Stretched Security Forces Battling With Polarization

As the fresh wave of protests rage on, the security forces are not only stretched to the limit but are also battling with growing serious discontentment from the rank and file stationed at the coalface of the protests.

Colonel Israel Magagula* stationed at the ministry of defence at Lozitha, says there is an indication that a lot of army personnel find it hard to even live with and trust their spouses and children, let alone other community members because they feel they are continuously blaming and targeting them and their properties in retaliation to the widespread brutality meted by soldiers and other security clusters.

Magagula says what irritates the rank and file soldiers even more is the fact that senior officers in the army and the lucky few confined to office work are almost insulated from any insults and attacks as they have adopted a strategy of wearing civilian clothes to and from work.

He says his wife is a teacher and makes it known to him that she olds me and others personally for the many deaths of civilians. 

"If something was to happen to our homestead, properties, and children, she would never forgive me. She reasons that I am now eligible for early retirement and can take that option than to continue serving this regime. I sense even my kids are very upset with me. What they don’t know is that, like many others in the army, I don’t support the brutality of the regime and its general outlook. Some of us are in the black books of the Army Commander and the Principal Secretary because almost every other soldier is now a spy, in that we must keep tabs and report about ‘strange conversations’ by our colleagues," says Magagula.

Another soldier ranked as a sergeant says they are reminded daily of how they stand to lose if they dare to abandon their duties. “They tell us we will have no benefit whatsoever," cries the soldier.

Magagula on the other hand says he has it in good authority that there is intelligence indicating that there is even more unhappiness in the police force. He says the fact that the identities of police officers blamed for the deaths of citizens are known is an indication of how polarised the force has become. The information and identities of ‘killers’, for instance, is an obvious inside job by other police officers working or sympathizing with the progressives.

This view was corroborated by a police officer at Matsapha who says the recent targeting of police officers for petrol bombing has left them fearing for their safety especially knowing that if they lose property they won't get compensated as this will be treated like any other criminal case.

"What is annoying is that if I beat, kill or torture people in Nhlangano I get home and get reports that my cousin was beaten in Mankanyane. It is a vicious cycle. Worse part is that these protests have exhausted all our budget and personnel. We are insulted everyday on the streets and now we are targets for violence and petrol bombs; for what? We earn peanuts here," said the officer whose identity will be protected.

The polarisation in the army is made worse by the endless power battles. The Army Commander Mashikilisana is being challenged by his onetime ally General Thembinkosi Mngometulu whose drive for the ‘mutiny’ is to render Mashikilisana ineffective thereby putting himself in a good stead and opportunity to be appointed.

Another senior officer stationed at the Army Headquarters says the army recruitment strategy is the only thing sustaining the efficacy of the force right now. He says a sizeable number of soldiers think twice before deserting because to do so is interpreted as turning against the king. This belief is more prevalent and fortified in princes, princesses, chief, and relatives of the royalty and members of other ‘eminent’ houses in the traditional structures. These people, including ‘emabutfo’, are usually given priority during recruitment.

The other unlikely impetus for the security cluster chiefs and the king were the statements by the US embassy and the UN resident coordinator most recently. Magagula maintains that when the US embassy inquired from the progressive forces as to how they hope to govern the country, many in the regime read that as ‘patronizing’ and therefore a vote of no confidence in the pro democracy movement. He adds that the recent statement by the UN emboldened the king’s belief that the international society has better things to do than take seriously what the progressives do. He (the king) felt somewhat vindicated hence his renewed vigour.

The general appreciation of the fact that the security cluster as a whole is oftentimes caught flatfooted and outsmarted by the progressives persuaded the king to consider enlisting foreign intelligence services. Making matters worse is that there is a problem of command structure and hierarchy during operations, especially when the three security forces are on the ground.

"Who takes orders from who when we are both deployed on the ground? The soldiers have always had a condescending view of us and don't take us seriously. Even on the ground if we tell them this is not how to handle matters they look at us with scorn. What do you think we do when we see a soldier committing a crime say beating a protestor that should ordinarily be arrested instead of torture? Do you think we reprimand or arrest them? It is not easy I tell you," said a police source. 

The joint security cluster has since enlisted the services of the foreign intelligence service to ‘scan the ground’ and advise accordingly. Primarily, the government wanted an ‘insight’ into the likely outcome of an ‘impending’ arrest of PUDEMO President Mlungisi Makhanya who government cites as the ‘agitator in chief’. It transpires there are serious disagreements on whether to arrest him or not.

Those that are circumspect cite Makhanya’s continued visibility and overt operation in spite of the incarceration of members of parliament Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube as an indication that he could have something up his sleeve. His close association with EFF (South Africa) compounds the need to be more careful when dealing with him.

PUDEMO President Mlungisi Makhanya

Nevertheless, and against the advice of the enlisted foreign intelligence agency, King Mswati wants Makhanya arrested to kill and quell the protests once and for all. On the other hand the intelligence agency fears that such an arrest could have a serious backlash and could escalate the protests and mobilize more sympathy for the course. 

Says our source: “the intelligence agency is intimating that there are higher risks for effecting the arrest now especially because the movement (PUDEMO) has already regrouped and look ready for any eventuality. And its tactical alliance with the EFF, which has no diplomatic responsibilities—coupled with its steadfastly robust stance on international relations outlook—could be problematic".

It is also believed that the agency advised the king that he must maintain visibility to ensure confidence and a sense of being in charge. The prolonged absence and silence give impetus to the protesters, our source tells The Bridge

While the king seemed to buy this one perspective, the intelligence brief was quick to warn that it is not without possible contraindications of its own, for instance, if the protests continue unabated in spite of ‘his presence and visibility’ as this might hasten the end his clout and legitimacy.

Another striking observation is that there might have been an envisaged mobilisation of defenders of the system which would have raised fears of possible vigilantism. It is in this instance that the state’s legitimacy would have been emboldened. Unfortunately, concludes our source, any visible and substantive mobilization witnessed is on the side of the pro democracy movement.

Apparently, the foreign agency, who is not new in ‘doing work’ in the country, including exchange programmes with the Umbutfo eSwatini Defence Force, started issuing red alerts after the march the United States of America Embassy whose attendance indicated that the protests may not die down any time soon.

More worryingly, these acts of resilience and determination were against the backdrop of unprecedented brutality and killings which ordinarily would have induced fear and disillusion. According to the source, this meant there could be a ‘well oiled machinery’ in full force other than dependence on accidental fortunes of charismatic individuals. 

When reached for comment Makhanya said he is not surprised since there is nothing new about the reports of ‘our imminent arrest’.

He continues, “While ours is not a course for cheap martyrdom, we will not be stopped by any threats of arrest. Not even death can scare us now for we’ve seen Swazis being brutalized and killed in a way unimaginable before. The world is littered with pictures of brutality by this regime and the king. A lot of families are mourning the death of their loved ones killed for no reason. We can’t have arrest used as a scarecrow when there are people languishing in jail and exiled for airing their views and calling for the democratization of the country. It’s a conscious decision we have made to be with our people wherever and whenever and at whatever cost.”

It will also be interesting to note how Makhanya reacts now that the indictment for the two jailed members of parliament has been amended to include charges of murder, advises the agency.

*Not his real name.