MBABANE, SWAZILAND: Jan Sithole, secretary-general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) addresses a march through the streets of Mbabane 25 January 2004. A few hundred workers took part in the action as part of a two-day strike to press for reforms in Africa's last absolute monarchy. AFP PHOTO/ANNA ZIEMINSKI (Photo credit should read ANNA ZIEMINSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Down memory lane: Jan Sithole and the mass stay away of 1996

In remembering the fallen giant and towering workers’ leader Ulibambe Lingashoni has gone back to relive the famous events that led the country to the famous 1996 mass stay away and 27 demands. We have given a blow by blow account of the events that led to the strike action and the centrality of Jan Sithole in all those labour protests. We also try to remember the persecution Jan went through for daring to challenge the country’s authorities.

  • In October 1993, SFTU submitted a list of issues for negotiation to the Government. This list subsequently became known as the “27 demands”. The demands included legislation to allow courts to order the reinstatement of unfairly dismissed workers; the establishment of a national minimum wage; the establishment of a national social security scheme; maternity leave pay; a May Day holiday; the setting up of an economic forum; an end to brutality by the city council against street vendors; an end to victimization of journalists; no privatization of water supply services; as well as demands for a more democratic and representative society.
  • On 21-22 February 1994, the SFTU held a mass stay-away in support of its 27 demands. The demands became the subject of discussions and negotiations between the SFTU and the Government. The Government, together with the other parties, appointed a task force to analyse the demands. However, no concrete proposals emerged. Strikes took place in many sectors in the following months. Police used violence and tear-gas on several occasions to suppress them and the authorities used the High Court to obtain restraining orders against strikers, thereby bypassing the Industrial Court system.
  • A worker was shot by the police using live ammunition during a strike at a factory on 22 July 1994. The worker’s leg was fractured. The SFTU General Secretary, Jan Sithole, visited the factory but the worker had already been taken to a clinic. On his way to visit the injured worker, police told Jan Sithole that senior police officials wanted to see him. He was prevented from visiting the injured worker and ordered to the company’s security offices where senior police officials were waiting. He was interrogated by the officials who tried, unsuccessfully, to link the SFTU with political parties which are banned under Swazi legislation.
  • The police then forced Jan Sithole into a car with three senior armed police officials. The car, which was followed by another containing four armed police officials, was driven into sugar-cane fields. They stopped in the middle of isolated fields. The police officials told Jan Sithole that they regretted that the law allowing for a 60-day period of administrative detention was no longer in force. They speculated about the fact that he had not already been arrested because they said he was causing unrest in the country and was making it ungovernable. The cars were then driven back to town and Jan Sithole was released after five hours’ detention.
  • Subsequently, Jan Sithole was subjected to police surveillance and received threats to his life through anonymous telephone calls. Three heavily armed men visited his house in his absence and the telephone was temporarily cut. There were rumours that some officials in government circles were planning an “accident” to eliminate him. Plain clothed police monitored SFTU meetings and seminars. Bribes were offered to SFTU office staff to try and obtain SFTU minutes and documents. A team of security police launched an extensive inquiry into Jan Sithole’s citizenship with the intention of deporting him. They travelled to Mozambique and South Africa, but the exercise proved futile.
  • On 13-14 March 1995, SFTU held a stay-away in support of the 27 demands and to express disappointment at the continued failure of the Government to make concrete proposals to settle the issues. The stay-away paralysed the capital city Mbabane, and the country’s main city Manzini. A number of workers were arrested for striking.
Facket driver förändringen i Swaziland | Union to Union
The two founding President and Secretary General of the Swazland Democratic Party, Jan Sithole and Archie Sayed. They are now both late.
  • The Government undertook to ensure that a solution was reached on some of the main issues within seven days. A parliamentary committee was established. However, despite the willingness of the SFTU and the Federation of Swaziland Employers to negotiate, no progress was made, and it became clear that the Government was seeking confrontation.
  • On 24 March, the police served the SFTU with an injunction to stop them holding report-back meetings to membership planned for the following weekend. The two meetings went ahead when the High Court ruled against the injunction.
  • At the end of March 1995, the Government introduced an Industrial Relations Bill into the National Assembly. This Bill and the amendments to the Employment Act were introduced without discussion in the tripartite Labour Advisory Board. The Bill was condemned by unions and employers alike for its serious violations of trade union rights.
  • The Industrial Relations Bill was passed in the National Assembly on 7 December 1995, and on 19 January 1996, the King of Swaziland gave his assent to it.
  • After the March 1995 mass stay-away, there was optimism that all the outstanding issues between the SFTU and the Government could be settled but this did not materialize. The parties remained apart on a number of issues and a climate of mistrust grew. SFTU saw the provisions of the Industrial Relations Bill as a clear attempt to either neutralize or eliminate its leaders.
  • In early June 1995, the authorities claimed that Jan Sithole had no right to Swazi citizenship, despite the fact that he was born there, had lived there all his life, and had a Swazi mother. His father had come from Mozambique. The police came to his home at 1 a.m. on 3 June and gave him a letter from the Chief Immigration Officer ordering him to appear before a Citizenship Board on 22 June to justify his claim to Swazi citizenship. Press reports speculated on his possible deportation to Mozambique.
  • Jan Sithole had applied for citizenship in 1979 in order to comply with 1974 legal requirements and had received no response. Subsequently, under a 1992 citizenship law, Swazi nationality was conferred on all persons whose father was not a Swazi, and all such persons were required to seek a certificate of naturalization from the Minister of Home Affairs. Jan Sithole’s hearing by the Citizenship Board was postponed to 20 July. It did not take place. On 19 July the authorities wrote to him asking for “convincing proof that he qualifies under the Act as a citizen of Swaziland”.
  • On 9 July SFTU announced a national mass stay-away for 17 July after negotiations with the Government on its demands had again failed. SFTU said that many of the demands had not been met. Jan Sithole continued to receive death threats from an anonymous caller and the SFTU reported rumours that he would disappear before 17 July.
  • On 14 July the Prime Minister issued Legal Order No. 100 designating the mass stay-away called by the SFTU as a boycott and making anyone furthering a boycott liable to six months’ imprisonment. The Government mobilized the police, army and prison officers and said they would use force against those participating in the stay-away. Troops were deployed in the main employment centres to intimidate workers. There were also threats, intimidation and dismissals at workplaces.
  • The announcement of the stay-away led to a last minute agreement in tripartite negotiations and the suspension of the stay-away for two weeks. A tripartite committee was established to examine the 1995 Industrial Relations Bill. On 21 July, the Government revoked Legal Order No. 100.
  • Jan Sithole pictured with Mario Masuku. The two became principal faces of the Swazi struggle

  • In the late evening of 29 August, four armed and hooded men with automatic rifles stopped Jan Sithole in his car. They took his clothes, personal documents and SFTU documents, and locked him in the car boot. One of the kidnappers wanted to kill him. The car was driven to the outskirts of Manzini where it was abandoned in the middle of the road on a blind corner. Jan Sithole was freed from the car boot early the next day by a passer-by.
  • SFTU believed that government agents were behind the kidnapping and the attempt to kill Sithole. The police were known to be in possession of the documents stolen by his abductors.
  • On 15 November, six trade unionists and two members of pro-democracy groups were arrested in Mbabane. Among the trade unionists arrested were the following officials of SFTU-affiliated unions: Themba Shongwe, Vice-President of the Media Workers’ Union; Barbara Dlamini, General Secretary, Hotel and Catering Workers’ Union; Julia Ndwandwa, Treasurer, Ports and Telecommunications Union; and John Masombuka, President of the Street Vendors’ Union. They were released the following day after interrogation. It was believed the arrests were linked to a pro-democracy civic meeting held on 11-12 November. During the same month, Jabulani Nxumalo, the SFTU Assistant General Secretary, was dismissed from his job, under the pretext of a workplace reorganization.
  • Towards the end of 1995, the authorities began investigating the citizenship status of Richard Nxumalo, then SFTU President. The police and members of the intelligence forces visited his home in the rural areas and, on at least two occasions, interviewed several people about when his family had settled in the region. They also went to his employer to look at his employment records. The authorities claim that Richard Nxumalo is not a Swazi, but a South African.
  • SFTU announced that it would embark on mass action in early 1996 to continue to press the Government to meet its 27 demands. In response to this, speaking on the government-owned radio station, a government official said that force would be used against striking workers.
  • On 16 December, the Deputy Prime Minister alleged that the SFTU was against the monarchy and was preparing to overthrow the King. This was strongly refuted by the federation.
  • SFTU announced a mass stay-away for 22 January 1996 which would also call for the legalization of political parties.
  • On 18 January, the Prime Minister issued Legal Notice No. 11 of 1996 which designated the stay-away as a boycott bringing it within the scope of section 13 of the 1963 Public Order Act. Bail was not granted for charges under this Act.
  • On 22 January, Jan Sithole, Richard Nxumalo and Jabulani Nxumalo were arrested while holding a meeting with the Swaziland Federation of Employers. They were taken to Mbabane police station and told that they would be charged under sections 40 and 75 of the Industrial Relations Act, 1995. Their lawyer was allowed to visit them and was told that the case would be heard on the following day at 9 a.m. in Mbabane and that the three trade union leaders would be held at Piggs Peak, 70 km away. However, the three union leaders were taken to Mliba police station, 93 km in the opposite direction. The police did not collect them until 1.30 p.m. the next day. Although they were told they were going to Mbabane, they were taken to another police station in Siphofaneni about 75 km from Mbabane.
  • The conditions that the SFTU leaders were held in at Mliba were particularly appalling. They were held with three other people in a police cell one and a half metres square without water or lights.
  • The police brought a magistrate and the Director of Public Prosecutions to the police station to prosecute the case. By chance the President of the Swaziland Law Society saw the convoy of cars. He arrived at the police station and found that the union leaders had already been charged under the Public Order Act of 1963 in connection with Legal Notice No. 11 of 1996, without their lawyer being present. (The complainant organization provided a copy of the charge sheet in an annexe to its complaint.)
  • The President of the Law Society objected to the fact that they were being charged without a lawyer, and the case was adjourned. The President of the Law Society went to fetch the SFTU lawyer who had originally been told that the court hearing would be in Mbabane and subsequently told that the hearing would be in Big Bend. When the lawyers arrived in Siphofaneni the case had been heard and bail had been refused. The magistrate remanded the three union leaders in custody pending another court hearing in seven days. The Director of Public Prosecutions recommended that they should be taken to a maximum security prison. The police refused to tell the lawyer where they would be imprisoned. Eventually, it was discovered that they were taken to Big Bend prison for a short time and then transferred to Matsapa maximum security prison.
  • The following day SFTU lawyer filed an urgent application for bail and challenged the charges in Mbabane High Court. On 25 January when the Government’s lawyers were scheduled to respond, the case was withdrawn. In his summing-up, the judge made sharp criticisms about the way the State had handled the case. He said that false and misleading information had been given to lawyers about where the SFTU leaders were being held; the charges under which they were held; and the whereabouts of their court hearing. The judge was subsequently demoted from Acting Chief Justice to the status of an ordinary judge.
  • After their release on 25 January, the three union leaders attended a union meeting at Simunye sugar estate. All the participants were checked to ensure that they were accredited trade union representatives. One car arrived with two registration numbers, one superimposed on the other. After checking, it was established that the car had a government registration plate covered by a private registration number. The two occupants of this car ran away. They were caught after a chase and it was found out that they were members of the police force. The car was searched. It contained revolvers and two pistols, ammunition, recording equipment and two-way radios. There were several other number plates in the boot of the car. SFTU reported this to the police who drove the car away. The Government had deployed the army and the police in the area.
  • SFTU suspended the stay-away on 29 January. The police had fired tear-gas and beaten workers during the stay-away and a 16 year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet fired by the police.
  • The Government subsequently told the SFTU that it had appointed five cabinet ministers to negotiate with them. SFTU tried for two days to meet the Government’s negotiators but was not successful. On the following day the Government sent a message that it would meet with the SFTU yet it knew that a meeting would not be possible because SFTU leaders were attending the funeral of the girl who had been killed.
Jan Sithole, Mario Masuku and Themba Msibi pictured in this undated picture
  • SFTU planned a mass meeting on 4 February and the police threatened arrests and confrontation if it went ahead. The authorities banned the meeting.
  • On 7 February, Jabulani Nxumalo, the SFTU Assistant General Secretary was arrested and charged with forging a high school certificate in 1984. He was released on bail. SFTU leaders continued to receive death threats.
  • The Government filed new charges against the three SFTU leaders (Jan Sithole, Richard Nxumalo, Jabulani Nxumalo), two other senior union officials (Themba Msibi, Barbara Dlamini) and the SFTU itself. They were charged under section 40 of the Industrial Relations Act, read together with sections 73 and 75, in connection with the January stay-away. They were summoned to a pre-trial hearing on 29 March. Negotiations with the Government were suspended because all the accused were in the SFTU negotiating team.
  • On 1 February 1997, seven police officers and 15 heavily armed soldiers raided and searched the SFTU headquarters without a warrant. The same day the Government had applied to the Industrial Court to prohibit the SFTU, its affiliates and all Swazi workers from organizing or participating in the mass stay-away. The interdiction was immediately granted under section 70 of the IRA. Legal Notice No. 9 of 31 January 1997 declared the mass stay-away as a “boycott” under the terms of the 1963 Public Order Act. Thus, anyone found guilty of sabotaging essential services would receive a life sentence and any other offence under the Act would carry sentences ranging from six months’ to five years’ imprisonment.
  • On 2 February 1997, the SFTU held another meeting to demand: the withdrawal of charges against the arrested leaders; an end to threats, intimidation and harassment of trade unionists; and the beginning of negotiations on socio-economic concerns with a designated ministerial team. The complainant adds however that, at 7 p.m. on 3 February, 150 armed police surrounded 23 members of the SFTU General Council who had just finished a meeting in a school. Police opened fire but there were no injuries. Trade unionists were ordered to go to the local police station where they were locked in a tear-gas-filled room until 3 a.m. Among those seized was SFTU Treasurer, Mxolisi Mbata, a wheelchair user. The complainant states that soldiers threw him from his chair and forced him to crawl into the police station. All the General Council members were beaten and questioned individually. In reply to an inquiry as to how they could call a meeting without police authorization, the Acting General Secretary stated that it was a closed gathering which did not require permission.
Nomvula Ntjangase

1 thought on “Down memory lane: Jan Sithole and the mass stay away of 1996

  1. Thank you very much for this analysis. It is high time our Swazi historians document our own events. Historians at our university, the university of eswatini hardly produce anything. it is the same with our Journalists. Perhaps the writer can assist by producing work on notable Swazis like Profs Sam Guma, Makhubu, our founding Prime Minister, Prince Makhosini and host of others. I mean real scholarly work

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