Lowly, humble beginnings
I am the sixth born from a family of five boys and five girls. My father Malcom, the famous Sihlahla, was a worker- a mineworker, and later a cattle guard under the Ministry of Agriculture to be specific. He was based in the Shiselweni region until he retired from government. My mother, Fakazile popularly known as Mavalane, was just a simple and humble housewife born from a Zwane family.
There was an interesting contrast between my parents. My mother never saw the inside of a classroom, but grew up herding cattle and later working as a maid in farms. On the contrary, my father was educated and very well educated by standards of the time as he got trained as a teacher at the then prestigious Adams Mission at Amanzimtoti.
I grew up in the lowly, but humble village of Makhosini located about thirteen kilometers from Nhlangano town, past Ngwane Teachers College in southern Swaziland. Our homestead has always been situated very close to the banks of Umfuzane river. Like all young boys, I passed through the experience of looking after the family cattle. I eventually enrolled in the local Makhosini Primary School. Life was never easy at all. It was quite usual for me and my siblings to occasionally run out of school fees, sometimes as low as 50 pence. My tasks included taking the cattle to the dipping tank and looking after them after school and on weekends. Each day became a duplicate of the other with me going to school, coming back in the afternoon, eating whatever there was and changing clothes. Then I would run as quickly as I could to the veld to relieve those who were looking after the cattle.
In 1966, while doing standard six, I and a local boy, Raymond Ndlangamandla got invitations to enroll for Form 1 at Evelyn Baring High School provided we passed our examinations. Evelyn Baring, situated in Nhlangano, was a prestigious ‘whites only’ school that had recently been deracialized. We were to become part of the first contingent of ‘black’ students to enroll in this school. Early in the following year, I was on my way to my new school. The first born and eldest sister, Dudu, had to walk me to this new school where I became a boarder and for the first time in my life I had to sleep and stay away from home!
At the time my father was involved in party politics in preparation for a democratic Swaziland that was under British colonial administration. He was a member of the Swaziland Democratic Party, a political party that also involved the likes of Sishayi Nxumalo, Dr Allen Nxumalo and many others. My elder brothers Patrington and Thanduxolo were also involved in politics. I could only listen to the many informative debates that were taking place around me.
In 1967, the Nxumalos convinced a conference in Mbabane that they were going to attempt to change King Sobhuza II’s party, Imbokodvo National Movement, from within. Consequently they disbanded the Swaziland Democratic Party.
In 1967, I and a friend Charlton Mncwango together with one Shedrice Bhembe were involved in an altercation with one white teacher, a Mr Vall. He had wanted us to play football which we did not like, but had preferred to do something else instead. As punishment, he instructed us to write an essay about ‘Wild Animals in Africa.’ We felt completely provoked and in return, we decided to write about ‘Wild animals from Europe’ that had come to spoil our Africa. I was eventually expelled and had to stay the whole second term and partly the last while looking for alternative space. My father had to come down from the South African mines where he was employed and negotiated my return to school with the then king, but no nonsense principal Mr H S Telford. We had nicknamed him Nsizwa. I then continued with my studies until 1971. During those years, I eventually developed not only into a footballer of note, but also captain and a school prefect.
My Early Political Experiences
At the end of 1971, after writing my final examination, I came straight to Mbabane in search of a better life. Luckily for me, whether by fate or design, I got myself employment at the then prestigious Barclays Bank. At the time there was a huge influx of freedom fighters from both the Republic of South Africa and Mozambique. Those from South Africa were struggling against the apartheid regime, while those from Mozambique were in a bloody fight for freedom against Portuguese colonial rule. In the process and interaction with these various freedom fighters, I was able to make a lot of friends with whom we shared political ideas and experiences. As a bank worker, I eventually joined the then Swaziland Bank Workers Union and was very active.
While still enjoying my new found life and experience of living in the capital town as a worker, a very strange occurrence just took place. This was like the biblical apocalypse! It was an incident that was not only to raise my political consciousness, but also of many fellow Swazis and the beginning of calculated and systematic oppression of the people of this country. In the year 1973, King Sobhuza II, in what was to be known as the King’s Proclamation to the Nation made a very strange announcement that was to change the political landscape of our country. The King had summoned the Swazi people to his traditional headquarters at Lobamba while parliament was in session. In the proclamation, he announced that he was now suspending the national constitution and assuming all powers including legislative, executive and judiciary powers. This proclamation effectively banned political parties and free political activity in the country.
Subsequent to this proclamation, there was heightened tension, repression and fear orchestrated by the state. In spite of all this, there were growing political activities and discussions that took place underground in an effort to reverse the environment created by the King’s proclamation. I soon found myself amongst a group of such and we eventually formed an underground political organization called the Ngwane Socialist Revolutionary Party (NGWASOREP). Some of our members were former members of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC) and the Swaziland Democratic Party (SDP). As a result of our activities, some were detained under the 60 days detention without trial order. Others, of course, decided to go into exile while others including myself opted to remain in the country. Due to the heavy clampdown and the scattering of the members, the activities were seriously curtailed and became non-existent.
However, the student uprising of 1976 in South Africa and those of 1977 in Swaziland were to prove to be a crucial catalyst for the revitalization of political activism in Swaziland which spread into the local university at Kwaluseni.
In 1982, the old king died and soon there was a huge cloud of uncertainty amongst the people of Swaziland - mainly they believed the country could not survive without the ‘wise and magical king.’ Compounding the uncertainty, was the growing tension within royalty with regard to the question on who was to become the next prince to ascend to the throne? In the absence of the king, a supreme council of state, Liqoqo under the leadership of the all powerful Prince Mfanasibili, took charge of the responsibility of governing the country. In the ensuring conflict within royalty, the Liqoqo eventually dethroned the Queen Mother of the nation at the time who was Dzeliwe Shongwe. This did not only infuriate people within royalty, but also a lot of ordinary people within the Swazi populace. This resulted in university students led by a very powerful Student Representative Council deciding to march to the High Court grounds in protest of the dethroning of Queen Dzeliwe.
Me and PUDEMO – the early years
In midst of the deep-seated arrogance and repression by the state, a group of workers, intellectuals and students assembled on the banks of Mbuluzi river near Mantjolo dam on the 6 July 1983. It was in this historic gathering that the People’s United Democratic Movement was born. I was part of that historical gathering. A gathering that gave birth to an organization aimed at uniting the people of Swaziland in the struggle for liberation from the manipulative and oppressive Tinkhundla royal regime.
The organization was born during trying conditions when the apartheid regime in South Africa was in strong collaboration with the Swazi authorities under the rule of Liqoqo. In their collaboration, they mounted the fight against cadres of the South African liberation movements who were in hiding in the country. Our alliance with these organizations dates back to that time.
The Swazi regime further waged attacks on PUDEMO members. As a result of this political repression by the regime, some of our cadres were forced into exile. Such cadres included Jabulani Matsebula, Dumezweni Dlamini, the late Dr Gabriel Mkhumane, Gavin McFadden, David Vilakazi, Lucky Mthembu and others.
In 1986, I was elected into the position of President. It was in this period where we waged a fierce campaign in mobilization and information distribution. I still remember the New Year message I made on behalf of PUDEMO. We called for combined mass resistance by students, workers, the church and the poor against the Swazi regime to achieve a democratic Swaziland. In January 1990, I made a similar call at a New Year ‘party’ that we had organized at Mawelawela on the banks of Usuthu river and was attended by various people across the social divide.
Further addresses were made to the people of Kukhanyeni about the ills of this government. This campaign continued even to other forums. More members were incorporated in carrying out this campaign. Such cadres included the late Dominic Mngometulu and Benedict Didiza Tsabedze. The campaign was so successful that it badly shook the regime to its core. As a result, the state rounded eleven of us and charged with treason. Our trial was at the High Court with Justice Nicholas Hannah, the presiding judge, while Adrinka Donkoh, one Thwala and some South African legal experts prosecuted on behalf of the state. Renowned attorney Peter Dunseith was our defence counsel and instructed one Advocate Elna Revales who was from South Africa.
Immediately on my indictment, my employer Barclays Bank terminated my services. The trial commenced and we were all acquitted of the main charge of high treason, but were found guilty of attending ‘illegal meetings.’ Mngometulu, Peter Shongwe, Sabelo ‘Brazo’ Dlamini and Boy ‘Qhawe’ Magagula engaged in a hunger strike and were subsequently admitted to the Mbabane government hospital. We appealed against the sentence and were successful.
I went back to my employer and negotiated for my reinstatement. In February 1991 I was successful and was finally reinstated and continued with my work.
A New Leadership, New Beginnings
The year 1991 was to be yet another historic chapter in our ever growing and strengthening struggle. It was in this year that we held our congress at Ipelegeng Centre, Soweto because of the very harsh political environment in our country. It was in this congress that Comrade Kislon ‘KP’ Shongwe was elected the new President while I became his Deputy President.
This is where again PUDEMO crafted one of her most important documents, The Way Forward: Towards a Constituent Assembly Through a Negotiated Settlement. We further demanded a new people driven national constitution. We also took a decision to unban ourselves in order to pursue our activities openly and challenge the state and mobilize our people for democratic change.
This is the year in which our youth league, popularly known as the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) was formed under the leadership of our departed young lion Benedict ‘Didiza’ Tsabedze. Working with our youth league, we were able to challenge and exert more pressure on the state.
The domestic pressure consequently led to international pressure being exerted on the state and forcing it to introduce political changes. In 1996, king Mswati III established and announced the discredited Constitutional Review Commission chaired by Prince Mangaliso now carrying the title Chief Logcogco. Twenty nine Swazis including myself were appointed by decree into this commission.
PUDEMO and other progressive formations objected to the terms of reference on the commission put forward by the king. We began to engage the king on the shortcomings of the commission, but we were ignored. The SwazilandDemocratic Alliance (SDA) wrote many letters to the king and his office highlighting the wrongs in the commission and suggested solutions, but no response was ever received.
In 1997, PUDEMO took a strongly resolution to withdraw my participation in this royal project. Shortly thereafter, Jerry Gule, Mhawu Maziya and Nkonzo Hlatshwayo also withdrew their participation from the commission. This left behind chiefs, royal praise singers, stooges, princes and princesses as members of the commission.
The Post 1996 Struggle
As noted previously, 1996 was a politically eventful year for PUDEMO and the country. It was to be a year that heralded even more social unrest and political activities in the coming years post 1996.
In 1996, I was again voted in as the President of PUDEMO. It was in this same year that the country experienced massive labour protests that brought the country to a standstill. I, on behalf of PUDEMO, was unequivocal in publicly expressing our support for the labour protests with their Popular 27 Demands that expressed nothing else except total social transformation in the country. However, this public support was to eventually cost me my job as the Human Resource Manager at Barclays Bank. I was given an option to either support capital or the suffering working class and the poor. As I opted for the latter, I was then made to lose my job.
During these trying times, I had countless meetings with political leaders and other leaders in the broader Swazi society. This even led me into having secret meetings behind closed doors with the king at different times. He was the convener of these meetings. In our engagements, the king openly and completely refused to see and accept any other view that was contrary to his. It became very clear that he was not prepared to see reason and find common ground that would take Swaziland forward. Indeed it was time and energy wasted. Maybe Swaziland would not be in this political mess and crisis if the king had been prepared to see reason instead of demanding to have his way and nothing else!
In the year 2000, the turn of the century, a chieftaincy dispute erupted at Macetjeni and KaMkhweli areas. This was a direct result of the country’s traditional authorities at Ludzidzini brutally imposing the king’s brother, Prince Maguga, as the new chief of both areas. This action and decision automatically meant that the ruling chiefs of both areas were now demoted into becoming ordinary members of their communities. The people in these areas strongly objected and challenged this imposition. After several attempts at resisting this decision, an eviction order was issued by the then Minister for Home Affairs, a brother to the king, Prince Sobandla. Swiftly, the country’s security forces were deployed to these areas to forcefully evict and drive out scores of people from their homes, especially those that were seen as anti-Maguga. They were taken in the still of the night in police, army and government trucks to be dumped in faraway areas unknown to them. This was one of the cruelest acts of oppression ever visited on the people of Swaziland, on the poor and helpless, by the royal rule.
With all these mounting social and political crises, the general Swazi population was thoroughly shaken and it brought both fear and anger on almost everyone save for the royal bootlickers and hangers-on. Consequently, the SDA decided to call for a national gathering in Manzini to deliberate on the ills engulfing the country. However, the state banned such a meeting and deployed its security forces to ensure the meeting never took place. Faced with this danger and arrogance from the state, the SDA resolved to hold this mass meeting outside the country in Nelspruit at Nelsville. Over 5000 people from the country traveled to Nelspruit. After many lengthy deliberations, the Mpumalanga Declaration was drafted. Many resolutions were put forward and one of those was to continuously organize and hold rolling mass action all over the country. It was in October 2000 during one of these mass protests that I was arrested and charged with sedition and subversion.
I was eventually given admission to bail with one condition, that I must report at the Mbabane police station every Friday which I tried very hard to comply with although it was tough and at times annoying!
As mentioned before, the bail conditions were felt so unfair and annoying. It made no sense that I was outside the prison walls because the conditions never made me feel completely free. To make matters even worse, the state never seemed prepared to bring me to trial.
In 2001, PUDEMO held her General Congress at Sikhawini in the month of September. After serious and long deliberations, it was resolved that we defy all the bail conditions. I implemented the resolution and never went to report at the police station as expected. In October I was detained for not complying with my bail conditions. I was booked into Matsapha Maximum Security Prison and put in solitary confinement.
I was in detention through the remainder of 2001 without the trial resuming. Sometime in the year 2002, the trial began. The prosecution was led by the Attorney General, one Mr Ngarua. Appearing for the defence team was Advocate Piet Ebersshon instructed by local attorney and friend Paul Shilubane. Justice Josia Matsebula was the presiding judge.
After a long period, the trial was finally concluded in August 2002. I was acquitted of the charges. In October of the same year, I busied myself with seeking solidarity by travelling abroad to countries that included South Africa, Denmark and Holland. Wherever I went, I was able to address large audiences and met influential people on the question of Swaziland and its lack of democracy. In all my travels, I was very successful because from then on many people internationally began to understand our plight and took strong and active interest in our struggle for democracy. In the process, PUDEMO was able to create friends and allies that were to prove very valuable and effective in assisting us to carry the struggle forward.
From 2003 to 2005, there was huge focus on the national constitution making process in the country. It was during those years that I met the Commonwealth Team, ambassadors from the European Union, United Kingdom, the United States of America, the Republic of South Africa and many others on the question of Swaziland. In spite of all these efforts, the king refused to take advice from all these groups and consequently went ahead to gazette a document he called the national constitution in July 2005 at his traditional headquarters at Ludzidzini. However, the constitution was suspended and it became effective in 2006!
In December 2006, I experienced a life threatening challenge when I was attacked by diabetes and pneumonia in combination. I was admitted in the Mbabane Clinic where they failed to handle the condition and was transferred to the Mbabane Government Hospital where I was taken straight into the Intensive Care Unit where I spent 4 days. For the whole of December I remained hospitalized. Very close to the end of December, I was discharged and for the first time went home. This was one of the most trying and painful moments of my life ever.
When the 6th PUDEMO General Congress was held in Matsulu while I was lying in the ICU. In spite of my medical condition at the time, the delegates elected me as the President of the organization again. I however, spent the whole of 2007 recuperating while doing all I could to serve the organization.
In life, besides one’s own affairs, there will always be people who make you what you are. In this case, my wife Thembi uLaMkhonta has been my pillar of survival. She has on many instances held fort while I engaged in battles with the state even in the most of trying times. She not only raised single-handedly our six children, but further withstood state pressure and even some derogatory and reactionary advice from all angles. Thembi is the main link between me, PUDEMO, the church, my mother, my siblings and the entire extended family. She has walked and hiked daily to wherever I was incarcerated to come and see how I was doing even if she had nothing to give me. If ever anyone deserved revolutionary humility and perseverance honours, it can be none other than Thembi.
As a freedom fighter, leader and family man, there are moments when you find yourself alone, lonely and helpless. You simply feel conditions around you are in collusion with the state enemy and ask yourself- which way now?
Never in my life have I felt pain like when I lost my son Tsepo in the year 2000. This was because of what he told me about the torture he went through in the hands of the police. But even worse, the assassination of my comrade leader, brother and patriot, the former Deputy President of PUDEMO, Dr Gabriel Mkhumane. I could not and still cannot accept why Dokotela had to depart in this manner. I still shed a tear alone when his memories resurface. The organization, his wife Zoraida, sons and family all lost immeasurably.
I knew Africa Magongo very well and he was no doubt a leadership material for PUDEMO. I also knew that he was not well, but when reports came that he was had gone, I was shattered.
I have cried when we lost comrades Dominic Mngometulu, David Mngometulu, Didiza Tsabedze and many more, but the loss of comrades Musa ‘MJ’ Dlamini and Jack Govender really disempowered me. All these were comrades I knew from their early lives in the struggle and had very high hopes on them. I still respect them even where they are today, deep in the belly of this unkind earth.
I believe the journey must one day come to finality. I remain committed even today to walk this steep and difficult last mile to our freedom. No amount of torture, beating, murder, victimization or incarceration will hinder me from fulfilling the ultimate goal of the fundamental democratization and transformation of Swaziland. I stand by this ideal and will do so all my life. Many times I have said that nobody, yes not even me, is bigger than the people’s organization!
PUDEMO is my life. I will serve the disadvantaged and poor people of my country until POWER GOES BACK TO THE PEOPLE! SURRENDER IS NOT AN OPTION AND SHALL NEVER BE!!