Maverick Citizen

TUESDAY EDITORIAL

Who killed Swazi human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko?

The Swazi government might ‘warn against speculations and insinuations’ concerning the murder of Thulani Maseko but everyone else, including the European Union, the United Nations and numerous NGOs, are calling it an assassination. However, the people who fired the bullets are not the only people we must hold responsible.

On the night of Saturday, 21 January 2023, Swazi human rights lawyer Thulani Rudolf Maseko was felled by three bullets from an unknown assassin. The cowards shot him at home through a window while he was watching TV with Tanele, his wife, and child. 

Read in Daily Maverick: Leading Swazi activist Thulani Maseko shot dead at his home” 

Thus ended the life of a man as inspiring as he was humble, a lawyer and an organiser, a kind person with a warm disposition but a lawyers’ precision. An attractive man, with a smile and a way of connecting with you. A man of peace, who used only law and social mobilisation as instruments to defend and advance human rights.

As Arnold Tsunga, chairperson of the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN), put it on Monday, he was “an extremist on dialogue and negotiation”.

We may never know exactly who pulled the trigger that killed Thulani. On the day of his death the Sunday Times of Eswatini carried a front-page story about the government hiring a “special missions unit” to counter terrorism – by terrorism they mean legitimate political opposition. There are allegations too by the Swaziland News that South African mercenaries are involved. The killers made their getaway and know that they are protected at the highest level. 

That’s why it’s a perfectly reasonable supposition (not an insinuation) that they were acting on orders from the highest level. 

Whatever the Swazi government might say, everyone else, including the European Union, the UN and numerous NGOs, are seeing it for what it was: an assassination. 

But the people who fired the bullets were not the only people we must hold responsible. 

In law there is a term, dolus eventualis, defined as “an intent in which the perpetrator foresees an outcome as a possibility and continues with it”. In this case, the perpetrators of Thulani’s death are those whose quiescence with the regime made it inevitable. It is the outcome of inaction by various parties and powers responsible for protecting human rights and life. It is intent by omission. 

So who killed Thulani Maseko?

King Mswati III killed Thulani. 

Only a day before Thulani’s assassination he warned: “People should not shed tears and complain about mercenaries killing them. These people started the violence first but when the state institutes a crackdown on them for their actions, they make a lot of noise blaming King Mswati for bringing in mercenaries.” 

King Mswati

Eswatini’s King Mswati III. (Photo: Bess Adler / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Mswati is obscene in every way. He is one of the richest men in the world in one of the poorest countries. Informed estimates say he is worth $200-million, yet about 60% of the population live below the poverty line. This anachronistic king behaves just like absolutist monarchs always have done over the ages; he executes with bullets; he has dungeons in which he keeps his opponents, including two MPs. He acts with impunity. 

He is accused number one.

So who killed Thulani Maseko? 

The South African government killed Thulani Maseko. 

After the massacre of democracy protesters in June 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa was meant to lead a Southern African Development Community (SADC) troika to negotiate with the king the terms for a “national dialogue” to end the crisis in Eswatini. On behalf of the Multi Stakeholders Forum, which he chaired, Thulani penned letters to the SADC troika setting out the people’s demands. 

But after one half-hearted visit in November 2021, Ramaphosa forgot about the kingdom where more than a million people are held ransom to hunger and disease by a monarch. 

Mswati Ramaphosa

President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his capacity as chairperson of the Southern African Development Community Organ on Politics, Defence and Security, meets King Mswati III at the Royal Palace in Eswatini on 2 November 2021 for deliberations on political and security developments in the kingdom. (Photo: Elmond Jiyane / GCIS)

The citizens have made clear their desire for democracy (Read: AD495: Dissatisfaction with Eswatini’s democracy rises – Afrobarometer).

But 14 months later there’s still no national dialogue

So who killed Thulani Maseko?

The leaders of SADC killed Thulani Maseko. 

It has been 10 years since the SADC Tribunal was dismantled at the behest of Robert Mugabe and with the active support of Jacob Zuma, an act that South Africa’s Constitutional Court has deemed unconstitutional. This leaves no regional human rights mechanism where citizens have recourse as protection against human rights violations. 

And anyway, the SADC, a men-only club of mostly corrupt leaders, has no interest in advancing democracy among its member states. Many of them have their own skeletons to hide, literally.

So who killed Thulani Maseko?

The governments of the AU, the EU and the US killed Thulani. 

By tolerating the excesses of Mswati and taking no action against the regime they have helped prolong its existence. They are guilty of double standards. Where are the sanctions, the confiscation of overseas properties of the king and his acolytes, the travel bans, the arms embargoes? 

While an EU statement condemning the killing yesterday was welcome, we think the EU doth protest too little, too late.


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We fear that once the outrage is over they will continue their policy of appeasement, putting their geostrategic interests above those of the people of Eswatini. We appeal to them not to.  

So who killed Thulani Maseko? 

We killed Thulani. 

By leaving it to brave individuals like Thulani to hold corrupt regimes to account and by not sustaining solidarity campaigns even with our nearest neighbours we leave human rights defenders vulnerable. 

When I interviewed Thulani in March 2022 I had asked him about his vulnerability. But he evaded the question, saying only that he was one among many activists who are vulnerable in that county: 

We know there is a price to pay for standing up for human rights. But know you are caught in between deciding whether to give up or keep going. You find that you have an obligation to keep going, difficult as the situation may be, with the hope that one day there will be a breakthrough in terms of creating a society where the rule of law is a basis of government in the country.” 

The SADC Tribunal was dismantled at the behest of Robert Mugabe. (Photo: Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images)

The SADC Tribunal was dismantled with the active support of Jacob Zuma, an act that South Africa’s Constitutional Court has deemed unconstitutional. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Yeshiel Panchia)

And that’s the point. Thulani would be the first to list the names of others who have been assassinated, disappeared and imprisoned. One of his missions as a lawyer was to gather evidence and initiate litigation to ensure justice for the 100-plus people murdered in the uprising of June 2021. 

So who killed Thulani Maseko?

Thulani Maseko’s spirit was not killed. 

His compassion and determination live on in thousands of hearts. Judged by the outpouring of messages of outrage and support – including from the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, the South African Council of Churches, 121 organisations who have signed a letter under the umbrella of the SAHRDN, the SADC Lawyers Association – Thulani’s murder has made people more determined than ever to bring democracy and equality to Eswatini.

They are demanding an internationally supervised independent investigation into his death; that the UN General Assembly appoint a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Swaziland; the release of all political prisoners; and a national dialogue leading to a constitutional dispensation that regulates the monarchy.

We owe it to Thulani, his wife, family and the people of Eswatini to actively support these demands and ensure that he did not die in vain. DM/MC

A memorial service and the funeral of Thulani Maseko will take place in Eswatini this weekend. Watch a speech by Thulani here.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ingrid Kemp says:

    Frightening, and the more I read the more I realise what a failed President Cyril Ramaphosa has been.

  • Marilyn Small says:

    I was once proud to be a South African but that pride is fading rapidly. Our government hosts and engages the Russian Minister of Defence despite Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and it’s blatant slow killing of Navalny and others who justly protest the oppressive Russian regime. In the heart of SA we condone and support the assassination of an extraordinary and passionate servant of the Swazi people and allow brutality to prevail. What has become of our humanity and sense of justice. Sincere condolences to Thulani Maseko’s dear family and the poor people of Swaziland who mourn his loss.

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