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Leading Swazi activist Thulani Maseko shot dead at his home

Murdered Swazi political activist Thulani Maseko has been hailed for his courage in fighting Eswatini’s absolute monarchy.

Leading Swazi political activist, government critic and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was shot dead by unknown assailants on Saturday night in an apparent assassination.

Maseko, who headed the Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF) of political parties and civil society groups leading the campaign for democracy in the kingdom, was shot through the windows of his home in Bhunya in the Manzini region. He was watching TV at the time of the attack, according to local journalists.

The shooters apparently did not enter the house or take anything. 

The Times of Eswatini posted a photograph on its Facebook page showing two bullet holes in a window of the house. Maseko’s wife, Tanele Maseko, and children were with him when he died, journalists said. 

Shocked fellow activists and human rights defenders in Eswatini and across the region hailed Maseko as “the epitome of human rights law” and called for an independent regional investigation of his murder. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Lack of democratic reform in Eswatini likely to fuel greater unrest – activists

“Thulani led the charge against human rights violations and infringements in Eswatini, from land evictions to minority groups,” said the Johannesburg-based Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC). “He unwaveringly represented activists who fought against state repression.”

Executive director of the SALC Anna Meerkotter said: “Few lawyers embody the spirit of constitutionalism the way Thulani Maseko did. For us, and all those who knew him, he was a flagbearer for democracy and human rights. Even in the darkest hours, Thulani stood strong, defending those who were persecuted, despite huge risks to his own safety. We call on SADC to investigate the killing of Thulani, and to call out the continued impunity against those who target critics of the monarchy.”

Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Citizens Coalition for Change, said it mourned “a fearless advocate for democracy and social justice”.

The Mozambique Human Rights Defenders Network condemned “the cold-blooded murder” of Maseko and said those responsible “must be brought to justice”. 

Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) hailed Maseko as “a brave human being who fought tirelessly against the undemocratic regime in defence of people’s basic human rights and dignity”. 

National director Wayne Ncube said LHR was ready to carry on his fight in unity with democratic voices in Eswatini and called on the South African government to “play a more active diplomatic role in ensuring greater protection for human rights defenders in the region”.

‘King Mswati’s hitmen’

The Swazi government expressed its condolences, said its security forces were seeking the “criminals” responsible and warned against speculation about who was responsible. 

However, some opposition activists immediately pointed fingers at the state. The offshore investigative news site Swazi News claimed it would produce witnesses who had seen police officers escort “King Mswati’s hitmen after the assassination”.

The Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN), exiled in South Africa, said Maseko was killed “a few hours after Mswati had bragged about hiring mercenaries to defend himself against those opposed to his regime”.

SSN appeared to be referring to a speech Mswati gave earlier on Saturday afternoon in which he “declared unreservedly that the ‘demonic elements’ perpetrating disharmony and disrespect among EmaSwati will be eliminated in this new year,” according to the Swaziland Observer, a mainstream newspaper.

Mswati referred to Swazis who continued to burn properties and kill people during 2022 — a year after violent unrest erupted in the country in June 2021 during pro-democracy protests. 

“Whoever continues with this demonic behaviour will face the consequences this year,” Mswati warned, according to the Swazi Observer. The Times of Eswatini in its Sunday edition reported that Mswati’s government had recently hired a private military expert, Arno Pienaar, to establish a special military-police unit which was already dealing with “acts of terror”.

Yet Maseko always campaigned peacefully for change, his friend and fellow democracy campaigner Bheki Makhubu, editor of The Nation, told Daily Maverick on Sunday. Maseko was clearly a thorn in the government’s side because of his sharp and persistent criticism of the absolute monarchy, and his leadership of peaceful pro-democracy initiatives for many years.

And that made him vulnerable, Maseko told the Daily Maverick’s Mark Heywood in an interview last year. He said he faced “double jeopardy” both as a political activist and as a lawyer defending such activists. He added that activists like him “are not popular with the king because at the end of the day it is him and the issue of the monarchy that we seek to dislodge from power. 

‘We are caught between hope and fear’ — Thulani Maseko, chair of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum in Swaziland/Eswatini

“Power must be returned to the people so that people can elect a government they see fit, and be able to live a normal life without this whole idea that the king is a superhero or has got some divine power.” 

‘Heroes of the Swazi struggle’

Maseko had his first major run-in with the state in 2008 after he publicly praised three activists who had detonated a bomb under a bridge on the Mbabane-Manzini highway near Mswati’s palaces at Lozitha. Two of them died in the blast and one was captured, tried and sentenced to 85 years in jail — where he died last year. 

“I spoke and called them heroes of the Swazi struggle because government had compelled them to use other means of expression,” Maseko told Daily Maverick last year. “For this, I was charged under the Sedition Act [the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act].”

Those charges were later dropped when the High Court ruled the Sedition Act unconstitutional, although last year the Appeal Court granted the state the right to appeal against the High Court decision, despite its long delay in doing so.

Maseko was back in court in 2014 and was convicted and served two years in jail together with Makhubu, on contempt of court charges for writing and publishing an article critical of then Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi. 

“The cold-blooded killing of Thulani Maseko has come as a real shock to those of us who knew him well,” Makhubu told Daily Maverick, recalling their imprisonment in 2014 and Maseko’s regular columns in his paper.

“To me, Maseko was among those political activists who came from the old school, those who were brought up by the Pudemo [the banned People’s United Democratic Movement] leaders of old, such as the late Mario Masuku and Benedict Tsabedze, among others. 

“Their politics was based on an ideological footing and advocated for discussion and debate on the future of Eswatini. In recent times, Maseko wrote extensively about the need for a national dialogue and was relentless in his belief that this was the solution to this country’s problems. He never, in any article, advocated for violence. He was always about dialogue. 

“That his calls for political change in the country should end so violently is most distressing. Violence never was and is not the solution to our problems. The response to his killing is testimony to the fact that we, as EmaSwati, are just not familiar with what we’re doing to ourselves.

“Thulani and I were the same age, but he had only in recent years started his own family. To think that he leaves behind a child who is just starting school is reason enough to show how wrong this killing was. His wife is young, made a widow too early in life. For what?”

The Multi-Stakeholder Forum, which Maseko chaired, sprung up in the wake of the mid-2021 political disturbances which also prompted the Southern African Development Community (SADC), led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, to intervene. In November 2021, Ramaphosa, in his capacity as chairperson of SADC’s security organ, met Mswati in Eswatini and persuaded him to launch a national political dialogue to address the crisis.

But Mswati has stalled and so the initiative has gone nowhere. Last year, Ramaphosa handed over the chair of the SADC security organ to Namibian President Hage Geingob, who visited Mswati to try to revive the national political dialogue. But there are no signs that anything has happened since. 

Increasing political violence

The lack of movement appears to be provoking increasing political violence, including murders and sabotage and violent reaction from the security forces.

In February last year, Maseko and the MSF warned that Mswati’s failure to recognise the urgency of the moment would deepen the political crisis. They said the government’s crackdown on protesters — including the arrests of two pro-democracy MPs, the targeting of students and other leaders of the pro-democracy movement and the threats by the security forces — “has the effect of escalating hostilities”.

The SSN said: “Maseko spent his youth and adult life opposed to the oppressive, royalist, tinkhundla regime.” After his 2014 articles in The Nation exposing the “skewed and politicised” he had won the coveted Southern Africa Shield Award, which honours “exceptional individuals who have contributed to changes in their community by peacefully promoting and protecting human rights”.

SSN added that after his release Maseko devoted himself to defending the rights of ordinary Swazis “against the openly oppressive King Mswati regime. He was held in high esteem by his peers in the legal fraternity as a member of the Lawyers for Human Rights and the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network.

“This killing of comrade Thulani is the clearest indication of the lengths to which Mswati will go, to cling on to power.” 

SALC said Maseko “was the epitome of human rights law” and noted he had been frequently threatened for his outspokenness against the repression caused by the state and the monarchy. 

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

“He was the principal applicant and lawyer involved in setting aside by the High Court some clauses of the infamous Suppression of Terrorism Act and Sedition and Subversive Activities Act in 2016.” 

“We call on SADC to urgently institute an independent judicial investigation into the killing of Thulani Maseko. 

“We further call on the AU [African Union] and SADC to immediately address the increasing targeting and assault of pro-democracy activists,” SALC said, urging human rights organisations worldwide to support this call on SADC and the AU “to intervene urgently and to put pressure on their governments to call out the brutality of the Eswatini regime”.

Swazi government spokesperson Alpheous Nxumalo expressed the government’s condolences to family, colleagues and friends of Maseko “who was brutally shot and killed by unknown criminals at his home last night.

“Lawyer Maseko’s demise is a loss to the nation and his footprints as a human rights lawyer are there as proof of his contribution to the country. He will surely be missed.”

He said security forces were seeking those responsible for Maseko’s death and warned against “speculation and insinuations peddled particularly on social media platforms”, as these were dangerous and distracted attention from “the real criminals”. 

Nxumalo condemned the recent killing of all civilians in the country and said the government “distinctly dissociates herself… from these heinous acts”. DM


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