung heroes of the struggle on the Swaziland side.

More research still needs to be done if we are to understand how the ordinary Swazi in the rural areas internalised the values and aspirations of the struggle. However, it is also true to say that many of them did indeed become part of the struggle operationally and emotionally, because they too had experienced colonial oppression at the hands of the British and the Afrikaners.


1.King Mswati III, Speech at the 18th Anniversary of South Africa’s National Day, May 2012, 1; Interview C. Nkosi, conducted by N. Dlamini, Matsapha, Kwaluseni, 23 September 2004; Interview, S.A. Dlamini and C. Nkonyeni conducted by N. Dlamini, Mbabane, 12 June 2013. See also Universi of Swaziland, Swaziana Section (hereafter USS), Dr Ambrose Zwane Papers, Box 1, ‘Advance to People’s Power’, Message from the NEC of the ANC, delivered by President O.R. Tambo on 8 January 1987 on the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ANC, Sechaba, February 1987, 2.ty

2 P. Bonner, Kings, Commoners and Concessionaries: the evolution of the nineteenth century Swazi (Johannesburg: Ravan press, 1983).

3 See J.S.M. Matsebula, A History of Swaziland (London: Longman, 1972).

4 J. Sithole, ‘The ANC Underground in Natal’, in SADET, The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Volume 2 (1970–1980) (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2006), 531–567.

5 Interview M. Dlamini, conducted by S. Simelane, Makhosini, 11 December, 2012.

6 Interview Sifiso Simelane, conducted by S. Simelane, 13 December, 2012.

7 Interview Z. Macu, conducted by S. Simelane, Mashobeni, 23 July, 2012.

8 Interview S. Nxumalo, conducted by S. Simelane, Nhlangano, 4 December, 2012

9 Interview Z. Nyawo, conducted by S. Simelane, Manzini, 14 December, 2012.

10 E-mail Interview with G. Fakude, conducted by S. Simelane, 6 March, 2013.

11 Interview with anonymous respondent, conducted by S. Simelane, Mbabane, 18 December, 2012.

12 E-mail interview with G. Fakude, 6 March 2013.

13 D. Tutu, ‘The Theology of Liberation in Africa’, in K. Appiah-Kubi and S. Torres (eds), African Theology en Route (New York: Orbis, 1979), 174.

14 See volumes 2, 4 and 6 of this series, which discuss the role of the church in the liberation struggle.

15 T.L.L. Dlamini, ‘The Role Swaziland Churches should Play in the Liberation of South Africa’, Journal of Black Theology in South Africa, 2, 1 (May 1988), 43–47.

16 Interview C. Nkosi, 23 September 2004; Interview A.S. Dlamini and C. Nkonyeni, 12 June 2013; Conversation with S.M. Ndlovu, Manzini, 21 June 2012.

17 Interview Father L. MacDonald, conducted by N. Dlamini, Manzini, 15 March, 2013.

18 Ibid. For a politically oriented speech at this funeral, see, USS, Dr Ambrose Zwane Papers, Box 3, 1. 63:  Dr A.P. Zwane’s address at funeral of R.B. Ndziba, Manzini Salesian High School, 18 March 1973’, Ngwane Forum, 3, 2, 1–3.

19 TOS, ‘Church Concern over Refugees’, 15 August 1977.  For the full speech, see A.P. Zwane, A Man For All People: The Message of Bishop Mandlenkhosi Zwane (London: CIIR, 1983), 87– 88.

20 Interview, S.A. Dlamini and C. Nkonyeni, 12 June 2013.

21  Ibid.

Hamilton Simelane

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