Ailing Swazi opposition leader Mario Masuku is in prison since May in Africa’s only absolute monarchy, where even mere expression of support for the opposition is considered by the regime as engaging in “terrorism”. Progressive forces throughout the pan-African world must demand the release of this man and many other Swazi prisoners of conscience.
Mzwandile Masuku’s childhood in Swaziland included barking police dogs at 4 o’clock in the morning, armed police raiding his family’s house while he ate breakfast, and visiting his father Mario Masuku in prison. For the past ten months he has had to visit his father in prison yet again.
Masuku, the long-time president of Swaziland’s banned political party, People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), has been charged with terrorism and held in prison without bail since May. His crime? Shouting “Viva Pudemo!” during a speech at a May Day rally in Manzini last year, an utterance the state prosecution calls “threatening to the nation at large”. Masuku has been charged with, but never convicted for, terrorism and sedition several times before, and has spent so much time in prison that he refers to it as his “second home”.
WEARING A T-SHIRT IS TERRORISM
Swaziland is a small semi-feudal absolute monarchy of about 1.3 million where more than two thirds of the population survives on less than a dollar a day, but where the king (and his large family) live in luxury because he owns the land and controls the parliament, courts and police.
When he was a child, Mzwandile Masuku experienced the effects of the king’s power and suppression of anyone who dared question his authority.
“One of the times our house was raided, my father asked the police to produce a search warrant”, he tells me. “The superintendent told us that they didn’t need one because King Mswati III had bestowed on them all authority. He pointed to his uniform hat as the symbol of this authority”.
In Swaziland, people are raided, put under house arrest or charged with terrorism under the Suppression of Terrorism Act simply for supporting Pudemo, for wearing a Pudemo T-shirt, or for publically proclaiming one’s support for Pudemo, as was the case with Mario Masuku.
Amnesty International calls the Act “inherently oppressive”, and many Swazis have been beaten and tortured, and a few even killed, at the hands of the police for disobeying its sweeping provisions.
HOME IS A DAMP CELL
As Mzwandile Masuku grew up, the police raids on their house stopped intimidating him. But one thing that he will never quite get used to, he says, is seeing his father in court and visiting him in prison, even though he has himself become a High Court attorney and part of his father’s legal defence team.
“The very old and overcrowded prison buildings intimidate all who visit. When I visit my father we are restricted to a caged visiting area or a dark, damp cell where he is kept. And there are many other restrictions meant to break down the inmates and discourage visits, such as hours of waiting and having all visits supervised by three or more correctional officers”, Mzwandile says.
The harsh and unbecoming conditions in the Zakhele Remand Centre, where political prisoners are held when awaiting trial, have left their mark on Mario Masuku, who is diabetic but not being fed a proper diet or receiving proper medical care. He has lost a lot of weight, has contracted pneumonia, is suffering from poor eye sight and has a serious infection in his right foot.
“I went to see my father recently and he informed me that his feet are so painful that he wakes up at night, and that this is one of the complications of his diabetes”, Mzwandile says.
SUPPORT FROM UNLIKELY SOURCES
Mzwandile knows that securing his father’s release this time will be an uphill struggle, as the regime has tightened the reins on the democratic movement in recent years in response to an upsurge in the oppositional activity from Pudemo and others. But he takes heart in the support for his father from Pudemo and the many other organisations and ordinary people, and the necessary pressure that they put on the Swazi regime.
“Our support has come from the most unlikely sources, such as from families in rural Swaziland, Desmond Tutu, Amnesty International and friends abroad. This support is necessary because the Swazi judiciary has lost its worth”, Mzwandile says.
Securing his father’s release, as well as that of the many other political prisoners in Swaziland, is obviously a big priority for Mzwandile and Pudemo. But it is only a step in the right direction for the population in Swaziland, who live in what Mario Masuku and others in Pudemo have described as “a big open prison”.
Mario Masuku grew up in a small village near Nhlangano, the sixth child of a mineworker and cattle guard father, who was involved in party politics, and a housewife mother. When he was young he had the dual responsibilities of looking after the family cattle and attending school when there was money enough.
In 1966 he was one of the first black students to attend a “whites only” school in what was then a British colony, and in 1971 he was employed by Barclays Bank in Mbabane, but was later fired due to his many arrests in the eighties and nineties.
Mario Masuku and his wife Thembi raised their family in the Mbabane suburb of Eveni, not far from Swaziland’s national library.
He was one of the founding members of the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) in 1983, and has been elected the party’s President several times.
He has travelled the world to drum up support for the cause of democracy in Swaziland, including in South Africa, Holland, Germany and Denmark, where Pudemo have a project partnership with political party the Red-Green Alliance that is funded by the Danish government.
In Denmark, he also received a democracy award in the Danish parliament in 2010 from Danish speaker of the house, former Foreign Minister, and the next President of the UN General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, who has met Mario Masuku on several occasions.
In October 2014 the Danish government urged Swaziland to adapt the Terrorism Act, which Denmark’s Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard concluded “would benefit the political opposition in Swaziland, including Mario Masuku”, and discussed his case with King Mswati III and Foreign Minister Mgwagwa Gamedze.
Danish organization Africa Contact has started an international campaign demanding the release of Mario Masuku and other political prisoners.
* Peter Kenworthy is a journalist with 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
* BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!