When early this month PUDEMO President Mlungisi Makhanya appeared on South African television criticising the Swazi monarch many were awoken to a new fearless voice on Swaziland’s long journey to constitutional multi-party democracy.
A relatively unknown young man had suddenly come out of nowhere to embody all the anger, disappointment and utter disgust at the king’s reckless spending and profligate lifestyle.
Swazis watched in admiration an uncompromising Makhanya take no prisoners as he called for revolution in the country. Granted, to say he is unknown would not be entirely truthful given that he assumed leadership of PUDEMO well over two years ago and this was widely reported in the local press.
However, to a majority of Swazis Makhanya is still a new comer in the body politics of the country. His interview with the SABC, and subsequently Newz Afrika, both South African channels, were shared widely on social media while comments on YouTube were flattering if not affirming of his leadership.
Given such reception it would not be an exaggeration to suggest many had assumed long time PUDEMO President Mario Masuku was still the leader of the party. Because political parties are banned and the media does not shine much light on the inner workings of political parties, worse still those proscribed like PUDEMO, we never get to know much about how parties operate or the profile of their leaders.
For Makhanya, the excitement seemed to be driven more than just what he stands for. Women in particular had found a Swazi version of Economic Freedom Fighters’ Mbuyiseni Nldozi and his ‘bae’ status. To others, however, he came across as a leader who combines wit, clarity, gift of the gab and grit. To ladies, however, to use a phrase popular on twitter, he was ‘easy on the eye’.
Perhaps, it played to his advantage that he is young, hence many Swazis could identify with him. But ‘thirsting’ women must stay advised, Makhanya is a happily married man, not a ‘snack’ as some have started to describe him.
But who is this Mlungisi Makhanya? Well, if you suddenly gotten interested in politics recently then he is a political upstart thrust into limelight by the extensive media coverage he has received from South Africa.
Some people rushed to his social media pages to see if they can have a peek into his life. Disappointingly, Makhanya is not social media savvy and his personal facebook says little about him, at least politically.
In a country where the media is entirely owned by the state, social media has become an alternative platform where people challenge power, share censored news and build political consciousness.
That Makhanya has very little social media footprint does not auger well. He has a facebook account that is not active and hardly uses Twitter and Instagram. It is difficult to understand how then he hopes to communicate his political message or how well wishers can reach him if they want to join his movement.
In fact, one enduring criticism of his leadership style has been how it has not maximized social media to galvanise support for democracy in Swaziland. Makhanya seems to be social media shy and for a person of his age this is surprising.
Makhanya is as much a Swazi as he is a legitimate South African. His parents are both from Swaziland and South Africa, Mpumalanga specifically. However, he grew up in the country and attended school at St Francis High School before pursuing his tertiary education at present day University of Johannesburg.
He cut his political teeth in the now defunct Swaziland Association of Students (SAS) where he led in various capacities. What many may not be aware of is that in 1998 when there was a bombing of the Deputy Prime Minister’s office Makhanya was one of the many activists sought by police as part of a political crackdown on members of the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO).
He was forced to flee the country to South Africa before returning to continue his activism after a few months. In the following years, he would be a regular visitor at the country’s jails for one political transgression or the other.
At the dawn of the new millennium he moved to South Africa where he engaged in business that transformed his life substantially. His business success has allowed him to continue his activism without worrying about jobs and financial security.
In the ensuing years he would rise from SWAYOCO to PUDEMO leadership starting of as head of Political Education then Secretary General before becoming the President two years ago.
It is difficult to judge what exactly Makhanya brings to the political life of both Swaziland and PUDEMO. What is without a doubt though is that he inherited a limping party still struggling to recover from the devastating effects of the Terrorism Act.
In the last ten years PUDEMO has seen its finest cadres exiled in South Africa or others increasingly operating from deep underground owing to the Anti Terrorism Act. But Makhanya can at least bank on the wealth of experience gained from his time as Secretary of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) in the Tshwane region to help him build PUDEMO back into a formidable organisation.
His time in the South Africa exposed him to the political life and the machinations of leading a truly mass movement like the ANC. It also allowed him to build networks that could come handy for PUDEMO and its solidarity initiatives.
It also well known that the EFF’s Deputy President Floyd Shivambu and Makhanya are long time acquaintances while countless other leaders of the ANC are his personal friends.
While this may be useful in building networks for his party but if not properly managed it will continue to entrench the view that PUDEMO tries too much to be ANC lite. At worse, others could argue that it will affirm the misconception that the Swazi struggle tries to mimic South African politics in every shape and form.
The fact that Makhanya regularly dresses in ANC alliance regalia when addressing public gatherings does him little favours. The need for PUDEMO to cultivate a distinct and truly Swazi identity has become more urgent now than ever.
This could mean transforming the entire political culture of PUDEMO and the mass movement in general so that the Swazi struggle can resonate with Swazis in their deep cultural and traditional leanings.
In truth, Swaziland is influenced by South Africa in every part of our economic, social, religious, and cultural life. It would therefore be disingenuous to then expect the country not to be influenced by South Africa politically. However, at a time when Swazis are increasingly getting more politically conscious then they need to feel embraced by the leading movement not alienated.
Perhaps, the biggest advantage Makhanya has is the financial independence his businesses gives him. While many had come to accept PUDEMO as a financially challenged organization but with Makhanya at the helm he has already transformed the lenses through which the party is viewed.
Already he has shown he is willing to pump substantial amount of his personal money to the course he believes in. When he was arrested for Terrorism a few years ago (after being caught wearing a PUDEMO T shirt) he reportedly spent way close to half a million of his personal finances to hire senior South African advocates to challenge the constitutionality of the Act.
When police demolished houses at Nokwane in 2014 Makhanya was seen assisting families with supplies, suggesting he was willing to put his money where his mouth is. On countless other instances Makhanya has forked money to support many of his comrades both in Swaziland and South Africa.
His wealth has allowed him to challenge the government without worrying about how to provide for his family. However, leading a socialist leaning party like PUDEMO, he must be careful not be seen as dispensing patronage and creating fawning stooges around him eager to eat from the crumbs that fall from his table. In a country where grinding poverty defines people’s existence such degeneration is a real threat.
Equally, the jury is still out whether Makhanya’s political activism will continue when it starts to compromise his business interests. It may very well be to his advantage though that most of his businesses are in South Africa and therefore out of rich of the Swazi government.
To Makhanya’s credit though, he had life going well for him in South Africa. He had higher prospects of climbing the political ladder in that country. He could have chosen to focus on his personal growth instead he chose the thankless job of political activism.
Once decided he would contribute to the political cause of Swazis he relocated to the country, built himself properties and ingrained himself very well with his community at Sikhuphe.
He also accepted a senior leadership role in his church. In fact, Makhanya is the main funder of his church and on important occasions avails his many vehicles for the use of the church. To those who have seen this empathetic side of him, the message of PUDEMO tend to then hit differently.
The fact that he has an amenable and down to earth personality means he has won himself more friends than enemies within and outside of PUDEMO. However, caution must be exercise in overly glorifying his persona because it masks a man who has not proven he is capable of getting his hands dirty in building PUDEMO as a true mass movement.
His time as political educator and Secretary General were at best luke warm and at worse a disaster. Fast ward to 2019 and Makhanya has a chance to re-invent himself.
He has already introduced himself so fiercely to a nation hungry for a new messiah. A lot of expectation is now placed on his shoulders. Many people were rightly inspired by him. There is now pressure to prove he is not just a bubble gum leader who promises much but delivers little.
If South Africa has Julius Malema, Uganda has Bobi Wine, Zimbabwe Nelson Chamisa why can’t Swaziland count on Makhanya to rekindle a sterile struggle? Time will tell though.
Zakhele is a Master of Journalism students at Wits University and also a member of SWAYOCO in Johannesburg.