My time serving with Mario Masuku

Mario Masuku is not an open book as many are fooled to believe. My personal knowledge and experience working with comrade Mario is that of a mysterious package sealed in transparent wrapping yet still difficult to see what is inside. 

Personally, I have had the rare honour of working very closely with him over a course of many years. My first encounter with comrade Mario was not a pleasant one though; it was at a meeting where, after an intense discussion, I left doubting his decisiveness on issues. He left me confused and somewhat angry, disappointed even.

By then I was the President of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the Mbabane campus of the University of Swaziland We had been engaged in a protracted class boycott for more than three weeks. We had a slew of demands that had united the study body against the government. 

We were under the political guidance of the late David Mngomezulu. Mngomezulu is not known by many in the country owing to the closed nature of our politics but as a people our stifling Tinkhundla system has robbed us one of the most committed, humble and disciplined political activists to have ever come out of PUDEMO. This is, of course, subjective and based on my own workings with him. I digress.

If I recall very well it was then Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO)  Bongani Masuku who introduced me to comrade Mario.  I was so excited because not everyone got to meet the leadership of this mythical movement called PUDEMO those days. 

Remember, in the early 90’s PUDEMO existed as a fully underground party. I remember walking with Bongani from campus to Barclays Bank where comrade Mario was working as a Human Resources manager. 

I must confess I was nervous. We climbed up the stairs and were led into his office.  The bald man behind the desk stood up to greet us with a warm smile. I extended my hand for a handshake and he gave me the popular fist bump.

After the pleasantries, he got straight to discussing our class boycott at the University. He assured us PUDEMO was in support of our demands and would avail every resource to advance their cause. But nothing prepared me for what he was to say later. 

“Comrades your issues are genuine. Your message has been heard by the authorities. Now you must end the boycott and go back to class.  Buyelani e campus comrades and find a way to end it,” he said with an authoritative voice. 

Looking back, I now understand he said this out of elderly and superior political wisdom but I felt angry, confused and disappointed. “How could he?” I muttered to myself. I left his office a defeated man. I told myself the man is crazy. The students are united and still willing to fight on. How do I tell them to demobilise?

PUDEMO rally in the late 90s

 We were winning public support, the ministry of health under then Permanent Secretary one Almon Mbingo, a very stubborn and arrogant man, was on the back foot. How do you disengage then? Little did I know that 14 years later I would be elected to serve as his deputy and later Secretary-General of his party, PUDEMO. 

The early impressions of a cowardly leader would be replaced by a foresighted and courageous leader who sees beyond where we can see.  Over the course of my activism from my time as a student leader right up until I served in the highest office of PUDEMO, I came to see Mario differently than the first ill-conceived impression of that fateful day at Barclays bank. 

President Mario is as much a brave man as he is a soft man. Against the regime, he is fiery, aggressive and unrelenting. He has the stamina and courage to stand up against the regime even if he is the minority of one. That is how strong his convictions are. So strong is his hatred of the system on numerous occasions he has risked his own life by standing strong against armed police and soldiers.

I recall a rally we organised in Lavumisa in 1996 when police fired teargas even into people’s homes. When all of us were running for cover Mario just stood there in those clouds of teargas. Those assigned to safeguard his safety ran away leaving him in the middle of danger. 

The same Mario that is brave and courageous at the face of enemy brutality is also soft to a point others may even call him a coward. An often-cited example of the soft side of comrade Mario is that in the last couple of years dozens of people have acted treasonously against him and his movement. Mario didn’t have the courage to expel them from the party. 

In fact, his critics often point out that such a soft approach to ill-discipline under his leadership was sometimes to the detriment of PUDEMO. Over the years we fought bitterly about this, I argued tolerating ill-discipline makes us complicit. He would argue however that expelling people would be bad publicity for PUDEMO. I had a totally opposite view. We needed to cleanse PUDEMO of bad elements who had begun to give us a bad name.

I recall there was a time when longtime activist comrade Mpandlana Shongwe was suspended from PUDEMO for ill-discipline. However, Mario pardoned him when many within and outside PUDEMO felt Shongwe’s conduct was wrong. 

In retrospect, comrade Mario was proven right by history. We could not throw our own to the vultures and Mphandlana was to shed off the rough edges and become the fearless activist the country has seen. Another example is when as a leadership collective we took the decision to expel a group of 16 activists that had invaded our national Congress and assaulted people. Comrade Mario felt an expulsion was too harsh a sentence. 

We subsequently suspended our then former Secretary-General S’phasha Dlamini and expelled the leadership that subsequently formed the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS). Comrade Mario was not happy with the decision but he allowed himself to be the face of criticism for the decision even as he personally was against it.

One of the challenges we also faced as leadership was how to raise financial resources for the movement. Comrade Mario was not willing to put money at the heart of our political motivation as a party. His ethical standards could not allow him to be seen to be chasing by money given its attendant problem of causing divisions and accusations of embezzlement. 

He utterly refused to use his name, which had become a ‘brand’ (to use a corporate lingo) to raise funds. This frustrated me a lot. I lost that battle, he just wouldn’t do it. All these are traits of a man with incorruptible ethical standards who sacrificed himself even when he knew his name could have been easy to use to source financial support for his course and his family. This may not have been to the best interest of the movement but I understand where he came from.

Mario led with dedication. He is unequalled with his exemplary leadership and sacrifice. He is the epitome of a national hero. A patriot and humble servant. Many confused his love and humility for weakness. He was able to rally a diverse assembly of influential people around him. 

The late PUDEMO Deputy President Dr Gabriel Mkhumane. It was Mkhumane’s death that the writer suggests ‘killed’ Mario from within

He is able to win the fiercest enemy to his corner. Even though humble he was no pushover. He does not bend his principles for political expediency. In all my time working with President Mario the only time I can say I saw him defeated and broken was in April 2008 at the funeral of our then Deputy President Dr Gabriel Mkhumane. 

After countless arrests and humiliation by the regime, his spirit was still strong but the death of Mkhumane seemed to have hurt him deeply. On that day he was alone yet among us. He was a man defeated, broken even.  One day the people of Swaziland shall give him the due recognition he deserves. 

When we worked with POPCRU to honour him with the union’s Gregory Rockman award only but recently, the highest honour the union can bestow to anyone, we were doing a deserved recognition to an African hero who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Julius  Nyerere, Samora Machel and other African greats. 

This award is so prestigious that it has in the past been given to former President of Zambia Dr Kenneth Kaunda.  May Masuku’s spirit inspire us all to fight to see a free and democratic Swaziland in his lifetime.  That is the greatest present we can give him.

Skhumbuzo Phakathi is former Deputy President of PUDEMO and now International Secretary for Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union(POPCRU). He contributes as part of our Mario Masuku supplement. He writes in his personal Capacity

Sikhumbuzo Phakathi

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