Professionals Without a Conscience

Looking at the images of the abdomen of the nine year old boy lying face up with stitches running vertically across the small stomach to his chest, I had to close my eyes and pull a deep breath to stop my body from shaking. 

My head felt heavy and at the back of my shoulders I felt a heavy wave sweeping down my body and tears stung my eyes; one of my sons is exactly ten years old. Being a mother of boys, this child felt just like my own child.

I had to leave the kids in the living room and rushed to close myself in my bedroom and face the cocktail of emotions overcoming my body. On my knees, head on my bed I let out a wail that only a mother can perceive. The sobs sapped all the energy from my body and at the same time I was trying very hard not to be heard by the humans in the living room.

Unlike in the past week to this one, my mind no longer had the questions of trying to make sense of what or why this was happening to us. As I wiped away tears from my eyes with both my hands, my mind searched for what I could do. The mother in me stood up first whilst the social worker tried to scramble for all correct principles to uphold. 

At this point, it didn’t matter if my life was in danger, it mattered more that I stopped feeling helpless and hiding myself and the children in the house.

After braving a few discouraging warnings from some of my closest friends and colleagues, I planned to set out to go and find that child. Thus began my journey of working with the victims of the June massacre.

As professionals in any field, we are members of this society first before we are professionals. Being born and raised in eSwatini, I have always carried and embodied all the virtues of being Liswati. In just a few weeks my whole perception of what being a Swazi meant had rudely been shifted by the horrid experience of police brutality emphasized by the murderous force of the USDF.

In the report by the Human Rights Commission on the Eswatini civil unrest in June 2021, accounts of the amount of indiscriminate lethal force that was unleashed by the forces on innocent and unarmed civilians is horrifying and unbelievable. The week of June 28- July 04 marked the darkest week in the history of the hitherto peace-loving nation.

As mental health and community workers, we have been left to pick up all the pieces with the victims and their families and face the horrid reality of the actions by the forces. It is quite confusing how professionals, in this case police officers and soldiers, could get to a point of treating their own fellow humans with such indignity and impunity. Stories of the survivors listened to in therapy paint a very ugly picture of the inhumanity that exists in our brothers and sisters in the security forces.

Our practice as mental health workers in Eswatini is not widely known, with less than 10 years of most mental health courses introduced in the country’s institutions of higher learning, we are but a young force of professionals.

As a nation, we are in a state of lawlessness, stuck with a government that doesn’t know what to do, why to do it and how to do it. We are subjected to the imprudent thinking of only but one individual who, for some reason best known by our parents and ancestors, was bequeathed with all the power and authority to decide for all of us. As a society we have been torn apart; the tapestry of our social fabric carefully woven by our forefathers for 400 years has been seared to an unidentifiable cloth.

We are clear, this is not who we are, yet we don’t know who we are anymore. As a community, we are limping, bleeding in need of healing. It is in our communities that the nurses in the clinics attend to the fourteen year old Form 2 student from the local secondary who is now permanently bedridden, once a month the nurse in this facility will need to change his catheter.

It is in our community that his mother who was employed at the textile factory and is now unemployed because she had to go take care of him in hospital for 4 full weeks will be asking neighbours for imphuphu while she tries to figure out how to earn a living in a way that will allow her enough flexibility to care for him.

It is in our community that the single father of four children, Babe Shabalala* who was self-employed raising his children when on his way back from work he was shot in the spine will be wheeled into the same church service this coming Sunday and the pastor will ask us to pray for him and his children. One of the children has already been sent back home from school for his tuition which the father can no longer live up to, he didn’t have savings but he was surviving through his daily toil with the children.

It is at the local community police post that the 15 and 19 year old boys who have been locked up and severely assaulted and injured for protesting. See, these boys know Constable Shabalala* the man who kicked one of them on the back until he could not walk, his son is one of their classmates in Form 4 and they’re all in the school soccer team. It is in our communities that our children can no longer play together; it is in our communities that the losses go deeper than the bodies and limbs we have been burying week after week.

It is in our communities that children see police and soldiers as murders not protectors. It is in my own home that when I walked through the door my eight year old was so anxious and crying after seeing soldiers assaulting people outside begged me that we should go to the police. It is in my home that I had to sit for the first time and try to explain to an eight year old that even the police were no longer a safe place to go tell.

That evening I had to ask my children not to go and play with my neighbour’s children again because both their parents are soldiers and God knows what children might say whilst they play which might render me an enemy of the brutal state, the state I pay my taxes to.

It is in our communities that the orphans left to the victims of the unrest will be raised. As a professional social worker, the lived experiences of our clients echo in our heads long after we have returned to our homes. The realities of the suffering, of the altered households, the lasting impacts which on a normal basis are very difficult to deal with and now are even made worse by the deliberateness of the action.

A social worker is by practice part of the law enforcement practitioners as enshrined in some legislations, both nationally and internationally. I have never been to the police academy but having been raised by a cop, I grew up understanding that policing is a social service profession. Having worked with police officers on many client cases, I grew to appreciate the reality of what being a police officer meant.

The experience of the conduct of police and soldiers since June 29 to this date has left me with one glaring question in my head: in all their training, have our police been educated on policing being a social service? What is their understanding of their role as part of our communities?

All having been said and done, we have a new question to answer as communities: are the police stations in our communities still serving us as a community or they have been turned into the enemy’s camp? Who is the enemy? Is it the officer whose wife I run with in the mornings, is it the government I pay my taxes to? Is it the King who seems to be deaf to all the cries of the mothers burying their sons and daughters? We are a nation at war with ourselves. Where is our conscience? Each of us should go to sleep tonight asking ourselves, buphi buntfu betfu?