Remember to call at my grave
When freedom finally
Walks the land
So that I may rise
To tread familiar paths
To see broken chains
And when my eyes have filled their sight
Do not run away from fright
If I crumble to dust again.
It will only be the bliss
Of a long-awaited dream
That bids me rest
When freedom finally walks the land…
Yesterday we woke up to the truly saddening news of the passing away of one of the stalwarts of the Swazi struggle, comrade Jan “JJ” Sithole. Cde JJ was a long serving Secretary General of both Swaziland Agricultural Plantation Workers Union (SAPWU) and the former Swaziland Federation of Trade Union (SFTU), a predecessor of Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA).
I must hasten to make a disclaimer that this is not a full tribute to Cde JJ but a brief glimpse of our experiences with a man whose contribution to the Swazi struggle and the working class movement must be properly acknowledged.
Cde JJ led mass actions, stay away and strikes during the most critical time of the Swazi trade union and the struggle against royal oppression in Swaziland. I am reminded in particular of the unforgettable moment when SFTU and the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) worked with the then Street Vendors Association under its late President Kutakuta Dlamini. The popular song ‘phakela khansela, phakela sidle, tsine sesilambile‘ would ring loud as street vendors protested at the doorsteps of city councillors demanding their rights to make a living.
Amongst those in the front line of those struggles were such stalwarts as Sam Mkhonta, Donald Dlamini, Tom Dlamini, Mamgo, Mary Jabulile Groening, Zodwa Mkhathazi Mkhonta, Simon Tsabedze etc. These mass actions were accompanied by arrests of PUDEMO/ SWAYOCO and SFTU cadres after parts of the country were set on fire.
Though the mass actions were violently disrupted by the security forces they however marked a crucial and critical turning point in our struggle. That was without a doubt one of the defining moments where I personally worked with JJ. The coordination of these struggles were done at SFTU headquarters in Manzini.
In fact, the first close contact with Cde JJ was during our hunger strike at UNISWA. It was here that cde JJ provided practical solidarity to our plight and helped force our reinstatement back to the university after we were expelled. But the highlight was that later in life, as I joined the ILO (Committee on the Application of International Conventions) in Geneva our roads were to converge again.
The battles he and the Swazi working class fought on Swazi grounds were also fought at ILO too. Cde JJ rose to become a workers’ spokesperson in several Committees at ILO. The case of Swaziland being on the Special paragraph is one of many examples of his sterling work. Cde JJ’s level of articulation at the Salesian Sports Ground during mass actions was as advanced as his art of articulation at ILO meetings.
Though this great work was later undermined by some of those he worked with, it was however taken forward with so much vigour and inspiration by the workers of the world. Notably, it was SFTU under Cde JJ that forced Swaziland to be disqualified from AGOA after pressure lobbying from friends of the Swazi struggle across the globe. Towards this end, special tribute must be given to COSATU, SATUCC and the ITUC in particular.
Even as he departed from SFTU to form his own political party, the Swaziland Democratic Party (SWADEPA), it was his time as a trade unionist that he shook the halls of royal oppression to the core. It is therefore fitting that we must accordingly pay tribute to this great son of the soil because we recognise that tactics often differ in the course of struggle but we have no doubt about his immense commitment and contribution to the struggle for a democratic Swaziland.
I recall that we invited Sithole to our historic Congress held at Elijah Mango College in Nelspruit where he paid tribute to the outstanding role of SWAYOCO in the workers’ struggles. In fact, Jan’s daughter, Nonhlanhla Sithole, had already served as the Deputy Secretary General of SWAYOCO. We, therefore, owe gratitude to the Sithole family in being part of the development of our youth movement.
Cde JJ was also central to the launch of the Swaziland Democratic Alliance (SDA), a uniting platform for trade unions, civic society and political parties in the struggle for political change. Further, he was critical to the organising of the historic Nesville mass meeting that produced the Nelspruit Declaration following the brutal eviction of the Kamkhweli-Macetjeni people by the king.
Together with COSATU, PUDEMO, SWAYOCO and SSN Cde JJ led SFTU in staging border blockades that put the Swazi political struggle on the global political map.
Worth noting here is that Cde JJ and Mario Masuku became the symbols of resistance and iconic legends of the Swazi democratic/resistance movement. The death of Cde JJ therefore marks a turning point in the course of the Swazi struggle.
NB: Bongani Masuku is former SWAYOCO President