Two weeks ago, the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) president Mario Masuku and Swaziland Youth Congress secretary-general Maxwell Dlamini were granted bail after spending over a year in prison awaiting trial on charges of terrorism, sedition and subversion. GREG NICOLSON speaks to Masuku about his time behind bars and the struggle for multi-party democracy in Swaziland.
GN: Tell us a little bit about your release from prison, the charges against you, and the fight you’ve had against that system.
MM: Since the 1980s I have been part of the people calling for a democratisation of Swaziland against the regime that does not recognise political parties. We have had people including myself being charged with high treason, sedition and so forth. Lately, in 2008, there was a law put into place called the Suppression of Terrorism Act. I was charged under that in 2008 and was acquitted in 2009. But this time in 2014 while I was addressing workers on May Day I was charged under the same Suppression of Terrorism Act and sedition activities.
I have been there for the past 14 months and released on the 14th. I knew that prison is not a five-star hotel, but prisons in Swaziland are very, very, very uncomfortable for the people. They’re still a little bit backwards. We had been trying to get our release on bail but the state continued to say we are a risk, we are a security risk, we are a flight risk and so forth. But this time I believe the pressure from within Swaziland and from outside of Swaziland, in particular from our friends, the alliance partners from South Africa, and Europe and America, have pushed the regime to ensure that we come out of prison on bail.
However, briefly, I feel that our task is still incomplete. My coming out on bail does not mean that the suppression of freedom of expression, association and assembly will go away. We will continue fighting on. Coming out to be here I still feel I am just like a free bird in a cage. The struggle goes on. But I’m grateful to all the comrades and people who have been in solidarity with our cause in Swaziland.
GN: Take us back to that May Day rally. What did you say that brought on these charges?
MM: Well I did say that the kind of government, that is the Tinkhundla government system in Swaziland, is undemocratic and it will not deliver the wishes of the people. And I did also say that the country has lost opportunities like the African Growth Opportunities Act (Agoa). It is due to the incompetence of the government of Swaziland and that our working class in Swaziland is so suppressed that the ILO (International Labour Organisation) has placed Swaziland in near-sanction status. It is because of this government. And I did say that it needs immediate transformation; we need a change in Swaziland. Of course I did mention that I am a member of Pudemo, the People’s United Democratic Movement, which is a banned political party as far as Swaziland is concerned.
Those are the charges that were placed on us.
GN: If you think about the robust level of political debate in South Africa, what you said doesn’t seem like much to go to jail for. That says a lot about the Swazi system.
MM: The problem that we always have is that countries, in particular SADC (Southern African Development Community), have always upheld the issue of sovereignty, not wanting to interfere with internal issues of any country, but I think in South Africa I am convinced there are organisations, individuals who know how suppressive such regimes can be, are supportive and are in solidarity with our cause. I feel humbled and I am definitely sure that we will arrive in a place where Swaziland will be regarded as one of the civilised countries in the region, the continent and the world at large. But indeed we are sitting for a country governed by the will of the people in a multi-party democracy
GN: Tell us about your time in prison. You mentioned the conditions weren’t five star. What was it like?
MM: Firstly I must say that the prisons take sides. I believe that the executive, judiciary and indeed legislative are independent arms of any government, but here the prisons and the personnel in there regarded us as enemies because everything in Swaziland, all these institutions, are geared towards the monarchy, which is the executive. For instance, they are called His Majesty’s Correctional Services, the police are called the Royal Swaziland Police, and they are bound to be closer to the executive. So if it is heard that we are saying the government here is undemocratic and it needs changes they see us as enemies of the state. So that was very difficult for us.
Besides that, of course, the conditions that we were sleeping almost on the floor, sleeping on a mat about one centimetre thick. The windows there could not close and winter took its toll on us and I was not allowed to see a private medical practitioner of my choice. It was difficult. My friends were not allowed to see us as they wished to. My legal team, my senior advocate Mary de Vos from South Africa, had to stand outside there for over 30 minutes only to see us for about 10 minutes. You see the intimidation that was there.
We were not allowed inside when we were visited by friends to discuss political matters. It was so difficult. We were already serving a sentence in there. It was really difficult. The last time when we were in the maximum security cell we were not allowed to move around. We were locked in the cells and we were using a bucket for ablutions. It was so difficult. It was so inhumane until such time as we raised the issues and the international community were responsive to what we were doing. It was not right for us as political prisoners.
GN: Much of what you say reminds me of stories of apartheid political prisoners. It makes me wonder, did you get interrogated a lot? Were you ever tortured while in prison?
MM: No, we were not physically tortured, but the way we were treated – we were placed in isolation and whatever we did prisoners in there were told never to speak to us, not to communicate with us. Our ways were such that when we went to the court- for anything, whether I went to hospital or to the court – there was always armed security with all the noise intimidating the public to note that these are dangerous people. I think there is no less torture than that.
GN: Looking forward, what is next for the pro-democracy movement in Swaziland, because it seems like it continues to stand up to King Mswati’s rule and continues to fight for multi-party democracy but it’s hard to quantify the gains that have been achieved. Every April we see the global week of action on Swaziland and every time the police crack down on it. What needs to happen next?
MM: I think it must be noted that we will not claim easy victories. Nevertheless, there are issues or marks that show there have been some victories in this long battle. Firstly, it was Pudemo, in 1992, who called for a constitutional dispensation in Swaziland. Although the process of forming the constitution was too flawed, there is a constitution. That is a gain. That the people of Swaziland spoke loudly about loosening the chains of the workers and federations and so forth has gained some benefits. As you know, we now have a federation called the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (Tucoswa), which was de-registered at some time by the regime.
MM: There are some gains. It is us calling for a democratic dispensation and the government is doing reforms, but those are just cosmetic. However, moving forward we believe that people must understand that as much as monarchies are undemocratic – I will not talk about an absolute monarchy for that matter, monarchies are normally undemocratic – we are prepared to go further as united political parties moving forward towards a negotiated settlement. We are not for violence even though the regime’s security forces respond with violence and more violence. That would be the last (resort) for us. We are prepared to say what the people of Swaziland want. We want proper, total transformation and an economy that is for the people, culture that is for the people. It is not that we want to throw everything away, and therefore we are ready to discuss, engage in a dialogue with anybody who is a real patriot of Swaziland for a free and democratic country.
GN: But speaking of a negotiated settlement, is there any chance of that while we have Pudemo banned, Tucoswa de-registered?
MM: Any negotiated settlement is predetermined by the will of all the people and organisations concerned. Therefore I believe that if we are to discuss any negotiated settlement the first thing that needs to be done is unban political parties. Second is to review all undemocratic laws and then everyone should come forward and agree and be ready for the negotiations. No negotiations can be successful when the table is not free and conducive to political dialogue.
GN: Here in Johannesburg we have different groups that support Swaziland’s pro-democracy movement, but you mentioned most SADC governments have decided to respect the sovereignty of different nations and confirm Swaziland’s ability to determine its own future. Would you call on the South African government or other governments to take a stronger stance on Swaziland?
MM: I should think the South African government in particular has learnt many lessons. The first lesson the South African government has learnt is through its own experience. For South Africa to be democratic it called on the region, the continent and the international community to call on the apartheid regime to acknowledge that change had to come.
I don’t believe that South Africa and the SADC region have not learnt clearly from the Burundi massacre. We are not ready to see blood flowing again in any country, in any country of this world, let alone in the SADC. I also believe South Africa as a neighbour must be ready and must be seen to be assisting; a catalyst, towards a democratic dispensation in Swaziland. If some people don’t understand what we are seeking I think the door is open for anybody to raise questions and we are prepared to answer. We are actually seeking assistance from any country, any organisation within the SADC to ensure the democratisation of Swaziland is as peaceful as everybody wants it to be.
GN: Can you tell us about your bail conditions? I think I read that if you do speak out you might be arrested again but I’ve seen you have addressed a church group already and obviously you’re speaking to us now.
MM: The issue is that in Swaziland we may not address public gatherings. We have to submit all our travel documents and passports. We have to report to the nearest police station once a month. Now you know very well that if we abide by the condition that we do not address any public gathering that is a questionable thing. As of now, that is being addressed by our legal department. However what is a public gathering? What is an address? That has to be determined by a court, but surely if I meet 20 members of my family and I tell them how my prison experience has been, that definitely means I will be arrested because that is a “public”? Is that a public or is that a private gathering? It is up to the courts to declare.
Anybody who looks in peace, it means we are now going back years, years and years, back where the suppression of freedom of expression, freedom of association and so forth is being now embedded and confirmed by a court of law. But again it must be clear that contravention of the conditions then you are subject to arrest and charged in contempt of court.
Listen to the full interview on the Daily Maverick Show on Cliff Central.
Photo: Mario Masuku, leader of the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) (Photo by Church Times)
Court frees jailed Swazi activists in Mail & Guardian
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