Mario Masuku; the death of a king and the rise of a revolutionary leader

In life we tend to attribute good deeds to people after they have died, but how do the dead know about how we feel and appreciate their contribution to the good of our humanity? 

This article is an antithesis to the established order of things. It acknowledges the enormous and selfless contribution of a humble, but determined man to make Swaziland a land for all that live in it.

I cherished the opportunity to contribute my recollection and experience of this man, Cde Mario Masuku, Swaziland’s most profound modern time liberation leader.

I have known Masuku since the early formation of the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) in the 1980s. Many commentators, correctly or incorrectly, locate the formation of PUDEMO in the context of the political chaos and power struggle in the royal household after the death of King Sobhuza II in 1982. 

In the previous edition of this publication comrade Mandla Hlatshwayo wrote extensively on this chaos and its implications for the future of Swaziland. The chaos, which culminated in the coronation of an illegitimate heir to the throne, was a grisly but fascinating event to watch unfold in front of your eyes.

It was a political theatre that can only be described as resembling an episode of a suicidal snake eating itself. As the chaos deepened, it became obvious that the country was going to the dogs and urgent action was required to steer Swaziland to an alternative future.

Whilst I agree with commentators that the political chaos in the mid-1980s was the spark that lit the fire and propelled PUDEMO into unchartered political journey, I also want to remind readers that the journey began well before this event. 

In 1981-1982, I was a teacher at Kukhanyeni Secondary School. I was privileged to work with a bunch of intellectuals and political activists from the University of Swaziland and Swaziland College of Technology. 

We spoke a lot about political oppression, economic mismanagement and an alternative polity to the absolute monarchy regime. King Sobhuza II was still alive at the time, and we saw him as the key architecture of the oppressive Swazi state. 

Many readers will remember the fateful day in April 12, 1973, when King Sobhuza II issued a proclamation to the nation revoking the democratic constitution, transferring political power to the monarch, outlawing political parties and declaring an indefinite state of emergency. 

This marked the death of a nation and birth of modern-day Swaziland, which was founded on political oppression, fear, brutality, and economic mismanagement.

Mario Masuku in full spirit while addressing a rally

Consequently, the royal household came to resemble a place where family members and associates would be drunk in power and insensitive about inflicting pain on others. 

This drunken orgy would become pronounced and infectious during the chaos following King Sobhuza II’s death. The chaos found strength in the political order established by the 1973 proclamation. 

A group of princes and their associates, known as Liqoqo or Supreme National Council, used the proclamation to its utmost effect. They brutally suppressed critics of the royal power struggle, including their family members who expressed discomfort with the conduct of the Supreme National Council. It was truly an episode of a snake eating itself from the inside.

The chaos continued for many years. It’s devastating implications were not limited to critics of the monarchy regime but opponents of the apartheid state in neighbouring South Africa. It flung the gates open to apartheid assassins with devastating consequences. 

Tens of anti-apartheid activists in Swaziland were murdered in cold blood as part of a joint operation between apartheid and the Swazi secret security forces. In April 1986, the chaos gave us King Mswati III whom I can only describe as a disgraced and failed leader leading a failed state into a deep abyss. 

King Mswati III is one of the most incompetent and reckless leaders I have known in my lifetime. He has presided over the worse economic and social decline in the modern history of Swaziland. Since his coronation in 1986, he has not failed to disappoint the people of Swaziland. I will write more on this in subsequent editions of this publication.

In 1982, I enrolled at the University of Swaziland where I met other political activists, including Cde Masuku, who became the founding President of PUDEMO. 

We established a loose network of activists that snowballed into what started to look like an underground rebellion movement. When the chaos deepened, we decided it was time to fight and transform the network into an organised political movement against the monarchy establishment. 

Our key goal was to overthrow the absolute monarchy regime, reinstate the democratic constitution as an interim measure and a vehicle to a democratic society. It was an ambitious journey fraught with danger, but we chose to change the cause of history than being paralysed by fear. 

We were under no illusion that this journey will be short and without risks and the need to sacrifice our lives. The success of our journey depended on cultivating strong, insightful and resilient leadership. 

We were keen to build something that will not be like a royal household where leadership is handed down on a silver plate even to those who do not deserve it. Leadership in our network had to be demonstrated and earned through trust, articulation of ideas and ability to inspire others. Above all, the ability to make decisions for the general good. These were the requirements for which PUDEMO leadership was to be cultivated, tested and natured.

As we transitioned from the network to a political movement, we established three key documents, the People’s Manifesto (our vision for Swaziland), PUDEMO Constitution, which established the leadership structure, and the People’s emblem and the flag under which we will fight and die. The making of these structures produced the first generation of PUDEMO leaders. 

There was plenty of leadership talent in the network, but Cde Masuku emerged as the preferred leader. I recall participating in lengthy and robust discussions in the network about the development of these structures, particularly the People’s Manifesto, and later the tactics for fighting the oppressive Swazi state. 

We expressed anger about the political oppression and our desire to crush and burn the absolute monarchy institution to the ground. We wanted a leader to embrace our ideals, speak on behalf of the pain and suffering of our people, and lead Swaziland to a prosperous and democratic society.

At the time, Cde Masuku was not a student but a trade unionist, a banker by profession and a family man. He was recruited into the network because of his credentials as a trade unionist and a true believer in the liberation of our people. Many of us in the network were socialist and Marxist scholars. 

We wanted to create a mass liberation movement led by the working class represented by progressive trade unions. The recruitment of Cde Masuku and others outside the student movement was an important entry point into the trade union body in Swaziland which was very conservative. 

Most importantly, our objective was to create a diverse political movement that represented the multiple identities, experiences, and backgrounds of our people. As a banker, Cde Masuku contributed invaluable knowledge and experience of the financial service sector which we used to develop and articulate our economic policy. 

He had many other attributes that qualified him as our preferred leader. I remember his sense of calm in almost all the underground meetings we held during the formation of PUDEMO. 

He rarely spoke but when he did, everyone would listen. His greatest leadership quality was active listening, the ability to synthesise ideas, negotiate and bring everyone on the same page. 

He was instrumental in striking consensus on the key documents which established the foundation of PUDEMO. Many other comrades played a key role in drafting and securing the passage of these documents.  

Mario Masuku addressing a political rally

In 1983, PUDEMO was born as the only liberation movement and the largest opposition political party in Swaziland. We elected Cde Masuku as President. He accepted the job with full knowledge of the challenges ahead. We also elected the National Executive Committee (NEC). 

As expected, many NEC members came from the University of Swaziland student body. The late Dominic Mngomezulu, a prominent figure in the student body, became the first PUDEMO Secretary-General. The university was an important recruitment and political agitation ground in the early years of the formation of PUDEMO. 

As the political chaos and royal power struggle deepened, PUDEMO used its underground structures to agitate rolling mass student protests at the university. We operated in the cover of darkness in small cells to announce the existence of PUDEMO on campus and throughout Swaziland by distributing pamphlets and painting slogans on public buildings, billboards and road signs. PUDEMO was here to stay and no amount of repression and state violence was going to stop it.

In the next 30 years, Cde Masuku would lead PUDEMO through its development phases, from an unknown underground movement in the 1980s to the largest and most influential opposition political party in Swaziland today. 

Others may have different views about PUDEMO as a successful liberation movement, but there is general agreement among political observers that the formation of PUDEMO and its subsequent rise changed Swaziland politics forever. 

Swaziland will never be the same again. Since time immemorial, the monarchy system consolidated its power and authority in cultural folklore depicting Swazi kings and the royal family as God-given rulers and untouchables. 

One of PUDEMO’s achievements under the leadership of Cde Masuku was to deconstruct this myth and expose King Mswati III as nothing but an emperor with no clothes. We built and secured the platform for the public to speak out about the concentration of power in the royal household and misuse of public resources by the royal family. 

Today we are witnesses of the mind shift and changes in Swaziland politics with many Swazis speaking out and challenging King Mswati III’s authority to abuse power and misuse public monies to maintain his lavish lifestyle. 

The recent purchase of a fleet of Rolls-Royce and luxury BMWs automobiles, which cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, is insensitive, arrogant and a spat in the face of 70% of Swazis who live below the poverty line.

Members of the Swazi Vigil in the UK holding a banner in support of Mario Masuku

Under the leadership of Cde Masuku, PUDEMO grew in popularity and was successful in exposing the injustices of the absolute monarchy regime. Our influence in Swaziland politics was most evident in the 1990s during the arrests and high treason trial of PUDEMO members. 

King Mswati III had hoped to use the trial to crush PUDEMO but he underestimated public anger against his government. Public support for PUDEMO surged during the high treason trial. The trial did not occur in isolation but can be traced to a particular event in 1990. 

The 1st of January is traditionally a day for PUDEMO National Conference. As the President, Cde Masuku chaired the conferences, which were held on public land disguised as picnics. 

On 1 January 1990, we held our annual conference at Kukhanyeni, not very far from the school where I began my political journey. It was the biggest gathering of political activists since the formation of PUDEMO. A number of activists called for direct action against the regime. 

There were also calls for PUDEMO to establish and promote a public face by articulating its vision for Swaziland to the people. Seven years after the formation of PUDEMO, we operated strictly underground with no public face. 

The Kukhanyeni conference was a turning point for the movement, its leadership, and supporters. It adopted a number of resolutions, including direct action, which propelled the movement into a new phase. Most importantly, a resolution was adopted to create a defense portfolio that was overwhelmingly supported by delegates. 

The Kukhanyeni conference did not only transform PUDEMO but also its leadership. As leader, Cde Masuku had a new role to lead PUDEMO from underground to open political confrontation with a cruel regime. We knew that many of us would be arrested, imprisoned, tortured and killed. We prepared ourselves spiritually for the difficult times ahead.

A few months after the conference, the police conducted the largest blitz against PUDEMO membership. They arrested the entire PUDEMO leadership and charged them with counts of sedition and high treason. 

I received intelligence about my pending arrest and instructions from the leadership to leave the country immediately to escape capture. I escaped to Mozambique where I began my long journey and life in exile. Cde Masuku and his colleagues languished in prison without trial for several months. 

When the case was finally brought to court in October 1990, it collapsed. However, there was no respite for PUDEMO activists as the regime used other repressive apparatuses at its disposal to suppress political dissent. 

Three weeks later, on 14 and 15 November 1990, some of those who had been implicated in the 1990 treason trial were detained under the notorious 60-Day detention without trial law. At the same time, armed police violently suppressed a peaceful student protest at the University of Swaziland leaving scores with serious injuries.

From 1990 to the turn of the 21 Century, Cde Masuku’s life would be constantly interrupted by police brutality, persecution, arrests, and imprisonment. He lost his job and employment opportunities for the rest of his life, but he did not relent. 

Under his leadership, PUDEMO grew into a powerful political force and a real threat to the monarchy regime. It seeded and natured the growth of political protests in Swaziland. PUDEMO’s immediate priority after the trial was to politicise and mobilise the trade union movement into a powerful workers’ movement. It was a successful project. 

In the 1990s, the trade union movement developed into an independent powerful force in Swaziland politics. PUDEMO’s growing influence was also evident in the formation of the largest youth political organisation in the history of Swaziland, the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO).

Combined, these forces brought pressure to bear on the king’s government. State violence was not enough to suppress the uprising. Acting on the advice of the British High Commission to Swaziland and the Commonwealth Secretariat, King Mswati III announced a constitutional review process and appointed a Constitutional Review Committee (CRC). 

However, political parties would remain banned and group submission to the review was not allowed. The review was an empty promise for political reform designed to consolidate the monarch’s grip on power. 

It created false hope that the leopard was finally changing its spots. In Karl Marx term, the so-called constitutional review was the ‘opium of the masses’. As the review progressed, the king continued to use repressive laws to suppress political dissent and his critics. 

In 2002 when the king was telling the world that he was writing a new democratic constitution, his police arrested Cde Masuku and charged him with high treason. PUDEMO was solid in its opposition to the so-called constitutional review, but there were voices within the movement which supported the process. 

This was conceivably one of the most difficult challenges in Cde Masuku’s leadership to unite PUDEMO behind its core principles. He stood firm and could not be bought with silver to compromise these principles. 

He maintained his resolve to lead PUDEMO and promote its identity as a movement “committed to the creation, protection, and promotion of a constitutional multi-party democracy” in Swaziland (quotation from the People’s Manifesto).

This is the legacy of Cde Mario Masuku, a leader of a movement that changed Swaziland politics for good. It is a short story about the rise of a revolutionary leader after the death of a king. Successive PUDEMO leaders will have big shoes to fill.

NB: Dr. Jabulani Matsebula is a founding member of PUDEMO. He is currently exiled in Australia. He contributes as part of our Mario Masuku supplement.

Jabulane Matsebula

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