“Remember, Three things happened or were going to happen in 2008; MTN license was coming to an end and there was a lot of jostling and manoeuvring by new players, Barnabas was retrieved from the dustbin of history and made PM with a sole mandate of eviscerating anything progressive and lastly, the economy was tanking and all pointers showing an imminent collapse,”
George Mahlalela, the former intelligence officer, narrates to us at his retirement home down in the rural villages of Hhohho.
This meeting had been arranged as an attempt to understand the troubled life of Prime Minister Mandvulo Dlamini from a man we trust with nuanced and insightful information. After all, Mahlalela was at the thick of things in the period after 2008, seeing a country transform right before his eyes.
If not providing intricate security detail to stabilize a country facing the threat of an uprising in 2011 he was compiling details of the players positioning themselves to feed on the liberalization of the telecommunications industry in 2008. Always armed with his notebook, Mahlalela was that guy lurking at the background, observing, recording and connecting dots.
At least for this part, Mahlalalela is happy to give us a dynamic in the political and economic realm before rounding things up with how the attempt at Lozitha bridge feeds into everything. First things first, he insists.
Mandvulo: history repeating itself
When that Australian Catholic Priest baptized Mandvulo as a nose poking primary school going boy growing up in the dusty outskirts of Luve, he should have probably thought of another name.
Maybe ‘Besieged’ would have suited him better. That, after all, is what has come to describe the life of our Prime Minister. If today you think Mandvulo has the Swaziland Beverages alcohol ban standoff as his biggest headache then consider the political fallout he has had with Princess Sikhanyiso, the all-powerful first born daughter of King Mswati III.
It is indeed Princess Sikhanyiso who has literally reduced Mandvulo to a hapless lame duck. She has him by the balls, so to speak. The sensational fallout between the two has been under-reported yet it has all the tantalizing ingredients of history repeating itself.
Never mind the constitutional fiasco it has thrown to the Attorney General’s office, the drama has a familiar and historical tinge to it. For the uninitiated, this is not new in Swazi politics. Other Swazi Prime Ministers have travelled Mandvulo’s road before with predictable endings.
Back in the 80s, shortly after the death of King Sobhuza II, the country’s Prime Minister was Prince Mabandla Dlamini. Mabandla had taken over a country ruled by a revered yet paternalistic monarch who exercised absolute powers. Before his death, the late king had established Liqoqo, a supreme council of state, whose powers were ill-defined.
By agreeing to be Prime Minister, Mabandla had taken a bite from a poisoned chalice. At the time, factions within the royal family were positioning themselves for the power vacuum.
Mabandla allied himself with then Queen Regent, Dzeliwe Shongwe, to try and wrestle power away from the more conservative faction of the royal family. But he was outplayed and out maneuvered by the Prince Mfanasibili faction who not only managed to sack him but also drove him to exile.
With Mabandla gone, liqoqo then deposed Queen Regent Dzeliwe and imposed Makhosetive Dlamini as the next king. Her mother, Ntombi Tfwala, was subsequently made the Queen Mother. Makhosetive was later crowned as King Mswati III in 1986.
Fast forward to 2020, and you have Mandvulo again facing off with the same conservative faction that staged a silent coup back in the 80’s. This time, however, the dynamics are different.
Mandvulo does not pose any threat to the conservative faction of the royal family neither does the king intend to relieve him of his duties. The battles are not political but economical. What is clear, however, is that the accusations against Mandvulo seem to mirror those of Mabandla.
Take for example newly surfaced claims that the Prime Minister has no loyalty to the royal family because his grandfather, Prince Magongo, attempted to take the life of King Sobhuza. Like the proverbial phoenix, accusations against Prince Magongo have resurfaced with a vengeful sting.
Ulibambe Lingashoni has been told by the Prime Minister’s close relatives that the faction aligned to Princess Sikhanyiso has gotten desperate and reminding everyone about Mandvulo’s family history.
“It’s desperation and nothing else,” charges a source close to Mandvulo. “They are just throwing mud hoping something will stick. The use of Prince Magongo in such careless manner is unfortunate. Anyone who grew up under Sobhuza’s time knows this cannot be true,” continued the source.
It is difficult to confirm if indeed Prince Magongo attempted to harm Sobhuza because even Hilder Kuper, Sobhuza’s official biographer, does not capture it in any of his books. Other historians like Hugh Gillis make scant reference to his life too.
What is known, however, is that the family of Prince Magongo and his descendants were indeed ostracized and cut out of the royal family. Perhaps, this explains in part why Mandvulo grew up outside the powers that be. Conflicting reasons are advanced why Prince Magongo was ostracised but the fact that his story has resurfaced shows the vultures hovering over Mandvulo’s head.
It is not new for warring factions of the royal family to accuse their foes of attempting to kill a reigning monarch. For example, Gillis records that Fokoti, one of Sobhuza I’s sons, once tested his strength against a regency and lost.
Others like Malambule, an elder half-brother who acted as principal regent during the first years of Mswati’s minority and who had, before Sobhuza’s death, been seen as probable heir apparent. He left the royal household following Mswati II’s accession and took refuge with the Zulu.
But he did not give up his claim to the Swazi kingship, and surfaced from time to time as a prominent warrior in the Zulu regiments. More serious still was the defection of Somcuba, eldest half-brother to Mswati, who in the mid-1840s had a significant influence in the regency and acted as liaison, perhaps without the king’s endorsement, to Ohrigstad Boers.
He is reported to have taken with him into exile some 500 followers, seeking support from the Pedi and the Boers and having always, as a prime objective, the usurpation of Mswati’s rule.
Fokoti and Malambule faded early from the field, but Somcuba carried on for the better part of a decade until finally, about 1855, he was killed by Mswati’s warriors not far from present-day Nelspruit.
Even during Sobhuza II’s reign, there were many stories that he survived assassination attempts. Most Swazis grew up being regaled about how the late king would confound would-be assassins by turning into a cat.
But author Richard Levin concluded that such stories were part of the myth-making agenda by the royal family to recreate Sobhuza into some all-powerful deity for no other reason than political control of the nation.
Ironically, Princess Sikhanyiso’s mother, Inkhosikati LaMbikiza, was once accused of poisoning King Mswati III. She told Michael Skolnik, producer of the documentary ‘Without the King’, that the witchcraft obsessed royal family claimed she was attempting a coup and earmarking his son, Prince Lindani, to take over the throne.
Such accusations proved to be nothing short of balderdash and bunkum talk. The Inkhosikati was saved thanks to the support she received from her husband. Today the story of Prince Magongo’s ‘disloyalty’ has been resurfaced with malicious intent. Sadly, by people who should know better.
The fact that Mandvulo has no natural allies at Ludzidzini does not make his case any easier. He is increasingly isolated and looks completely out of place. The fact that he replaced Barnabas Dlamini, the so called lightning arrestor, make him look like a fly in the late Prime Minister’s shoes. Unlike Barnabas, his loyalty to the establishment is not fully cemented hence rumours about his family history is constantly raised to delegitimize him.
Even though Princess Sikhanyiso’s battle with Mandvulo has been reduced into a seniority issue, at the core of it is betrayal the Princess feels after helping make Mandvulo our Prime Minister. It was Princess Sikhanyiso, together with Prince Masitsela (from among others), who lobbied and convinced the king to appoint Mandvulo.
The Sikhanyiso lobby won because Mandvulo had worked well with the Princess at MTN and forged a bond with the monarchy at the height of the cold war between MTN and Ludzidzini. Sikhanyiso’s group hoped Mandvulo would be malleable and facilitate their financial capture of the state.
The first demand she made was for the Prime Minister to help her build a state of the art house complete with a recording studio and other amenities at Sigcineni. When the Prime Minister refused to give in to this demand he set in motion a series of events that have plunged the country into a constitutional crisis.
Not only did the Princess subsequently go on an all-out war but she also decided to boycott cabinet and go on extended maternity leave for almost a year now. Worth noting is that there is no policy governing maternity leave for Ministers partly because we have not had a pregnant Minister in recent history.
In the Civil Service, maternity leave is 84 days. Nine months is the gestation period. In the case of the first daughter, she was given nine months to be away. At the time she was already five months pregnant.
The office of the Attorney General is now ceased with a constitutional dilemma as they now have to interpret what section 72 means in the circumstances where a Minister has gone awol for such a long time. Parliament wants answers too.
At a recent breakfast meeting hosted by Mandvulo it was revealed that the Minister was to continue being away for an extended period of time. No date was placed when she will be back.
Section 72 of the constitution makes it clear that a Minister can only be away from official duty for a period not exceeding six months.
Reads the constitution in part: “Where a Minister is absent from Swaziland or is by reason of illness or any other cause unable to exercise the functions of the office of that Minister the Minister may, after consultation with the Prime Minister, delegate those functions to another Minister in writing for a maximum period not exceeding six months.”
Some lawyers at the AG’s office feel this provision can be extended perpetually. But the fall out between the Prime Minister and the Princess will not be solved by legalities until it is clear who calls the shots between the Prime Minister and the Princess.
Like Mabandla, Mandvulo is constantly reminded about the limitations of his powers while the princess has allied with the groups that wanted a different Prime Minister in the first place. Zweli ‘Zwemart’ Dlamini ’s Swaziland News has already reported in detail how the fall out has played itself out in the parastatals where the Minister has control.
All this happens to a Princess already accustomed to being paid for not working. Ten years ago the media reported that she was to join the police service but quickly left for school and never set foot at any police station. She still draws a salary for a job she never does.
She also draws a salary as a board member at MTN, and up until recently, she was a member of the King’s advisory council and now a Minister of the crown.
Mandvulo and Sikhanyiso worked well together though. Where did it go wrong? There was a time when the Princess had interests in the telecommunications industry through a company she owned but it is not clear what happened.
MTN vs Swazi Mobile: a plan hatched in hell has no angels as witnesses
To understand the relationship between Mandvulo and Princess Sikhanyiso one must locate them within the battles that have always defined the telecommunication industry in Swaziland. If this battle was not pitting Swazi Mobile versus MTN then it was MTN and the Swaziland Post and Telecommunications Corporation (SPTC).
These battles shifted and aligned political and economic interests as everyone positioned themselves to feast from a lucrative telecommunication industry recently liberalised.
The main players at the time were the late Victor Gamedze through his new company, Swazi Mobile, Mandvulo through MTN and then of course the king through his shares in both MTN and Swazi Mobile.
Just to add ambiance, we can add the late Barnabas Dlamini whose interest came through SPTC, a parastatal he led as head of government and also through his own shareholding at MTN. It was, for lack of a better word, a confusing cocktail of convoluted interests and power struggles.
As the monopoly of MTN neared the end in 2008 these interests came to a boil and ultimate head-on collision.
The starting point is to understand why MTN was given a monopoly license in the first place. This obviously takes us back to 1983 when the Department of Posts and Telecoms became a parastatal known as Swaziland Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (SPTC).
In terms of the SPTC Act, SPTC would be both the regulator and the sole provider of telecommunications services in the country. At the time, fixed line was the only telecommunications service. In essence, SPTC was a monopoly.
With the advent of mobile telephones, the government did not liberalise the telecommunications industry to allow for competition to SPTC. The solution the then government came up with was that mobile license would be open to local and international bidders but the ultimate winner would have to go into a joint venture with the SPTC.
MTN International won the bid for the mobile license. A new company, Swazi MTN, was formed where shareholders were SPTC at 51%, MTN International at 30% and Swaziland Empowerment Limited (SEL) at 19%.
SEL was intended to be a citizenship empowerment company listed on the Swaziland Stock Exchange. At the Initial Public Offering (IPO) of SEL, Barnabas Dlamini and family were the biggest individual shareholders. Swazi MTN was subsequently given a 10 year monopoly.
The relationship between SPTC and MTN was regulated by a Joint Venture Agreement (JVA) drafted by attorney Rob Cloete. Cloete is today a Supreme Court judge. The JVA prohibited SPTC and MTN International from competing against each other while SPTC was a shareholder in Swazi MTN.
In effect, SPTC could not have its own mobile phone business and MTN could not operate a fixed line business. Swazi MTN then began operating in Swaziland in 1998 around the time of the 30 Independence Anniversary celebrations.
The next significant development was SPTC selling 10% of its shareholding to the “esteemed shareholder” (the king). The reasons for the transaction were never revealed. The Government was blindsided because then Minister of Finance, Majozi Sithole, promised an investigation into the sale but either did not happen or its outcome kept secret.
In the mid 2000s SPTC, in anticipation of the end of Swazi MTN’s monopoly, wanted its own mobile telephony and data business. With Government’s support, SPTC decided to sell its shareholding at Swazi MTN.
An evaluation of the value of its shares was done. Tebogo Mogapi was CEO of Swazi MTN at the time and Nathi Dlamini Managing Director at SPTC. MTN International had the money to buy but the “esteemed shareholder” didn’t and he “vetoed” the sale. His mantra seems to have been “If I cannot buy no one will“.
In the period in or around 2010 along came One and the fixed phones Swazis loved. Swazi MTN went to court for an interdict prohibiting SPTC from operating its fixed mobile business pending referral of their dispute to arbitration. Swazi MTN prevailed in the Supreme Court.
An arbitration was held under the aegis of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC). The arbitrator was Piet Nienaber, a retired judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal in South Africa. Nienaber found in Swazi MTN’s favour. He concluded that SPTC’s fixed mobile business was in competition with Swazi MTN and therefore in breach of the JVA.
The telecommunications industry was subsequently opened up and the result is that SPTC is no longer the regulator while MTN no longer enjoys monopoly status. There is a caveat to it; SPTC cannot have its own mobile telephone and data services business unless it sells its 41% shareholding and go below 20%.
This explains why the SEL only has 19% instead of 20%. To 20% and above is, according to the JVA, deemed a controlling shareholding. SEL and Mswati can form or be part of competing companies. For this reason, SPTC needs to reduce their shareholding to below 20% before they can compete against MTN.
MTN International definitely has the money to buy SPTC shares but the king stands on the way. Then enters Victor Gamedze with his Swazi Mobile. With the 2008 liberalisation of the telecommunications industry, Gamedze wanted to bring competition to MTN after tasting the sweetness of the industry through the tenders he had scored at SPTC.
The company had been awarded a concession by the Swaziland Communications Commission (SCCOM) in December 2016, fending off competition from locally-owned SDnet (a tie-up between Data Net and Ndlaphu Financial Services), and international telecoms providers Viettel Group and Orange-backed Mauritius Telecom.
By giving shares to the king Victor was able to outfox all these companies hence was awarded the trading license to operate his Swazi Mobile company.
The coming of Swazi Mobile was partly thanks to the work of Mandvulo though. He was the one who drafted the documentation that birthed the company. It was hoped he would then partner with Victor and compete with MTN.
However, upon presenting it to the king, it is alleged that Victor then muscled out Mandvulo and in the process started a bitter war between the two. This resentment played itself out viciously and many people became proxies in their fight.
At launch, Swazi Mobile started its services in 28 towns with plans to extend the footprint to 80% of the population by October 2017. At the time Swazi Mobile was promising to sell a 33.3% stake via an initial public offering (IPO) on the Swaziland Stock Market later that year.
The rest of the shares were held by Gamedze and Michelo Shakantu, the boss of the Inyatsi Construction Group, with each holding a roughly 33.3% stake in the business. The rest were being held by the king.
But the catch lied in Swazi mobile having to share tower infrastructure with MTN Swaziland. This is where Mandvulo had an advantage over Victor. MTN charged Swazi Mobile an arm and a leg and frustrated the company at every turn.
The result was that when it was clear that Barnabas Dlamini would not return as Prime Minister and Sikhanyiso and her group were lobbying for Mandvulo, Gamedze threw everything to ensure his nemesis does not get to power. Princess Sikhanyiso had worked well with Mandvulo while at MTN and the king’s ear as the favourite daughter.
Victor also didn’t slack, knowing that his business interests were threatened with a person of Mandvulo in power. He lobbied for former Public Service Pension Fund (PSPF) CEO Cleopas Dlamini by buying anyone within royalty who was pliable.
Unfortunately for Cleopas his lobby’s steam was taken out when Gamedze was publicly assassinated in January 2018. Before Victor’s assassination, word on the street was that the former PSPF boss would be the next Prime Minister but he eventually became a Senator and that was it.
Mandvulo didn’t want to be Prime Minister per se. In fact, at the time he was already in line to be Managing Director of Mascom in Botswana. Mascom is MTN’s business in Botswana.
But Members of the royal family normally lobby for their favourite to be appointed into positions of influence so that they can benefit in some form or the other in government. This is the case even with who will become the king’s wife. Mandvulo was no different.
It was in this context that Sikhanyiso felt Mandvulo owed her loyalty for masterminding his ascension to the throne. It started with insubordination inside cabinet meetings and then moved into undermining appointments at government parastatals where Sikhanyiso had power.
When their relationship didn’t improve Mandvulo knew he did not have much support within the royal family. What came as manna from heaven to Mandvulo was the Princess’ pregnancy.
The king was upset with her daughter meaning the Princess could not engineer his removal that easy. Without getting the king’s ear, the Princess has been left frustrated and fighting Mandvulo on her own. But Mandvulo has never had favour within sections of the royal family anyways.
Some were bitter they never benefitted from the telecommunications that had become a feeding ranch for the royal family and their hangers-on.
It was thanks to the combined work of Princess Sikhanyiso and such influential figures like Prince Masitsela that Mandvulo is the Prime Minister in the first place. A few years later though, Mandvulo is holding at the cloak tails of legitimacy and down at Ludzidzini he already looks weak.
Sikhanyiso has robbed him of the legitimacy hence even accusations against his grandfather have surfaced.
On the one hand, Mandvulo is unable to control a parliament hell bent on removing his allies like veteran politician Marwick Khumalo, a cabinet divided along those who want to be in the good books of the Princess for their long term political interests and on the other hand he has an economy not doing well.
His public (dis)approval for his continued ban on alcohol has only added his woes. The only support he is still guaranteed is that of the king, at least for now.
Mandvulo does not deserve any sympathy though. Anyone who volunteers to serve such a rotten and evil system of government deserves everything coming to him. Mudle ngweyakhe!
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NB: This article was a collaborative research and investigation done by Minikeni Dlamini, Manqoba Nxumalo, and Ntando Maphalala.
Read Part III of this series as we focus in detail on how the Salesian boys tried to be Mandvulo’s advisory team, why David Manyatsi from Manyatsi Nhleko Quantity Surveyors died unhappy and importantly why the ‘clever blacks’ and ‘white messiah’ in Mandvulo’s cabinet were defeated in their Singaporean dream