On the weekend of November 25, 2006, screaming headlines of a secret guerrilla army being trained in Mpumalanga, South Africa, caused panic in the tiny landlocked kingdom of Swaziland. Reporting for the South African Star newspaper, Michael Schmidt, a journalist, detailed how training camps were operating from Nkomazi district of Mpumalanga – a rough square bordered by the Kruger National Park to the north, Mozambique to the east and Swaziland to the south – and run by “commanders” armed with pistols and AK-47s.
Some Commanders were Swazis, wrote Schmidt, but others hailed from further afield, including Kenya. Most were from the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) while political education was being provided by South Africa’s Young Communist League.
The guerrilla armies, we were told, were being run by highly mobile cells, with groups of between four and six trainees each under a commander, rotating frequently between several safe houses in the Nkomazi district.
“Trainees were not allowed any interactions with their neighbours and relied on intermediaries to bring them food and water in their spartanly furnished safe houses. They spent between five days and two weeks in each location before being moved to a new safe house at night,” read the story in part.
The article forced heated debates in Swazi parliament about the threat the country faced. Former unionist turned Prime Minister Obed Dlamini even warned the government to engage in genuine negotiations.
“It is fundamental that cabinet establishes a committee to urgently advise Their Majesties on the paramount importance of having democracy in Swaziland,” Dlamini was quoted saying by the Times of Swaziland.
Former Minister Mfofo Nkhambule went further and called for the entire cabinet to resign accusing it of failure to detect the threat posed by the alleged guerrilla army. He was backed by a majority of MPs who demanded an audience with the king to discuss what they termed a ‘security crisis’.
The story, however, died a natural death. The veracity of the claims of an impending guerrilla army remained untested several years later. That was 2006, the year of political turmoil in the kingdom of Swaziland. Politically, the country sat on a minefield. What with the arrests of 16 PUDEMO members suspected to have been part of a string of mysterious petrol bomb attacks targeting Tinkhundla centres. The country was in a political frenzy.
There was little doubt the mysterious arsonists wanted to send a political statement by targeting the Tinkhundla centres. A special team comprising of the country’s finest detectives was quickly assembled to bring to book these arsonists. With each passing day came a new attack but the political message remained the same.
The media profiled these attacks and began to interview those hauled in for investigation by the police. It became clear the police were targeting the youth wing of PUDEMO. Frustrated at not finding the smoking gun linking their suspects to the crime, police began to use underhand tactics to get what they wanted. The first casualty was a woman identified in the press as LaFakudze. She was wife to Mduduzi Mamba, then Secretary-General of the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO ).
During interrogation, LaFakudze was beaten to a pulp and died from internal injuries. The police had sent a clear message; they would kill if only to get their targets behind bars. Next was Sicelo Vilane, a young activist from Vuvulane who had been mobilised into active politics following a protracted battle between his community and the royal family centred on the Vuvulane farms.
Accompanied by his lawyer, the late Leo Gama, Vilane told horrid details of police interrogation under then notorious cop Khethokwakhe Ndlangamandla. Vilane told the Times SUNDAY how police had tried to turn him into a state witness by using Gestapo style interrogation methods. As if that was not enough, Mfanawenkhosi Mntshali, who subsequently became accused number six, also revealed how he had been driven to a bush in the middle of the night and beaten to a pulp as police tried to extract a confession from him.
A few weeks later, police rounded up 16 suspects and charged them with high treason and sedition. It was a measure of the state’s frustration that they went for high treason charges in a case that could have solicited nothing more than just a mere arson charge.
The Times reported at the time that a lot of PUDEMO members were escaping to South Africa as police turned on the heat. It claimed one man, Kenneth Kunene, a University graduate from UNISWA, was the mastermind of the attacks. Kunene is today exiled in South Africa and a leader of the Communist Party of Swaziland. “He is the mastermind,” police charged, “and we want him dead or alive,” they asserted. Kunene’s pictures were plastered all over the media but little came of it because he had escaped.
It was not the first time that police had accused PUDEMO of high treason. This low-intensity war between the state and PUDEMO has been going on for years, taking different turns over the decades. PUDEMO members are routinely accused of attempting to overthrow the state using violent means. The party, meanwhile, claims it is a target of political persecution for calling for democratic change in the country.
In 1990 PUDEMO leaders were arrested and charged with high treason for conspiring to form a political party. Among other things, the state claimed the party had attempted to form a military unit and overthrow the state.
Some of these accusations bordered on absurdity. For example, Maxwell Lukhele was arrested on the 22nd of June 1990 and charged with high treason, sedition, subversion and a contravention of paragraph 13 of the King’s Proclamation of 1973. He was, however, subsequently acquitted and discharged of all charges on October 4, 1990.
The details of the trial are interesting because Lukhele had averred that all that he was accused of happened while he was out of the country on study leave. He subsequently filed a lawsuit and pocketed over E50 000 and an under of costs. Dr Jabulani Matsebula, then a University student, was forced into exile after the state claimed that he was responsible for the military wing of PUDEMO.
In the coming years, the country experienced sporadic attacks all with a political message at different targets. The state played down these attacks because it wanted to sustain the myth of a peaceful nation. Even though SWAYOCO members became targets of arrests none of them was ever convicted of these attacks.
By far the most gruesome attack was the bombing of the Deputy Prime Minister’s office in 1998 where for the first time ever one person died. Despite several arrests, the police failed to link any of their suspects to the bombing. To this day the case remains cold. The 2006 string of petrol bombs therefore must be seen as an escalation and continuation of an under-reported and under-researched political violence in the country.
The profile of those arrested for high treason in 2006 was equally interesting. A law student (Wandile Dludlu), a teacher (Mduduzi Mamba), a former Human Resource Manager (Bonginkosi Dlamini), two employees of the UNICEF (Vusi Shongwe and Mduduzi Nicks Dlamini), a high school student (Goodwill Du Pont) from among many others.
The suspects filed for bail but the state hired senior South African advocates to oppose it. The scene was set for the high court where this battle was to play itself out. During bail hearings, the court was told of how the suspects were assaulted by the police during interrogation.
In releasing the suspects on bail, judge Jacobus Annandale was to find that there was a reasonable cause to believe the testimonies of the suspects that police used violence in conducting their investigations.
Said Judge Annandale in his court judgement: “…Therefore no reason or justification for subjecting any person to torture or undue pressure because whatever is obtained as a result of that is inadmissible. It is a further commonality in our law that all evidence must be admissible…”
The court then ordered the Prime Minister, in liaison with the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, to urgently establish a commission of inquiry into the allegations of torture and to “report publicly the outcome within a reasonable time”.
It is indeed interesting that 14 years later not only has this trial ever took off but the commission of inquiry never sat too…if it did, its findings were never made public as per the court’s ruling.
In the following years, political violence escalated in the kingdom. The targets moved from mere empty buildings to police officers and leading Tinkhundla politicians. Lutfo Dlamini and Percy Simelane, the government spokesperson, became notable targets.
The response of the state was to overhaul the bench by appointing controversial and well known Tinkhundla praise singers as Judges to ensure maximum conviction of suspects. Then they legislated against any form of violence under the Suppression of Terrorism Act. Then they roped the media to their side to ensure public sentiments is against any opposition to the state.
The conditions were thus set for a vicious fight against anyone who so much as attempted a putsch. On the other end of the pendulum though the violence moved from use of mere petrol bomb to heavy military arsenal. The 2008 attempt at bombing the Lozitha bridge and the subsequent trial of the suspect showed how elaborate and advanced the equipment used were.
The lone suspect in that case, a South African sympathiser of the Swazi struggle, Amos Mbedzi, was used as an example of what the government would do to anyone who attempted a violent revolution in the country.
Mbedzi was handed a 80-year sentence for a string of convictions. A manifesto sent by the organisation that claimed responsibility for the attempted attack, Umbane People’s Liberation Army, detailed how they had been driven into extreme measures by the government’s refusal to democratise.
The country has been engaged in this low-intensity war since then. The extent of this ‘war’ was revealed by defector and former SWAYOCO activist, Thandaza Silolo, in a widely reported confession he made to the police. In it, Silolo claimed he had been part of a secret military group responsible for many unsolved petrol bomb attacks that targeted parliament, the country’s radio station, the Magistrate Court, from among many other targets.
Silolo had escaped to South Africa in 2010 after a string of petrol bomb attacks at various sites in the country. After spending a few years in various places in South Africa, Silolo’s political convictions turned for the worse on April 14, 2013, when he decided to hand himself over to the Swazi Police.
Silolo claimed his life ‘changed’ when he joined the Alliance Church of South Africa (TACOSA) in Piet Retief following influence he received from a Lulakeni family he stayed with.
“My faith then got revived,” he wrote in his confession “and, as we went on, I ended up being allowed by the Pastor to conduct some sermons. I was then tasked with being a Sunday school teacher, preaching and other church services. The church had a great impact in my life such that I then went back to accepting God as my saviour and my ways have changed greatly, such that I feel all that I have lost in God in the past has been revived,” he continued.
Silolo then sang like a parrot, detailing all his previous political activities and mentioned all the people he worked with and those who helped him escape the country. “After some time it was revealed to me by God that if I wanted to live in peace with him I must first live in peace with people and everyone around me. I started communicating with my father and sent him several messages by cellphone.
“I also sent messages to all my comrades who I was not in good terms with and asked for their forgiveness for whatsoever misunderstandings we may have had. I thought my life as a freedom fighter was following God’s principles as we have been fighting to liberate God’s people from the oppression of an illegitimate government…” confessed Silolo.
Silolo’s confession had little bearing on Bheki Dlamini and Zonke Dlamini, both charged with terrorism in 2010 and both mentioned prominently by Silolo in his confession. He was ultimately convicted to an effective 15 years in prison after a failed appeal in 2016.
The low-intensity war, however, continues to haunt Swaziland. The South African based Communist Party of Swaziland has openly called for an armed uprising in Swaziland. In a statement issued in 2019 after the party’s summer school, demands for democracy would now be backed up by military action.
PUDEMO, however, despite being at the centre of this low-intensity war with the state, has always maintained that it believes in peaceful methods of struggle and dialogue. What is without a doubt though is that it is only a matter of time before the myth of a peaceful nation get exposed for what it is–a myth.
NB: Thandi Hlophe is an investigative journalist and researcher based in South Africa