Introduce sanctions and boycotts against the repressive Swazi regime and help the democratic movement with everything from legal assistance to torture counselling, organizational skills and information dissemination, says young Swazi activist.
Stories of incredible hardship, suffering and lack of democratic rights often overflow our social media feeds and are ever-present in our newspapers and on radio and TV.
But many of the articles, campaigns and reports we read, hear and see fail to pinpoint the reasons for these hardships. And even fewer offer credible solutions to how we can act to bring about positive and democratic change in the societies that they describe.
Young Swazi activist Bheki Dlamini wants to break this mould and present governments, organisations and individuals around the world with a set of concrete options for helping the democratic movement and the people of his native Swaziland attain democracy and socio-economic justice.
Torture, prison and exile
Bheki Dlamini is 33 years old. He was born in the tiny absolute monarchy of Swaziland where the King rules like a 17th century monarch.
A country that ranks amongst the most unequal in the world, where anyone can be charged with terrorism for wearing a political t-shirt or chanting a political slogan. And a country that is amongst the most unequal in the world, where two thirds of the population live in chronic poverty and over 20 per cent have HIV/Aids.
Dlamini has himself suffered the hardships that are portrayed in many reports about the so-called developing countries. But as with many others like him who are dismayed with the lack of freedom and socio-economic justice in Swaziland and abroad, he has chosen to keep fighting back.
Dlamini grew up in the rural areas, where the vast majority survives at the mercy of the King’s chiefs and on food aid from the UN. He was tortured and spent nearly four years in prison awaiting trial for a crime he didn’t commit, because he is a member of banned political party PUDEMO. And he has had to flee his native country, fearing for his life, after he made a speech demanding democracy and social change in Swaziland.
From his life in exile, on a scholarship programme at the University in Bergen, where he is completing a master’s degree in public administration, Bheki Dlamini is keen to help keep the dream of a free and democratic Swaziland alive that is the main purpose of PUDEMO, Regardless of the increasing pressure that the state in putting on the movement.
“Since the famous treason trial of PUDEMO in 1990, our leaders and members have been subjected to all forms of persecution from the state, ranging from arrests, detentions, beatings and torture. The cost of legal fees is escalating and crippling the movement, which is often unable to cover all its arrested members,” says Bheki Dlamini.
This means that many activists and potential activists become afraid to challenge the regime, not least because of the debilitating and increasing cost of legal fees, bail money, counselling for torture victims and lack of support for the families of imprisoned activists.
“The world can contribute towards the creation of a sustainable legal assistance structure for activists, ensure bail money for torture victims is available, and support the families of members arrested or killed by the regime. This would mean that activists have less to lose in fighting for democracy”, says Bheki Dlamini.
Importance of organisation and education
Another problem, according to Dlamini, is that of the development of intellectual and organisational skills of members of the democratic movement, in a country where the King controls the education system and news outlets, and is reducing the number of scholarships given and dismissing activists from university.
“We need these skills now, in the struggle for democracy, and in a future democratic Swaziland. Students are forced out of high school or tertiary institutions because of their activism”, he says.
Dlamini proposes that these students can receive scholarships to study abroad, like he is. He also suggests that exchange programmes can be put in place with organisations abroad that help activists learn basic organisational skills in regard to fundraising, campaigning, organisational strengthening and research on Swaziland, of which there is precious little available.
But to be able to develop intellectual and organisational capacity, as well as credible research, Swazis and people abroad need to get the full picture of what is happening in Swaziland. And they aren’t getting it at the moment because of a censored and self-censoring press. Swaziland is hardly extensively covered in the (mainstream) press abroad.
One way of doing this is through culture and art. Both areas have been appropriated and used politically by the King and his regime, to equate nationalism and “Swaziness” with the monarchy and keep the population in line.
“We need to strengthen our cultural activism, with theatre, poetry and music, and urge our international partners to host cultural events outside Swaziland. And we need to use online newspapers and radio broadcasts set up abroad, that can be disseminated unhindered,” says Dlamini.
Another useful way of informing people abroad about the plight of people in Swaziland is by organising lectures, seminars or protests in front of Swazi embassies or consulates.
Or by organising film screenings abroad with films such as the one about Bheki or others that scratch beneath the surface of political Swaziland. The success of the Danish-produced documentary about Bheki, that has been shown on national television in Scandinavia and won and been nominated for several international awards, proves the effect of this.
“If Swazi activists could be provided with and trained in using video cameras or smartphones, as well as in making such films, the visual nature of a documentary is an effective way of marketing our struggle both at home and internationally. The media is deeply censored by the regime, so such initiatives provide an alternative platform to voice people's suffering,” says Bheki Dlamini.
Isolate the regime
Finally, Bheki Dlamini sees no way around actual boycotts and travel bans against the regime by governments, organisations and individuals around the world. This was after all what helped neighbouring South Africa’s democratic movement rid itself of the country’s apartheid regime.
“Travel bans on the King and his cohorts would have a huge impact on the regime, helping to undermine its legitimacy both inside and outside Swaziland,” says Dlamini.
He also suggests that student councils, trade unions, churches or political parties could organise business, cultural or sports boycotts or campaigns. Or that tourists boycotted cultural events that are used to prop up the monarchy.
According to Dlamini, these include so-called cultural events such as the annual Umlanga (“Reed”) Dance and the Incwala ceremony.
Or companies where the King has invested what is nominally public money, but which is in effect used for his personal benefit, such as the Royal Swazi Sugar Corporation, the Royal Swazi Sun Group, the largest hotel group in Swaziland, a variety of shopping malls, Swazi SAB breweries, Parmalat Milk and Cheese Processors and telecommunications company Swazi MTN.
“So as you can see, there is plenty you can do, as a government, organisation or individual that will make a significant difference. Both for members of the movement fighting at great personal risk for democracy and socio-economic justice, but also for the many poor Swazis who dare not risk involving themselves in the struggle for fear of losing what little they have,” Bheki Dlamini concludes.
Documentaries on Swaziland
“Swaziland – Africa’s last monarchy”, a documentary film about Bheki Dlamini by award-winning Danish investigative journalist Tom Heinemann, was shown on Danish, Swedish and Norwegian national television in 2016. It was nominated for several awards at international film festivals, and won the main prize and the prize for best short documentary at the ‘A Film for Peace’-festival in Italy.
Other documentaries about Swaziland, recommended by Bheki Dlamini, include “Without the King,” “The King and the people,” and “Special assignment: Swaziland and the Dlamini Dynasty
*Peter Kenworthy is a journalist with the Danish organization Afrika Kontakt.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR/S AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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