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As activist Thulani Maseko is laid to rest, Eswatini’s quest for democracy intensifies

As activist Thulani Maseko is laid to rest, Eswatini’s quest for democracy intensifies
Members of various political formations in Eswatini sang to celebrate the life of Thulani Maseko at his memorial and funeral service in Bhunya, Eswatini on Sunday. (Photo: Supplied)

With the call for open dialogue becoming louder and spreading wider in the wake of the slain lawyer’s memorial and burial, it is high noon for Eswatini’s monarch.

Slain human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was laid to rest in a rousing ceremony this Sunday in which the fervour of the toyi-toying often clashed with the sombre hymns as mourners gathered around his home in Bhunya, in Eswatini, to pay their final respects.

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Members of the diplomatic corps representing their countries in Eswatini attended the memorial and burial service, and delivered messages of condolence to the family and people of Eswatini. (Photo: Supplied)

On a drizzly Sunday morning, thousands gathered to chaperone his coffin as it carved a circuitous route to a family burial site a few metres beyond the house in which, just a week before, he was shot twice through a window as he watched television with his family.

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The memorial service almost became a political rally amid singing and toyi-toying. (Photo: Supplied)

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Political activists sing in protest during the service. (Photo: Supplied)

With well above a thousand people turning up to a memorial service held at a hall at eSibayeni Lodge in Matsapha, some regarded the large turnouts as a decisive show of bravery for pro-democracy forces. This capped off a week in which many were still coming to terms with the shock of Maseko’s death, which has been widely characterised as a state-sanctioned assassination.

Signal

Maseko’s death is believed to signal a portentous turn of events, coming soon after King Mswati III’s stern warnings of retaliatory violence to forces he has labelled as “terrorists” who had “first started the violence”. In the pro-democracy protests of mid 2021, in which people took to the streets to vocalise their frustrations with the lack of constitutional reforms, it is estimated that more than 80 people died and hundreds more were injured following crackdowns by the state.

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Thulani Maseko’s wife Tanele (centre) is helped to deliver a final message to her  husband. (Photo: Supplied)

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Relatives and friends comfort Tanele Maseko, wife to the late human rights activist. (Photo: Supplied)

“The mid-2021 massacres gave rise to forces who felt the deaths needed to be avenged,” says Manqoba Nxumalo, a co-ordinator of the Eswatini Solidarity Fund, leading to an escalation of violence and murders on both sides of the divide. While some have been enthused by the antics of the “solidarity forces”, others merely see them as the logical conclusion of “frustrated Swazis turning to extremism because they have been pushed that way for far too long”, said a lawyer, speaking anonymously. 

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Barnes Dlamini, a member of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF) and a friend of Thulani Maseko, delivers his farewell at the service. (Photo: Supplied)

In an editorial in the January edition of The Nation newspaper, editor Bheki Makhubu noted with concern that insults spilling over into social media could potentially tear the progressive forces apart. “This is as clear a sign that those who have always advocated for violent political change in the country have completely lost the plot,” he wrote in the magazine. 

Eighteen months of turmoil

The fervour of this weekend’s gatherings embodied the turmoil of the past 18 months.

“For a moment we were too shocked to come out of our houses, or say anything about this [assassination],” said Mzwandile Masuku, an attorney of the High Court of Eswatini and programmes manager at the Foundation for Socio Economic Justice

“Thulani stood for, ‘We want democracy and we want to speak to the king about the kind of democracy we want.’ What Thulani’s death has done is put a spotlight on the political crisis in Swaziland. His contacts regionally and internationally have spoken out against what has happened.”

Some speculated that the timing of Maseko’s killing had to do with the fact that the king felt emboldened by SADC’s apparent acquiescence to King Mswati’s rejection of an open dialogue.

In a brief conversation following Maseko’s burial on Sunday, Briggs Bomba, programme director at TrustAfrica, said that in the short term, Maseko’s killing undermined the process of multistakeholder dialogue, which he had championed (Maseko was chairperson of the Swaziland Multi-Stakeholder Forum), as it had whipped up a great deal of anger among citizens. 

Militancy

“At the funeral, you could sense that the air was very charged, especially among the young activists,” he said. “There was a sense of militancy. In the medium to longer term, there seems to be no other way other than what Thulani was proposing, which is to create a framework that allows the Swazis to collectively inform the next chapter in their history.”

In his last column to be published in The Nation (January 2023), Maseko expressed the king’s resistance to “a process he couldn’t control” as “extraordinarily high”, citing in particular the subsequent dulling of the promise of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s intervention in 2022. Ramaphosa had been SADC’s third emissary. Maseko also took aim at the king’s insistence on holding the talks under the restrictive ambit of the Tinkhundla process

“There are many stakeholders who fall outside of the Tinkhundla constitutional framework who have a stake and must be given a seat at the dialogue table,” he wrote. “Prime among these are political parties. Tinkhundla, by its very nature and character, is vehemently opposed to political parties.” 

Legal profession under threat

While Maseko’s death has amplified the position of pro-democracy lobbyists, this is offset by the number of legal professionals, for one, who have faced attempts on their life, with some going into hiding in neighbouring countries. 

“You get targeted by the police, shot at, even, [for representing people who have been charged with terrorism],” says Masuku. “You have lawyers that are in South Africa because they have survived assassination attempts. You have others that left the country the next day when they heard about Thulani’s death. There were guys that appeared in court last week [linked to the Solidarity Forces]. At 7pm. Strange. Nobody showed up to represent them because we are all scared.”

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While Maseko’s memorial in Matsapha was a tough balancing act between the cool-headedness needed to take the country forward and the groundswell of discontent that had been building for years, his funeral in his home district was a more unbridled display of the potential for violence to escalate further, should decisive action remain void. To echo colleague Kwanele Magagula, “this is a decisive moment”.

Reflecting on her visit to Eswatini for Maseko’s burial and memorial, author and activist Tiseke Kasambala, from Freedom House, said her sense was that the majority of Swatis remained committed to a peaceful transition. However, the situation as it remained, was untenable.

“The Eswatini authorities cannot be allowed to continue to perpetrate violent acts against their people,” she said. “The pressure for change is extremely high now. SADC, the AU and Western embassies are all calling for an investigation into Thulani’s murder and for the authorities to hold a national dialogue and commit to a timeline for that dialogue. They are all saying it must happen now.” DM/MC

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