Mario Masuku: the leadership we never had

When long-serving PUDEMO President retired after almost two and a half decades of leading the party he could count on one success; he transformed the vision of a political nucleus of a handful of young activists into a mass movement that spoke in voices of thousands. 

While many have come to associate Masuku as the face of PUDEMO in truth his political life precedes the formation of PUDEMO. Long before PUDEMO was born, Masuku was already fighting for the return of Swaziland into a constitutional democracy. 

He was an active member of the now-defunct Ngwane Socialist Revolutionary Party (NGWASOREP) and a staunch trade unionist in his own right. It was based on these political credentials that he was one of those leading political figures of the time consulted by a network of youthful activists about the formation of a new political movement. 

The vision was clear; transform Swaziland from an absolute monarchy into a Constitutional democracy. While trusted and well known activists were paralysed by fear given the draconian nature of the 1973 decree, for Masuku this was a welcome initiative. 

He must have told those young activists ‘thuma mina’ and right then a new political force in the history of our country was to be born. The formation of a political party was not just an ambitious program but a potentially lethal one at the time. After all, the royal family had managed to crush all forms of political dissent and rendered the entire nation politically comatose. 

The open collaboration between the Liqoqo regime and apartheid South Africa in hunting down uMkhonto Wesizwe members and their local collaborators made political activism suicidal.

The consequences of the 1973 decree had devastating effects to the psych of the nation. The late King Sobhuza had managed to transform Swaziland into a fearful nation unable to question authority. 

Mario Masuku pictured with current Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa

After all, people had seen what had happened to the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC) leaders and countless other activists who had tried to challenge King Sobhuza’s rule by decree. 

Not only were activists routinely rounded up and sent to jail under the renewable 60 days detention without trial law, but they could be tortured and at worse killed without anyone so much as raising a finger. 

The king controlled the media and had created a myth around himself and royalty. Generations were thus born believing the king was divinely ordained and could not be questioned. 

It was in such conditions that Mario Masuku and his fellow travelers would heed Franz Fanon’s call that ‘each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it.’ From then on, the history of Swaziland was to change for the better. 

We were to be introduced to a new generation of fearless activists ready and willing to sacrifice their lives for the collective good of the country. It was this generation that gave the country Mario Masuku and it was this generation that Masuku led with sterling excellence.

When Masuku decided on this thankless task of liberating Swazis from fear he was part of the Swazi middle class and with a lot to lose. He was a bank manager whose professional outlook was promising. 

When in 1992 he lost his job following pressure from the government he had become the main recognizable face of Swazi resistance. This perhaps could have allowed him the opportunity to go to the welcoming hands of a newly liberated South Africa and restart his life there. 

He had a chance to slow down on his activism and look for alternative opportunities abroad too. After all, some of those he started with had gone to further their studies abroad or ‘melted’ in the private sector to build their careers. 

However, Masuku decided he will dedicate his life to being the face of resistance in Swaziland. In the preceding years he would build PUDEMO from a small political party into a mass movement. He would traverse the continent and the world to tell the story of Swaziland. 

Suddenly the narrative changed from this country being ruled by a benevolent monarch to a ruthless spendthrift king completely indifferent to the sufferings of the people. 

Masuku became an irritating nuisance that royalty did not know how to handle. Jail had not broken him. Making him unemployed (and unemployable) had only helped to embolden him. The next strategy was to do what had proved to work for the king; recruit him to the table of royal privilege.

Over the years the monarch knew that to defang the pro-democracy movement he must recruit the spineless leaders into some miniscule government or political positions and they would quickly change tune. 

Such a tactic was tried with Masuku but  it never worked.  In countless secret meetings with the the king they did not agree on on just about everything. The king even roped him to join the Constitutional Review Committee but when they could not agree on the terms of references Masuku withdrew and prompted others to do the same.

“In our engagement with the king he completely refused to see and accept any other view that was contrary to his. It became very clear that he was not prepared to see reason and find common ground that would take Swaziland forward. Indeed, it was a time wasted,” Masuku writes on an abridged version of his autobiography. 

 Having failed to dangle the carrot on Masuku the king descended the might of state apparatus on him to humiliate and frustrate him. Added to this of course was the countless frivolous arrests meant to dampen his spirit spanning over decades.  

So long has the journey been that even those who started out sympathizing with him began to doubt if it was worth it. Some began to wish he abandon the struggle and for once ‘take care of his family like all men do’. 

But Masuku refused to let go of his convictions even as he lived from hand to mouth. A man of high ethical bearings Masuku led PUDEMO without staining his credibility with any scandal which would have delegitimised his course. One of the criticism Masuku has faced overs the years is that he had led PUDEMO for too long. Such a pedestrian analyses is devoid of truth.

What many do not care to know is that Mario led PUDEMO as President in the formative stages of the party but was replaced by Kislon Shongwe from 1993 till 1996. 

However, Masuku was to soon take the reigns as PUDEMO leader again right up to 2006 when he fell ill and was admitted at the intensive care unit of the Mbabane government hospital He asked not to be considered for future leadership position of PUDEMO. 

The first Secretary General of PUDEMO Dominic Mngomezulu standing next to Kislon Shongwe, former PUDEMO President, and former SWAYOCO President Benedict Dididza Tsabedze

However, in a subsequent elective conference of PUDEMO he was overwhelmingly endorsed as the leader and a delegation sent to persuade him to re-consider his stance, at least until his replacement was found.

From then on Masuku worked to prepare to hand over the reigns but was interrupted by arrests and the banning of PUDEMO as a terrorist organisation. 

The death of his natural successor, then his deputy, the late Dr Gabriel Mkhumane, scampered what appeared to be a seamless transition. When historians eventually write about the colossal life that is Masuku they will surely have to focus on how he unified different strands of political persuasions under one political umbrella. 

PUDEMO is still to this day a contested terrain between liberals and Marxists, between those who call for a Republic and those who call for a constitutional monarchy and importantly between radicals who want confrontational struggle and those who want passive resistance. Masuku has been the glue that has kept all these different strands under one room even as they may have contradictory political outlooks.

This, however, is not to suggest that he led a political amoeba, a party with no identity and strategy. If anything, PUDEMO’s policy is for Swaziland to have a Constitutional Monarchy. When the tide seemed to change Masuku did not fall for populist excitement and decree that they now want a Republic but kept warning that if Swazis in their wisdom are tired of the monarchy PUDEMO will never defend Kingship but embrace the new national mood. 

For this, he has amassed praise and condemnation. He also refused to allow PUDEMO to be reduced into a soft biting passive movement merely condemning Mswati in fearful whispers and language of circumlocutions. On the other end he also avoided the temptation of making PUDEMO a military movement engaged in violent action. 

Instead, he guided PUDEMO into being a militant movement unambiguous in its demand and revolutionary in its posture but peaceful in its political engagement. 

He refused to condemn those who believed in armed resistance instead blamed the obstinate monarch for driving them to the edge. When Masuku bowed out of PUDEMO two years ago he can be proud he had inspired a generation to see themselves as citizens not subjects.  It is in Masuku that we owe our bravery. 

When the tide changed against the king as more and more people began to find their voice especially against the Monarch’s profligate lifestyle and dictatorial rule, Masuku can be proud the seed he planted 36 years ago is about to bear fruits. 

Just as former Burkina Faso dictator Blaise Compaore thought he had managed to eviscerate the enduring legacy and spirit of Thomas Sankara it was Sankara’s name that was sang and chanted when the fed up Burkinabés said enough is enough and overthrew Compaore.

Very soon it will be Mario’s spirit of sacrifice, fearlessness, commitment and political clarity that will be the wind beneath the wings of Swazis as they rise to overthrow the dictatorial rule of King Mswati.

To read the full version of Mario Masuku’s autobiography click here 

NB: Manqoba Nxumalo is chairman of SIAI but writes here in his personal capacity

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Manqoba Nxumalo
I follow the principles of Jesus Christ and the example of Hugo Chavez

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