The political evolution of Sibahle Sinje: what a time to be alive.’

In 1988 Zed Books in London published a highly controversial book titled ‘Gatsha Buthelezi: chief with a double agenda’ and set in a motion a series of events that was to change the way society views the Inkatha Freedom party and its political figurehead, Buthelezi . 

The author, Jabulani Nxumalo, was an academic and researcher for the African National Congress. Coincidentally, he was also a former journalist with the Swazi Observer. Not many seem to recall that Nxumalo, who was affectionately known as Mzala within the underground structures of the ANC, worked for several years as an journalist for the king’s newspaper under a pseudo identity. 

Mzala was known for his prolific writing as much as his cutting edge ideological prose. Legend has it that he would write a paper under his name to argue a particular position only to again write a rejoinder rebutting what he wrote earlier. This was more than just a show of ideological and journalist skill but a demonstration of his probing and deeply analytical mind. 

His book on the former President of Inkatha was as much an indictment to the political life of Chief Buthelezi as it was a scholarly work of historical interpretation. For example, Nxumalo made forthright points about Buthelezi’s political past, his role in South African society, the nature of the KwaZulu administration and the methods of Inkatha Freedom Party. Also, he was highly critical of the Chief Minister of the KwaZulu bantustan’s claims to anti-apartheid credibility and to a hereditary leadership position in the Zulu nation. 

These claims were presented in an academic tradition and supported by evidence gleaned from historical, documentary and oral sources. Mzala died in 1991 with his book still ‘banned’ in South Africa after Butheleni had threatened legal action to anyone who so much as dared to publish it in South Africa.

Marwick Khumalo is a prominent member of Sibahle Sinje Political Party

There are a lot of similarities that one can pick between Inkatha Freedom Party and Swaziland’s Sibahle Sinje inspired of course by Mzala’s work. First, both political parties are reformist in nature. They both have royal leanings. They both feign some ‘moderate’ political positions and importantly they both have, to borrow from Nxumalo, a ‘double agenda’. To characterise Sive Siyinqaba in such a fashion may appear harsh especially in light of the harassment that their President, Musa Nkambule, is facing from the police but it is true. 

If Swaziland is to truly move forward then the political colours of everyone must be known  and the intentions of those who previously saw nothing wrong in the politics of this country scrutinised. For the uninitiated, Nkambule is a former Minister of Tourism, Environment and Communications as well as lecturer at the University of Swaziland. His recent persecution stems from a strongly worded statement Sibahle Sinje issued decrying the recent purchase of luxury cars by the King.

Read the statement in part: ‘Sive Siyinqaba holds the view that someone [King Mswati] is on a suicide mission; unfortunately, he wants to sink with the whole country. We think it is time we say, we would rather remain afloat than to sink with you. High volumes of hundreds of millions in foreign exchange have been siphoned from the country to be spent in countries that need them less, in the form of competitive royal trips that we witnessed this year.’

It continued, ‘Rolls Royces and BMWs, expensive as they are, are a tip of the iceberg. More than half of the armed forces, police and correctional services are stationed as royal guards in every royal residence where the national flag fly. There are more police officers providing security to the first family and serving as escorts to each of the wives and children, than there are stationed in the country’s police stations, combined.’ This statement coming from Sibahle Sinje was shocking, many of us were  on some ‘what a time to be alive.

For this the former Senator has been persecuted, beaten and threatened with High Treason charges. To even think the state would treat self proclaimed ‘defenders’ of the monarchy in such a way is shocking. How things have changed! A few years ago Sibahle would have been the one defending the king and admonishing those who are criticising the monarch. So what changed? Why is Sibahle now a nemesis of the state? Time to roll back the clock.

Sive Siyinqaba was formed in 1996 under the leadership of the then Swaziland Royal Insurance Chief Executive Zombodze Magagula while Lobamba Lomdzala Member of Parliament Marwick Khumalo was its founding Secretary General. Meanwhile, former Manzini Councilor Zibuse Simelane was its designated spokesperson. It was launched as a cultural movement on April 2, 1996 to counter the perceived anti-monarchical radicalism espoused by PUDEMO and the trade union movement, but supported the restoration of multiparty politics. 

It reconstituted itself as a political organisation on August 5, 2006, restyling itself as Sive Siyinqaba National Movement (SS), with a wide support base amongst conservatives (Mzizi 2005,. 16, 17, 19-22, 25; IRIN 2006). The objectives of the movement emphasised the importance of protecting and conserving Swazi heritage, including the institution of the monarchy, but it represented a modernising element among conservatives, in as much as it placed great value on democracy

Thousands protesting over low wages. In 1996 Sibahle Sinje threatened to fight those who were protesting against the monarchy 

The party itself had several members of parliament  in the 2003 House of Assembly and a majority of appointed members in the Senate. It fielded candidates for the primaries in 2008, several of whom made it through to stand for election to the House of Assembly. The organisation’s 2008 manifesto was the only window we could use to peek into the life of the organization and its policies for the country. 

The 2008 Manifesto was a long, complex and comprehensive document broadly liberal in outlook and, while stressing the importance of traditional institutions such as the monarchy and the chiefs, placed much emphasis on codifying their powers and responsibilities to curb abuse of power, the training of traditional leaders in the proper performance of their roles, and decentralisation of governance. 

The economic values espoused were free-market-orientated, but valued state intervention to indigenise the economy and empower local entrepreneurs as well as to attain developmental goals in healthcare, education, family planning and food security. Again here, Mzala looms large, this time asking us to substitute Sibahle for Inkatha in reading the party manifesto.

The organisation justified its existence as a protector of the institution of the monarchy against impetuous attacks just as Inkatha wanted to protect the Zulu homeland and its monarchical traditions. 

In fact, at one point the organisation tried to mobilise the traditional sections of our society to confront (read fight) the caudillos of the time, personified by the likes of Jan Sithole , Jabulani Nxumalo, Mphandlana Shongwe etc, in what would have gone down in history as a blood bath of massive proportion. 

The organisation was prepared to drab all those who wanted democracy in blood. Sibahle made it clear it would not allow any kind of putsch to the Swazi state. To get to the monarchy you had to pass through Sibahle Sinje.

Over the years though the relationship between Sibahle Sinje and the monarchy degenerated so badly. It was partly because Sibahle was considered more dangerous than most of the political parties who had nailed the colours in the mast but also because the then Prime Minister, Barnabas Dlamini, hated the party’s guts. 

He once christened them a ‘whiskey in a coke can’ and dealt with their members decisively where he had a chance.  The organisation’s case was not made any easier by the fact that its principal public face, Marwick Khumalo, was loathed by the monarchy. 

Even controversial people like businessman Walter Bennet, who had earlier on been a vocal supporter/member of the organization, became less pronounced about his membership to the party. Many of their members in Senate, House of Assembly and government dug deep into the underground understanding that any association with Sibahle was career limiting. With a vengeful Barnabas at the helm of government, everyone was not safe.

The more elaborate fear about Sibahle was in the more conservative group of the traditional aristocrats who saw their clandestine operations as more dangerous. This was made clear during one of the submissions chiefs made to the king during the debate on the enacting of the constitution captured in the documentary ‘without the king.’ In the documentary, Chief Magudvulela, who doubles as a senator, is heard warning the king about these organisations that operate clandestinely yet are close to taking over state power. 

Even Sam Mkhombe was summarily dismissed as the King’s Private Secretary as soon as word got to the powers that be that he was affiliated with Sibahle Sinje. Over the years this hostility pushed Sibahle to the periphery they even began to flirt with the progressive movement to a point of attending some of their events. But still, they had not shed their pro monarchy politics.

By 2006 they had ditched all pretenses. It was the mercurial way in which they changed from being a cultural movement to a political party that saw their not-so-cozy relationship with the government taking a turn for the worse. Not that the government had all along embraced them because in truth they were being kept under the radar. 

They shared no filial relations with the government but were united by their utter hate for progressives. It was Sibahle Sinje’s open declaration that they were now a party that scuppered their political leanings with the powers that be. When former Prime Minister Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini christened them a ‘whiskey in a coke can’ he was showing them that  he could see beyond the facade of a ‘cultural movement’ they were flouting as a smokescreen.

Barnabas could not risk flirting with a grouping that had hung their colours in the mast and brazenly declared themselves a political party much against the country’s official policy. The identity politics of Sibahle would over time turn full circle. With the relations between the government not improving, they soon realised it was cold outside the ruling royal bloc. 

Today they meekly argue that it was a measure of their influence that they were able to stop the buying of the king’s Jet some few years back. That’s their tag line when seeking acceptance as historic opposition to the government. It’s their struggle credential, if you may. But again they let a golden chance pass them when they passed a constitution that bans political parties only for them to bitch about the need for recognition of political parties today.

The organisation had all along used parliament as a platform for their programs but as soon as their members either lost elections or were not appointed by the king their influence shrunk considerably. Even those who would have otherwise openly supported them only did so in fearful whispers. The Marwick saga did not make things any better for them.

In the last couple of years the organisation has been barking in the periphery with all their members either silenced by pending corrupt charges or others joining the Tinkhundla bandwagon (Gideon Dlamini et al). They ultimately found themselves in a political cul de sac—do they support a government that is openly hostile to them or they join their enemies in the progressive camp?

Their exclusion from the political centre stage may have resulted in political nostalgia for those like Walter Bennet whose influence has withered like morning dew. He is only kept politically alive by occasional donation of soups and candles during schools speech and prize giving days. Even their strategy to infiltrate the government and slowly remove the carpet from their feet proved to be a monumental failure.

When word broke out that the Commonwealth was facilitating political negotiations between the king and political parties Sibahle issued a statement about the envisaged meeting between the king and civil society. Reads the statement in full; “Let us state here and now that the much talked about meeting organised by Dr Muluzi of Malawi under the Commonwealth is not only for PUDEMO but all civic organisations and political parties in the country who advocate for multiparty democracy. We have no doubts on the position of most Swazis with regards the issue of political parties in Swaziland, and their (sic) position too with regards the institution of the Monarch. We all want change, and the change we want as Swazis is where we will see the leader of this great nation taking us through these changes as we believe that when His Majesty leads his people and the Swazis support him, nothing will go wrong as we will all go through transformation of this nation in peace and still maintain our identity as Swazis. Let’s support all initiatives that will help this nation going forward. That being said, we will not support certain individuals going to meet our King with dirty hands.

Short, brief and straight to the point!!

To sum up in a few words Sibahle Sinje was saying it wants change but “will not support certain individuals going to meet our king with dirty hands”. The statement was ostensibly meant to offer some grand plan from the party about the dialogue but only succeeded in bringing more confusion.

Who were these people Sibahle wont support coming to king ‘with dirty hands’? Who said the dialogue was about PUDEMO? Since when does Sibahle believe in change anyways? The latest turn of Sibahle Sinje must therefore be taken with a pinch of salt. This is because the problem with Sibahle’s moribund politics is that it runs with the hare and hunts with the hound.

 Today they are pro-democracy and tomorrow conservatives. There is little space for self proclaimed mavericks in the topsy-turvy game of politics, particularly when the political space is fiercely contested.

So when I hear Sibahle Sinje has issued statement critical of the king, I reserve my excitement and ask time to be the judge.

NB: Nonkululeko Simelane is a lecturer at the University of Swaziland. She writes in her personal capacity. 

Nonkululeko Simelane

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