‘UNISWA was not and still is not a University but a College.’

Many people have known your work but very few seem to recall your connection to Swaziland. I know, for example, that you taught journalism for years at the then University of Swaziland and tried to introduce a degree program and all the challenges that came with that. Take us back a bit, what were the challenges working at the University in Swaziland and improving the academic content of the journalism department specifically?

I was the founding head of the department of Journalism and Mass Communications. I had been the acting head of the English Language and Literature Department, which included a journalism diploma programme. We de-linked JMC from English and created a stand-alone department within the Humanities Faculty. By the time I left we had created the Bachelor degree programme in JMC but it had not been introduced. It took several more years before this happened – and by that time I had left the university.

The challenges were many. UNISWA had (and still has) a problem with capacity. That means taken as a whole the staff (administration and academic) have little experience working outside of Swaziland. Many of the lecturers, for instance, went to school in Swaziland and then studied at UNISWA. This meant they had no experience or knowledge or how things might be done differently. Many of the academics had low-level academic qualifications. Of course, there were / are individuals who had more experience, but they are not allowed to show initiative and so are unable to make changes.

I left at the end of my fixed-term contract because I could see that even if I worked for another 10 years at UNISWA, nothing would change.

The students were also a challenge. There was a problem of the English language. University students had poor fluency in both written and oral English and the students’ lack of competency in the English language was the biggest challenge at UNISWA.

At UNISWA, as well as a lack of language skills I found there were a number of characteristics of journalism students that make educating them as journalists difficult. Generally, they had poor reporting and interviewing skills, a low commitment to their studies, next to no knowledge of Swaziland outside of their immediate environment and slight knowledge of the world beyond the kingdom’s borders.

They did not read for enjoyment (and only reluctantly for their studies) and would only undertake class work if it lead to academic credit. This last point made it especially difficult to motivate students to practice to improve their journalistic skills.

Especially problematic for journalism students was that they had next to no exposure to a range and variety of magazines, newspapers, television and radio. This was in part due to the small size of the Swazi media industry, but it also reflected their reluctance even to engage with media that was available within Swaziland. 

You obviously were teaching journalism in a country where the media space is almost exclusively owned and controlled by the king/government. Did this present specific challenges as a lecturer and how were you able to overcome them?

I come from a background of human rights and I was very well aware of the situation in Swaziland before I arrived. In many countries with similar human rights issues to Swaziland the universities are centres of resistance to the undemocratic regimes. UNISWA was not like that, except for one or two individuals.

The political situation might have been challenging but I took the personal decision to advocate for human rights and media freedom etc. I was well into my forties when I joined UNISWA and had a long career in universities and journalism behind me. I considered that the worst they could do to me was expel me from the country. If they did that it would make little difference to me personally. I had a home in England and I could get another job.

As it happened I left when my contract expired. Contrary to reports from my enemies I was not sacked, nor did UNISWA refuse to renew my contract. I gave ample notice of my intention to leave and the Administration asked me to reconsider and to stay. However, I knew (as I say in Q1) that staying would achieve very little.

During your time in Swaziland the administration of the University itself came to resemble the administration of the country in more ways than one. Was this not stifling enough as academics and what were the problems of teaching in an institution mirrored in the same manner as the state is ran?

The most obvious problem at UNISWA is that it is ‘micro-managed’ – that means no individual can take initiative and everything one does is checked and double checked. There is a blame culture and people protect their own position, right up to the Vice-Chancellor. This means it is safer to leave things as they are. One example from my time was after students took their examinations every single mark given for students’ work by a lecturer was checked and agreed (or not) by an external examiner from a university outside UNISWA.  Then – even though it had already taken about a week for the external examiners to do their work – every single mark was checked once again by the university Senate.

The result of that is dispiriting for lecturers. It shows the Administration doesn’t trust them to do even the most basic of their work. It is just one aspect of the lecturer’s work. Multiply that by all the other work the lecturer does you can see that it just grinds them down. Why bother to show initiative?

The UNISWA Administration were poor communicators (to students and staff). They preferred to place paid adverts in the local papers telling what was going on and what decisions they had taken rather than actually telling people (through a meeting, for example). This was particular the case during the many times students boycotted classes in protest.

Do you feel there is enough intellectual rigour at the University of Swaziland or academics have cowered into silence and no longer use the academic space to challenge reactionary policies of the government? What can academics do to expand the frontiers of knowledge using the power of institutional autonomy?

The obvious problem at UNISWA in my time (and it hasn’t changed much since) is that most of the programmes taught to students are at the diploma level. There were few bachelor degrees, and I can’t remember any graduate masters degrees being taught. There were definitely no Ph.D doctoral programmes.

What that means is that UNISWA was not (still is not) a UNIVERSITY. In other countries it would be called a technical college (or tertiary college). Most of the academic staff themselves have relatively low-level academic qualifications and are not themselves trained in high-level research, for example. Perhaps, UNISWA could tell us how many lecturers have Ph.D doctorates. I don’t know that academics were ‘cowered’ into silence. I think they were mostly unaware of what university academics were supposed to do.

For things to improve requires a root-and-branch change at the university. It needs an Administration that recognizes it has a problem and then it needs a plan to improve the quality of the staff. That’s not going to happen.

You make an interesting observation that in other countries the University would be some kind of a college. Would you mind expanding on this and give us your take on the infrastructure capacity of the university to meet global University standards, the quality of the course and importantly how the lack of PhD courses hampers the University academic standing.

We must remember that Swaziland is a developing country with particular needs and the university and schools and colleges more generally should support these needs. This means teaching around agriculture, science, engineering and technology. At UNISWA so many students are on law or commerce programmes. That is an irony because Swaziland has a tiny formal economy and there is little or no ‘rule of law’ in the kingdom.

 I won’t give my personal opinion on the problem because a publication from the World Bank written by Mmantsetsa Marope called The Education System in Swaziland, analyses the situation so well. It was published in 2010 but nothing like it has been published since and it is still relevant to the situation today in Swaziland. The report revealed that UNISWA was placed 7,321st among all universities in the world (and 84th among universities in Africa) in the Webometrics Ranking of World Universities. This is based on the amount of research published by academics at the university.

The World Bank published report stated that UNISWA’s core mandate is generally accepted by the university and government as producing people with knowledge and skills to benefit the national economy.

‘In reality this purpose seems to have progressively received less attention as the focus seems to have shifted to providing young Swazis university qualifications regardless of their relevance to the economy and to overall national development,’ the report concluded.

The report said UNISWA produced its own strategic plans to show where it saw its priorities, but the link between these plans and national development ‘is at best obscure’. There was no firm connection between ‘the national development agenda and university study, research and community development programs’.

The management of the university was out of touch with the needs of the kingdom, the World Bank stated. UNISWA has King Mswati as its Chancellor and he directly appoints the chair of the university council. The council governs the university and oversees its administration, is dominated by people from the public service and has very limited representation of organisations and industries that could be expected to employ the university’s graduates.

The appointment of council members was not necessarily ‘merit-based’. ‘As such it lacked balance between expertise and experience of the members and the most important sectors of the economy,’ the World Bank published report stated.

Courses offered at the university were limited to undergraduate levels of study with less than 1 percent of students in graduate programs (in 2007) except for those in the post-graduate certificates in education.

‘Therefore, UNISWA does not produce the level of knowledge workers who could spearhead research and who could foster research and development partnerships with industry,’ the report stated.

UNISWA was mainly a ‘teaching university’ that did not do much for producing graduates with ‘high-level research and analytical skills’.

UNISWA also excluded children who were poor and from rural areas and because of this could be ‘reproducing social inequalities and cementing the current social class structure.

‘The fact that gifted children from poor families have little or no access to higher education is not just a personal loss to them and their families; it is an unaffordable wastage of the county’s potential human capital base and its associated development impact,’ the World Bank published report stated.

‘The vast majority of university students comes from rich urban areas, and relatively few from more remote rural areas. Since secondary schools in remote, rural areas tend to be considerably weaker than schools in urban areas, it is difficult even for talented children, to qualify for university education.’

In summary, UNISWA lacked relevance to the needs of the kingdom. The World Bank published report noted there ‘seems to be no formal processes for placing the university [UNISWA] at the center of the national development dialogue’. In plain English that means the university and the government don’t plan together for the kingdom’s needs.

The report also analysed what it called the education, training and skills development sector (ETSDS) (that is preschool, schools, colleges and universities). It found it was inadequate to supply people capable of working in a modern economy, especially where skills in technology and innovation were needed. 

‘The current ETSDS is not sufficient to support national development aspirations and goals, accelerated and shared growth, and global competitiveness,’ the report stated. Among the key weaknesses in the education sector are low attendance at schools and colleges, inequalities of access and inefficient use of resources.

The report went on, ‘Access is limited across all levels of the ETSDS. Current levels of access are inadequate to supply the right threshold and mix of skills required to meet national and regional labor market demands, to support accelerated and shared growth, and to make Swaziland globally competitive. Access is particularly low from the secondary level upwards, the very levels which are proven to be essential for the supply of knowledge workers required’

While at the University it was always rocked by student protests. Did you feel those protests achieved anything and if not why?

Clearly, nothing has changed or there would be no need for continued protests. Students protest about the same thing year after year: allowances and resources. Once the allowances are paid the protests stop: until the next semester. I have never seen any student-led campaign calling for an overhaul of the way the university is organised so that it can teach them properly. Perhaps that tells us something about the mentality of the students: they are only concerned with their own short-term interests.

One of the successes of the Swazi Media blog is not so much that it provided a digital archive for the happenings in the country in the last ten or more years but that it inspired a lot of online activism that surfaced long suppressed voices. However, those blogs and internet presence seem to have disappeared. What do you think accounts for this dearth of internet presence of alternative voices in Swaziland?

There are many webpages and blogs about Swaziland and there are also lots of Facebook pages. In my opinion the issue with many is that they are very ‘emotional’ – they will, for example, sound off against the King or whatever, but contain very few facts. This means that readers LEARN very little from reading these posts. What Swazi Media Commentary does is to give information (and commentary based on that information) in support of human rights in Swaziland.

You have worked in different countries. Can you share what is the one thing that you found distinctly different about Swaziland with regards how the University is managed and importantly the content taught?

I wrote above (Q4) about the issues with UNISWA. Of course, there are other universities across the world (especially the developing world) which face similar issues of capacity. UNISWA might not be unique in this but the fact that it has the absolute monarch as its Chancellor demonstrates that it is part of the political establishment and will not challenge the power structure in the kingdom

Your blog is read extensively and is used a source of news and information on Swaziland. Is there a particular style that you use in your articles that ensures that even a first time reader about Swaziland understand what is happening in the kingdom or they need to read back to a lot of your previous posts to get a picture of the happenings in the kingdom?

Swazi children are among the most vulnerable on Earth and more than 200 000 of them are orphans. 

I always assume the reader is not an expert and even if they read the blog often they will not remember details of what has been written before. I often repeat information already published in previous posts.

Other tips:

Keep the writing simple. Short sentences. Lots of space on the page.

Base commentary on information / facts. There is no value in simply abusing the King for taking resources from the poor: demonstrate how he does it. Remind people constantly that he wears a watch worth US$1.5 million, a suit beaded with diamonds, he has two private jets, 13 palaces, fleets of BMW and Rolls-Royce cars. He and his family spend millions on lavish foreign trips. Then talk about the seven in ten of his people who live in abject poverty, the children who have died because of lack of cheap medicines (e.g. for diarrhoea.) Make the connections between the king’s wealth and the people’s poverty.

Repetition. Always refer to Swaziland as a ‘kingdom’, not a country or nation. The word ‘kingdom’ suggests it is run by a monarch and is not a democracy. Repetition. As much as possible refer to King Mswati III as, ‘an absolute monarch’ or ‘sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch’. That phrase shows Swaziland is not a democracy.

Use ‘hot links’ within posts to direct the reader to the source of the information so if they wish they can read more.

Give two or three ‘See alsos’ at the end, which are links to other posts on the same or similar topic – these can give context.

Have you ever been threatened in any way for the work you do? I ask this because in the past government has accused you of spreading propaganda?

When I was in Swaziland I had a long-standing invitation from the US Embassy that should I be out and about (driving on the highway, for instance) and feel that I was being followed or in some way in danger, I should drive immediately to the US compound for sanctuary. (I am a UK citizen, but the UK did not have an embassy or such representation in Swaziland). I get a lot of abuse online. I don’t share information about my personal life to make it more difficult for enemies to keep tabs on me.

You have watched from a safe distance this battle between the pro-democracy movement and the government rage on for years. Most observers are generally harsh on the pro- democracy movement for not being effective enough to push the government to change. What most commentators miss is that Swaziland is a small country and you cannot expect thousands of Swazis in the streets like you normally see in countries with bigger populations. And the spatial distribution of Swazis is such that most are in rural areas and very difficult to mobilise into joining protests. This coupled with the fact that the state has a tight control of the society it means it will be a long while before we see the Egypt uprising type of numbers on the streets. Given this, what do you think has been the weaknesses of the pro-democracy government both internally and internationally?

Swaziland is a feudal state. That means that the King has power over his subjects day-to-day lives. He does this through chiefs who have power to allocate land, jobs and local resources. Chiefs can also literally decide life-and-death as they are usually involved in deciding who gets international food aid. If a person steps out of line he / she and their family face ruin, exile and possible starvation. Many schools and churches also support the King and will tell people he is sent by God. And who would want to fight the will of God?

Pro-democracy groups in Swaziland are banned under the Suppression of Terrorism Act and all political parties are banned from taking part in the national election. This makes it difficult to organize. If parties were allowed people could more easily get together to discuss the situation in Swaziland, to identify what needs to change and to put forward a programme on how to make these changes. Without this ability to organize there is little chance of developing and testing ideas. We see this all the time in Swaziland.

A least two things have to happen. People have to understand their position and why they are poor (Swaziland is considered a ‘middle-income’ country and poverty is driven by the fact that wealth is not distributed) and they have to find ways to change that situation.

Second, political parties must be un-banned. Then the parties can organize properly and attract the brightest people who can build their capacities through organization. People should be allowed to elect parties based on their economic, education, social etc. programmes. The party that gets most support should form the government. The party (parties) that did not should form a ‘shadow government’ that would continually monitor the government and hold it to account. It would be waiting in the wings to form the next government if the people so decide at the next election.

The Swazi state is very repressive than it is officially acknowledged. Most of activists do not get media coverage because the local press is tightly controlled and their stories are not juicy enough for South African press. South African media prefers to report things that relate to the king. How can alternative media be developed so Swazis can tell their own stories and build a movement for change?

The best ‘alternative media’ is word of mouth. Tell one another what’s going on. Exchange experiences. Let people realise that they are not alone in their difficulties. Together discuss what you personally can do to change things. Build a movement from the ground up. Social media can assist later. For example, by sharing practical information – where a meeting is to be held. The place for a demonstration etc.

There is a lot of ‘feel good’ effect that social media has presented to many activists. There is a growing view that venting out on social media will change Swaziland. How can activists translate this important online presence with real on the ground organizing?

I might have answered this in my answer to question 11. Venting out on social media will NOT change a thing. But, it can be helpful in letting people know that they are not alone. I suspect  the LGBTI social media is very important for this.

Social media often times creates a false picture of the state of resistance in the country. We saw this with the April 12 uprising that became a damp squib and recently with the purchase of the king’s cars social media outrage. The media gets hooked into the social media outrage and only to be disappointed when they travel to cover the impending uprising in Swaziland. What are the pitfalls of reading too much on social media?

There are no pitfalls. Every little helps. But if you want to change the government you have to work on the ground. I suspect the big problem with the April 12 Revolution was that it existed only on social media. This was unlike the so-called Arab Spring that inspired it. There activists were working politically on the ground for a long time before and social media kept people informed of what was going on.

Was there a specific idea that sparked the idea of the blog and how has it grown over the years?

Yes, the clue is in the title: Swazi Media Commentary. The blog started as a teaching tool for my students at UNISWA. All the books on journalism in the university library (and there weren’t many) were published in the US or UK and related to the experience of doing journalism in those countries. They had very little relevance to Swaziland. I set up the blog so I could upload examples from the Swazi media of good and bad practice. Those posts are still on the blog if anyone wants to read them.

Shortly after I launched the blog I was commenting on the media coverage of a textile strike in Swaziland when it became evident to me that the blog was being read by people outside of my class and outside UNISWA. I was asked by the Swaziland Solidarity Network if I would share my posts on their email forum (this was, I think, before Facebook took off). I did this and very soon the character of the blog grew to become about human rights generally and not just media.

I cannot tell you how much it has grown because I just don’t know. The posts appear on swazimedia.blogspot.com and are then copied onto my Facebook pages. They are then shared across Facebook (I don’t know how often).

All Africa <> a news aggregator asked for permission to copy my posts. It is a global news organization, specializing in stories from Africa. My posts appear on its website and any number of websites copy posts from All Africa.

Posts have been cited in many publications from mainstream newspaper to the World Bank, the US State Dept, Human Rights Watch and Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. This is in addition to academic work in refereed journals.

My posts are also regularly included in the weekly Swaziland Newsletter distributed by email free-of-charge by Africa Contact <<SAK-Swazinewsletter-subscribe@yahoogroups.co.uk>>

I am regularly contacted by journalists working for international media seeking background information on Swaziland.

Lastly, you surely must miss a few things about our country. What are the good things you miss home about the people or even the country as a whole?   

Parts of Swaziland are very beautiful. That is the main reason tourists visit (that and the fact it is very easy to get to from South Africa which was their main destination). However, we cannot forget that it is in the most beautiful areas of Swaziland that the harshest poverty exists

Prof. Richard Rooney

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: