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Image source: Peter Kenworthy

The biggest youth movement in Swaziland, the Swaziland Youth Congress, called for democracy at its 12th national congress last weekend. The congress was held in South Africa because of repression in Swaziland against organisations that call for democracy. 

The main theme of the first National Congress of the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) since 2013 was democracy and “reawakening youth zeal for liberation.”

“We are committed to a peaceful transition from the current dictatorship under the monarchy to a democratic Eswatini [Swaziland]. As young people, we want liberation now, because the injustice to Swazis has long overstayed its time,” says newly elected President Sonkhe Dube.

Dube, a teacher by profession, had told congress that it was an “enormous task to build [SWAYOCO into] an effective organisation capable of transforming its beautiful slogans into action.” The congress came at a time when SWAYOCO has been “battered by the regime” in recent years, the organisation said in a statement.

In the statement, SWAYOCO also said that it would work with the labour movement and marginalised groups in Swaziland such as the LGBTI-community, and that the organisation was seeking international help to achieve democracy in Swaziland.

Liberation and social justice

SWAYOCO, a member of the International Union of Socialist Youth, was formed in 1991, as the youth league of Swaziland’s largest democratic movement, the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO). Both organisations were proscribed under Swaziland’s Suppression of Terrorism Act, an act that Amnesty International called “inherently repressive” when it was implemented in 2008.

Amongst other things, SWAYOCO has previously launched campaigns against Swaziland’s “undemocratic elections” and for political awareness in Swazi schools, demanded smart sanctions against the country’s royal family, and that the International Criminal Court arrest Swaziland’s absolute monarch King Mswati III.

“The renewal of SWAYOCO will inspire the youth to demand their rights and define their role in the creation of a new kingdom of Eswatini [Swaziland]. We will sell the idea of liberation and social justice to the people,” says President Sonkhe Dube.

Outgoing President Bheki Dlamini agrees. “I am delighted to hand over the baton to other comrades. I have dedicated all my youth to fighting Mswati’s oppression. I shall continue to support the new leadership and the broader struggle for democracy,” Dlamini said.

A dangerous job

Sonkhe Dube has, along with many other SWAYOCO members, personally experienced Mswati’s oppression. In 2009 and 2011, he was detained and tortured by the police at peaceful SWAYOCO rallies. And in 2013, he fled to exile in neighbouring South Africa after again having been arrested by the police, tortured and threatened that they would “come back and deal with me.”

Because being a member of SWAYOCO, let alone president, is a dangerous job.

SWAYOCO’s first President Benedict Didiza Tsabedze died in a mysterious car accident next to the royal palace in 1996 after having been taken to the hospital by the police. SWAYOCO member Sipho Jele was found hanged in his cell under mysterious circumstances, after having been arrested for wearing a PUDEMO t-shirt.

Several other former SWAYOCO leaders, including Wandile DludluMaxwell Dlamini and Bheki Dlamini, have all been tortured by the police, detained, and later released without charge. Bheki Dlamini after having spent nearly three years in prison.

SWAYOCO member Zonke Dlamini served a long prison-sentence for charges he insists he only admitted to under torture. And other SWAYOCO members have been beaten uptear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets by the police, as well as detainedshot and killed.

Amnesty International described in 2017 how “repressive legislation” and “politically motivated trials and laws that violate the principle of legality … continue to be used to suppress dissent” in Swaziland.


*Peter Kenworthy is a freelance journalist.