Maverick Citizen

JUSTICE FOR THULANI

Thulani Maseko assassination — allegations of SA ‘mercenary involvement’, and a witness details suspicious police activities

Thulani Maseko assassination — allegations of SA ‘mercenary involvement’, and a witness details suspicious police activities
Human rights defender and lawyer Thulani Maseko. (Screenshot: YouTube)

Although there is still no independent investigation into the assassination of Swaziland human rights activist Thulani Maseko, and the Eswatini government seems to see no need to prioritise its own investigation, there are plenty of clues. Although denying Maseko was on it, an Eswatini registered security company, owned by a South African, admits it has a hit list of ‘terrorists’.

Last week Maverick Citizen reported on the snail’s pace of investigation into the murder of Swaziland human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko. We noted the timidity of SADC to enforce an investigation and the lack of political commitment of the Mswati autocracy to investigate itself. But in the midst of this, the call for “Justice for Thulani” grows across the world. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Who killed Thulani Maseko? The deafening silence from Eswatini and SADC about a serious investigation

However, colleagues of Maseko fear that, while there are leads that could be pursued in an investigation, there is a danger that the trail can go cold or that evidence and witnesses may be tampered with. To prevent this, lawyers and activists have started gathering and preserving some of the evidence surrounding the assassination. 

For example, Maverick Citizen has a copy of a damning sworn affidavit signed by one of Maseko’s relatives, detailing what he witnessed when he arrived at the Maseko homestead within minutes of the shooting.

The affidavit, by a person whose name we are withholding for their protection, details how late at night, after witnessing the murder scene, the relative set off on a motorbike to try to alert the police. He claims that within minutes he came upon a suspicious black BMW (whose number plate he partially recalls) parked on the dirt road leading to Maseko’s house, and soon after that two police vehicles, one of them marked, parked on the side of the main road. 

“The Police Officers wore full police uniform, and they were carrying semi-automated [sic] rifles,” says the affidavit. 

Although the two police vehicles then accompanied him to the scene of the murder (one of them apparently knowing where to locate the house), they turned down his request to go in pursuit of the BMW. 

“Upon arrival at Thulani’s place, I approached the Police Officers and informed them of my suspicions of the BMW car. I asked if it is possible to go after the BMW car. They informed me that they cannot go; when I insisted they told me to take pictures of the licence plate of the car and that they will be right behind me. I felt defeated and decided to go alone.”  

The witness was unable to find the BMW so returned to the house where he says he found more police as well as forensics officers.  

“After the police and forensics had left, the group of us who remained there started cleaning the place. This entailed, among other things, sweeping and mopping the blood and cleaning his brains off the couch and floor.” 

Finally, the person details how he fled Swaziland the next morning, “after one Maseko neighbour told me to leave the area immediately as I had seen too much, which I interpreted to mean my life would be in danger”.  

Bastion Security’s Arnold Jacobus Pienaar. (Photo: Facebook)

The South African connection 

In the days immediately after the killing, the Swaziland News, an independent online newspaper edited by Zweli Martin Dlamini, who has been declared a “terrorist” by the Swazi government and is exiled in SA,  named a South African security specialist, Arnold Jacobus Pienaar, as being directly linked to the killing.  

Pienaar is a director of Bastion Security, a  company registered in Eswatini, whose militaristic website, patterned like the barrel of a gun, says its head office is at the Old Country Club premises in Mhlambanyatsi (just outside Mbabane). In South Africa, Pienaar is listed by the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC) as the director of Armator Security, a company which does not have a website and is not registered with the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority.  

Read: King Mswati’s apartheid mercenaries killing civilians must be dealt with decisively

The allegation that Pienaar may be part of the murder plot has been repeated in other media, including the Times of Swaziland which, the day after the murder, carried a front-page report headlined: “Govt hires military expert for Special Missions”. It named Bastion Security and Pienaar as “formally training a counter-terrorism unit of the State security agencies”. 

Read: Govt hires military expert for special missions 

The best picture we have of Pienaar comes from a January 2023 article in SA Forestry online which says he was recruited by Montigny Investments, a timber company founded by Swaziland’s current minister of finance, Neal Rijkenberg, and that before that he had worked for a security company in Iraq purely for his “military expertise”.   

In the UK, The Times, following up on allegations made in the Eswatini media, interviewed Pienaar, and says he “vigorously denied” being responsible for Maseko’s murder, while still admitting that Bastion Security is working for King Mswati III and has a “list of terrorists”. 

According to the article by Jane Flanagan, the Times’ Africa correspondent: “Bastion Security, founded by Arno Pienaar who served in the SA army during apartheid and later worked in Iraq, confirmed that his firm had signed a security agreement with the King last year… 

“‘We do training, it is nonsense that we are a hit squad or mercenaries,’ he told the Times. After working in Swaziland for a number of years defending commercial forests from arson attacks, Pienaar said he had struck up a relationship with the king and offered to help with worsening security.   

“‘I could see that the security forces were totally untrained for the job of dealing with terrorists,’” he said. ‘The narrative that people are being jailed for peaceful protests is crap. They are terrorists and choose violence, they are not freedom fighters.’ 

“Rather than being the extravagant tyrant as often depicted, Pienaar considered the king ‘to be far too soft on what has been brewing for a very long time’.

“He blamed Maseko’s death on ‘an inside job’, a power struggle within the movement. ‘I have worked all over Africa, that’s how it works here. There is always in-fighting. There was no reason to kill him, he was not on our list of terrorists,’ he said, adding that records put all his men and vehicles nowhere near the murder scene in Luhleko.”  

Coincidentally, Pienaar’s claim that Maseko was killed by his own comrades has also been made by the Eswatini prime minister, who told the SADC Troika in January that “the proponents of unconstitutional change would have had the most to gain from his death as he attracted international recognition”.  

This argument also appears to be part of a misinformation campaign being driven by anonymous websites, including one called The Hidden Side, an anonymous blog hosted on medium.com, which publishes Swazi anti-democracy movement stories. For example, on 23 January, The Hidden Side made an unsubstantiated claim that Swaziland News editor Dlamini and Pedumo (People’s United Democratic Movement) President Mlungisi Makhanya were behind the murder. 

Recently questions about Pienaar’s role intensified after it was revealed that he had been granted Swazi citizenship in response to a direct request from King Mswati III.  

Describing him as “Mswati’s chief assassin” the Swaziland Solidarity Network claimed that by doing so “the king has violated his very Constitution, which makes it clear in chapter 45, section (3), that the prequalifying condition for granting of citizenship to a foreigner is that the person must be ‘A person who is ordinarily resident in Swaziland and has been so resident for a period of at least ten years and whose application is supported by a Chief after consultation with bandlancane (chief’s inner council) or supported by three reputable citizens, may be registered as a citizen.” 

Daily Maverick sent detailed questions to Arnold Pienaar at his official email address at Bastion Security asking for a response to these allegations. No response was received.   

(Image: Supplied)


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


Regulating rogue security companies 

In the light of allegations about the involvement of private South African-based security companies in suppressing pro-democracy activists in Eswatini, (“mercenaries” is the word they use) questions are being asked about how South Africa regulates and monitors such companies, and whether their activities are in breach of South African law.  

For example, a 22 January statement from the Letfu Sonkhe Institute of Strategic Thinking and Development, another Eswatini think-tank that is based in exile, reads:

“The role of SA mercenaries in Swaziland requires urgent investigation by the SA government and Parliament. Paramilitary groups hired by the government of the Kingdom of Eswatini in collaboration with white-owned companies in the forestry industry are actively leading the clandestine execution of suspects and activists. … Leftu Sonkhe therefore appeals to the authorities in SA and the regional body SADC to help intervene with a peacekeeping mission.”  

In response to questions about the government’s position on such activities, Dirco spokesperson Clayson Monyela said: “The South African law (the Prohibition of Mercenary Activities and Regulation of Certain Activities in Country of Armed Conflict Act 27 of 2006) is very clear that mercenary activities are a criminal offence. Any South African who is found to be involved in such activities would have to be arrested and face the full might of the law.” 

In addition, the legal department of the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSiRA), told us that Bastion Security, Armator Security and Armator Solutions were not registered with PSiRA:

“A search based solely on the business name provides three possible options; however, the three we have listed are all withdrawn.”  

They added, however, that “in the absence of a PSiRA number, the search can have a lot of parameters that influence the correctness of the findings, ie, the name might have different acronyms or additions”. 

According to PSiRA “a database of all security businesses and individuals is publicly available at www.psira.co.za)”. PSiRA drew our attention to the Private Security Industry Regulation Act 56 of 2001, where section 39 states that “any action constituting an offence in terms of this Act which is committed outside the Republic by any security service provider, registered or obliged to be registered in terms of the Act, is deemed to be committed in the Republic.” 

“Citizens can submit their complaints by emailing [email protected]. In the instance of a complaint based on a security company it will be sent to our law enforcement division, an inspector will be assigned to investigate the matter and provide feedback to the complainant.” 

Growing global demands for an independent investigation 

In the face of the facts that are known so far, and others in Maverick Citizen’s possession which we have chosen not to publish yet, more than 180 organisations have submitted a petition urging the government of Eswatini to act. The petition has also been sent to the African Union, SADC, United Nations and governments globally. It calls on the government of Eswatini to:

  1. “Immediately allow for an internationally supported panel that will conduct a thorough, independent and expeditious investigation into the circumstances of the killing of Thulani Maseko.
  2. “Release all political prisoners and refrain from the excessive use of force to disperse protesters and from the routine arbitrary arrests and killing of peaceful protesters and those expressing opposing views.
  3. “Immediately revoke the contracts and halt the policy and practice of the hiring of private military companies to ‘engage’ protesters and pro-democracy activists, deeming them terrorists, and thus, ‘legitimate targets’ for elimination.
  4. “Immediately end the violent rhetoric against pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders.” DM/MC

 This is an ongoing investigation. Any person with relevant information can contact us at [email protected] 

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Caroline de Braganza says:

    I am a writer on Medium’ s blogging site. I reported the publication spreading misinformation you refer to in this article to Medium’s Trust and Safety team. I’m happy to report that as at 8 March, they have removed the publication from the platform. Glad I could do my bit to Defend Truth.

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