Maverick Citizen

MOTIVATION FOR MURDER

Thulani Maseko and the declaration that activists suspect rubbed up the Swazi monarchy the wrong way

Thulani Maseko and the declaration that activists suspect rubbed up the Swazi monarchy the wrong way
Human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko's memorial service at the University of Pretoria. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

In Eswatini, parliamentary elections are held every five years but there is no legislative framework enabling political parties to participate. By calling for the boycott and sabotage of the parliamentary elections slated for September 2023, it is understood that the Swaziland Multi-Stakeholder Forum and particularly Maseko were seen as a security threat by Eswatini authorities.

It has been six months since prominent Eswatini human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was gunned down in cold blood in front of his family. The killers remain unknown and the motive for his murder remains a subject of speculation. 

Political activists and the broader civil society are adamant that Maseko was assassinated by state agents for his activism and human rights work. However, the government has repeatedly denied any involvement in Maseko’s killing. 

In a statement released a day after Maseko was murdered, Eswatini government spokesperson Alpheous Nxumalo said security forces were “already at work looking for the killers”. But since then neither the government nor the police have given updates on the progress of their investigations. 

Consequently, the failure of the police and the government to take the nation into their confidence with regards to progress of their investigations has given rise to hypotheses about the motives for Maseko’s murder. 

Thulani Maseko Tanele Maseko

Human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko’s wife Tanele spoke about the pain she has endured as a result of her husband’s death. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

While some in the legal fraternity believe it could have been part of what increasingly seems like a concerted crackdown by the state on human rights lawyers, some political activists believe the motive might be found in a document published by the Swaziland Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF) in December 2022.

The forum, which Maseko chaired, is an organisation comprising civil society, religious and political groups and has been at the forefront of calling for democratic reforms since the June-July 2021 unrest. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Eswatini massacre one year on – lest we forget

From 16 to 18 December 2022, the MSF met at eBundu in Mbombela, Mpumalanga, “to reflect and make resolutions on important political issues affecting [Eswatini]”.

The organisation produced a document titled “The eBundu Declaration”, in which it made 11 declarations or action points. 

“We reaffirm our position that we will not participate in the 2023 Tinkhundla elections and we will adopt an anti-election campaign that will guide all our anti-election activities,” reads one of the declarations. 

Additionally, the organisation declared: 

“We will continue to demand and fight for the popular democratic control of state resources, including mineral and natural resources, as well as reclaiming Tibiyo and claiming back the land in the defence and protection of the people’s dignity.”

Furthermore, the MSF called for the “constitution of a Transitional Authority to take care of the affairs of state whilst we work towards a democratically elected peoples’ government”.

These declarations are said to have ruffled feathers of those in the higher echelons of power in Eswatini. It is understood that MSF’s call for an interim government was construed by the powers that be as calling for the overthrow of the monarchy.

Maseko had first made the call for the formation of an interim government in 2021, immediately after the unrest which claimed 46 lives, according to a report by the Eswatini Human Rights Commission. On 10 October 2021, the Times of Eswatini reported that “putting together a transitional government was part of [the MSF’s] plan”.

Thulani Maseko

Thulani Maseko’s funeral. (Photo: Supplied)

A week later, Prime Minister of Eswatini Cleopas Dlamini told journalists that “[u]nder no circumstances can an interim government, therefore, be formed and any such assertion is misplaced and has no basis in fact and in law”.

“We have heard that some people are agitating for the formation of an interim government. Eswatini is a sovereign state, with a legally constituted governance structure headed by His Majesty the King and assisted by the three arms of government, namely the executive, legislature and judiciary,” Dlamini stressed.

Moreover, by calling for Tibiyo Taka Ngwane to benefit the masses instead of being a royal cash cow, the MSF, particularly Maseko, are understood to have rattled the monarchy’s cage. 

Tibiyo is a multibillion-rand conglomerate established in 1968 by the late King Sobhuza II through a royal charter. Initially, Tibiyo functioned more like a sovereign wealth fund but it later morphed into an investment company of the royal family. 

Read more: Royal Riches – the business of being king – Inhlase

The company is a majority shareholder in most major industries in Eswatini, mainly in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors. Its board is appointed by the monarch and is answerable to him – not the government. 

Elections due in September 2023

Furthermore, by calling for the boycott and sabotage of the parliamentary elections slated for September 2023, it is understood that the MSF and particularly Maseko were seen by Eswatini authorities as a security threat. In Eswatini, parliamentary elections are held every five years but there is no legislative framework enabling political parties to participate. 

Aspiring parliamentarians can only stand as independents. And the nomination process takes place in royal kraals under the watchful eye of traditional authorities (chiefs) who can influence voters not to nominate candidates perceived not to be loyal to the chief and those seen as anti-monarchy. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Mswati III — Terrorising the living and the dead for freedom of speech, expression in Eswatini

Political activists and a larger section of civil society view these elections as undemocratic. However, the government has religiously held them every five years since 1993, presumably to convince the international community that the obtaining Tinkhundla system of government conforms to democratic values. 

During the election season security forces are usually deployed to scare off disruptors, safeguard voting centres and ensure that the entire election process is seamless and incident-free. Hence, some activists believe that by calling for a boycott of the elections, the MSF and its chairperson, Maseko, could have been categorised as possible disruptors who needed to be nipped in the bud.

The state probably saw him as glue holding the mass democratic movement together, hence they eliminated him.

MSF secretary-general Sikelela Dlamini said they never thought that the MSF declarations could be construed in some quarters as a call for an overthrow of the monarch. 

“When we disseminated this document, we wanted to inform our members about our programme of action. But on the sidelines of some functions we often meet with diplomats, and they always ask us if our call for an interim government doesn’t amount to a coup. And this just demonstrates that people misunderstood what we meant by calling for an interim government,” Dlamini said.

He added that, as the MSF, they believed that the theory alleging that Maseko could have been eliminated over the MSF declarations could be true. 

“Thulani (Maseko) was a well-mannered and a peaceful man, who could not hurt a fly. He was a shrewd lawyer who could not have embarked on activities that would lend him into trouble. The state probably saw him as glue holding the mass democratic movement together, hence they eliminated him,” he added.

Meanwhile, King Mswati’s spokesperson, Percy Simelane, told Daily Maverick that the office of the monarch did not react in any way to the MSF’s call for an interim government. “We normally stick [to] the constitution for political guidance and administration and not individual or organisational opinions on the street,” he said, adding that the Eswatini electoral system sits with the best in the world. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Lawyers live in fear as Swazi state intensifies crackdown on activists

“In this country, we the people freely nominate and vote for our [representatives] in parliament as opposed to situations around the world where political party leaders impose themselves on the electorate,” he added.

When asked if the highest office in the land had done something to push investigators to speed up investigations into Maseko’s murder, Simelane replied in the negative.

Thulani Maseko

Human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko’s wife Tanele at his memorial at the University of Pretoria. When Maseko was imprisoned in 2014/15 Tanele travelled around the world, calling for his release. (Photo: Leon Sadiki)

“In this country we do not push police detectives or intelligence to investigate crimes lest we upset the dragnets, as the case was with the South African Police Service, who were put under pressure and arrested a wrong person after the [Orlando] Pirates goal-minder Senzo Meyiwa was assassinated. [Additionally] we know of a case that took about 18 years to solve in the UK, which involved a cop serial rapist,” said Simelane. 

On 19 July 2023, the Times of Eswatini quoted Tanele Maseko as saying the death of her husband had become a cold case. 

“The wife of the deceased [lawyer] said she last heard or saw police officers regarding the murder days after it had occurred. She said since then, there had been no update from those investigating possible suspects or the motive behind the assassination,” the report said.

The publication further quoted Eswatini police spokesperson, Superintendent Phindile Vilakati, as saying Tanele was welcome to approach the police for updates on the investigation into her husband’s murder.

International human rights groups and defenders have called for a transparent investigation of Maseko’s murder. In a statement issued on 23 February 2023, Amnesty International said: “The Eswatini authorities must promptly, thoroughly, impartially, independently, transparently and effectively investigate the killing and bring to justice anyone suspected to be responsible. The victim and his family must be provided with access to justice and effective remedies”. DM

The name of the writer has been withheld as their life could be in danger should they be identified. The identity of the author is known by the Editor of Maverick Citizen.

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