Thandaza Silolo: a sincere freedom fighter or sellout?

The former PUDEMO member confessed to bombings he had taken part in as a member of the banned organisation. And, jailed in 2013, he was released in April this year – having only served a fraction of his initial sentence.

Eight years ago, the country woke up to screaming headlines that one of the men wanted in connection with a series of mysterious petrol-bomb attacks had willingly returned from exile, surrendered himself to the police and then confessed all his crimes. This man was none other than Thandaza Silolo, a political activist affiliated with the proscribed People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO).

Silolo’s life was rather interesting from the beginning. Born and raised at Zulwini (Mlindazwe) under Lobamba Inkhundla, his father was a staunch traditionalist who raised his son to love traditions, culture and his king. In fact, from 1998 to 2004 he was a member of the king’s Inyatsi regiment and considered one of the king’s talented praise singers. Gifted in theater and acting, he was to later become a voice-over artist and a familiar voice to many of the fictional stories we all loved so much as brought by the national broadcaster.

It was here that his political consciousness took on and changed his life forever. Not only did he abandon his regiment and traditional life he also went against his own family in pursuance of his newly found political convictions. This political journey saw him bump chest to chest with police in different political rallies organised by the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO).

But the significant event that changed his life was when he was forced to skip the country after being tipped that he was wanted in connection with planting explosives at the Manzini Magistrate Court back in 2010. He subsequently exiled himself to South Africa where he continued his activism from that side of the border.

After almost two years, 2013 to be precise, he returned to eSwatini to confess to many of unsolved petrol bomb attacks that had baffled the police and turned investigations cold. Subsequent to his confession, he was charged and convicted to several years in prison. He recently finished his sentence and The Bridge caught up with him. Below he talks to us.

The Bridge (TB): Good day, Silolo. Welcome back. I was surprised to see you on social media after such a long absence. Clearly, nothing had prepared us for your “early release”. We all thought you would “die” in jail given your charges and sentence. How are you doing? You are back with a bang, neh?

Thandaza Silolo (TS): We are back indeed. With a bang if that is how you would like to describe it. I am grateful to God for his mercy and [for] allowing me to come back alive. I am particularly grateful that my sentence was reduced from the one that was initially pronounced to the public. It was all down to God’s grace that I cannot equate to anything. I am also grateful that the courts were lenient and made my sentence run concurrently. Even when I appealed in 2016 I was able to have my sentence reduced from 20 to 15 years. I must hasten to mention also that for every king’s birthday and national independence celebration my sentences got reduced through royal pardons. This led to me getting up to 24 months taken away from my initial sentence. Praise be to God.

TB: Now that you talk of your sentence, remind us again how many years you were supposed to serve and how long did you eventually stay in prison?

TS: Initially, I was meant to serve 20 years. Remember when Judge Hlophe sentenced me he said for each of my 11 counts I must serve five years. If I recall well two of them even carried a ten year custodial sentence. This accumulated to 65 years. The judge then ordered that my sentence run concurrently. This meant I had to serve only just 20 years. However, in 2016 I appealed against the sentence and the Chief Justice and his panel reduced five years from the 20-years. As I said earlier, I also benefited from royal pardons that took six months each time hence I eventually served eight years behind bars.

Remember also that the jail system has sentence remissions. This means whatever your sentence is, once convicted, the Correctional Services takes one third of that sentence. The effect of this is that you do not serve the entire sentence you got from the courts but only just two thirds. However, there is a condition: you must behave. If you do not behave they can give you back your initial sentence in bits and pieces with each delinquent behavior.

In some instances, you can even end up serving your initial sentence in full. So it helps to behave well. That is why when I felt being disrespected and oppressed, I restrained myself and resisted calls by my fellow inmates to help them fight some of the prison warders. I figured let me not antagonise the prison warders and just behave until I am out of prison so I can use my freedom to fight for Swazis, inside and out of prison.

TB: So, when exactly did you come out, the specific day that is? And where were you jailed all these years? Was it Maximum prison in Matsapha or were you moved around?

TS: I got out on the 15th of April this year (2021). I started my prison time at Sidvwashini Where I did my remands until my conviction where I was then moved to Matsapha Maximum Prison. I stayed there from June 2013 till October 2016, after the success of my appeal at the Supreme Court. It was only then that I was taken to the medium section because my sentence was now lighter. I stayed at Matsapha until May 21, 2020 where I was given a prison draft to Bhalekani where I served the remaining 11 months before release early this year.

TB: How was your time in prison? I cannot imagine what you may have gone through over the years. I obviously would not expect you to have “enjoyed”, but what were your low moments and how did you cope?

TS: As you say, prison is not a nice place. It was tough. For me the most uncomfortable part is overcrowding and the disputes with prison warders who can be unnecessarily tough sometimes. On top of everything, what bothered me the most was the fact that I had had a fall out with my comrades in PUDEMO who now saw me as a sellout. This ate at my conscience. It was also frustrating to sit inside jail and realise the struggle itself was not moving forward. Later on I was pained at the recurrent sickness of my mother. Thank God though because I came out of jail and she was still alive, together with the rest of my family members. So, I can say, in a nutshell, [that] prison was tough from all directions.

TB: Give me specifics of instances or episodes in jail that challenged everything you know about yourself and temperament. We hear stories of sodomy, being beaten up, isolation and more of those things. Did any of these things happen to you?

TS: I can say I was lucky because other prisoners and warders had respect for me. I assume this was because I came as a political activist. For this reason I was never beaten by other inmates or even prison warders. I won’t lie there were moments where issues would be heated up but it never got to any form of violence.

As for sodomy, I only heard of it as a rumour here and there but personally nothing happened to me. In fact, I became the go-to guy in solving inmates’ disputes, especially those who felt bullied. Some would come to me not so much because they expected me to fight for them but to talk and ease down tensions. Perhaps I was accorded this respect because I am a man of God. As for isolation it never happened to me and was never beaten for any prison-related offence. If anything, I avoided being caught with contraband (things not allowed in prison). This gave me peace of mind.

The only instances where I would be affected would be when there is collective punishment for all inmates. For example, when a section of the prison population has caused problems, then they lock us all up. Even in my capacity as a spokesperson for inmates we would have strong disagreements with the prison authorities that only ended up with mere threats about returning me back to maximum prison but other than that nothing affected me personally.

TB: I was laughing to myself the other day that you have had such an interesting political journey that has seen you serve and be loyal to both the country’s feuding masters. Many people don't even know that you were once a trusted member of the king’s regiments. I was speaking to another regiment member a few years back and asked him if he knew you and he said he does. In fact they speak about you as the greatest traitor for abandoning the king and joining his “enemies”, yet today the same people you sacrificed your life and family for see you as a traitor too.

TS: You know what is funny is that I was actually in primary school when I joined the king’s regiments under Inyatsi. I remember vividly how everything took a turn for the worse at Inyatsi. I had finished school around 2004 and had gone to Ekulindzeni.

Ekulindzeni is when young regiments go to the king’s fields and stand guard to ensure birds don't eat the produce, and in our case it was sorghum. I was chosen to go and be a human scarecrow, so to speak, for about two to three months and was in charge of some of the regiments..

Around that time, there were recruitment of people who would be joining the security cluster, and my desire was to join the army. While we were talking and whiling away time at the king’s fields I was asked by one of the regiments to consider going for the correctional services or police instead of army to make space for them. They argued that at least with me I had finished school and had in fact passed. But at the time I didn't know much about police and correctional services, all I ever dreamt of was joining the army. In my mind I thought if you are a real regiment then you have to be a soldier. We considered all the rest as mere civilians who liked things like unions and the likes. I also didn't like that they were not “umbutfo” that can serve and protect the king at all times.

Luckily for me, I stood a better advantage from the rest because I had joined the regiment earlier. So I expected to be ahead of them when recruitment starts. As it turned out, my refusal to queue for the police or correctional jobs did not go down well with the other colleagues. Unfortunately for me that very weekend a friend invited me to be a groomsman for his wedding. I asked to be excused to attend the wedding and was allowed. Unbeknown to me a huge conspiracy was being hatched in the background. So, I returned after the weekend happy and excited even carrying with me meat to give to my fellow regiments. Little did I know that the other regiments had reported that I had abandoned the fields. In fact I learned that apparently before leaving I had said Sikhanyiso [the king’s first born daughter] should come guard the fields, not me. I wondered why all these lies because I had asked for permission to leave and never said all those things? I was told to go to Ludzidzini to be beaten. The context of this is that I used to carry a radio with me because I liked to follow world events and news. Now that was then used against me the story became that I am always distracted by radio hence I allow the boys I am in charge of to do as they please at the king’s fields.

They claimed, if they tried to talk to me I always charge that Sikhanyiso must come guard the fields if there is a problem. It was all a lie. So the instruction was that I must go to Ludzidzini to be beaten. When I looked around the other boys had already been beaten and that is where I took a decision that it ends here and ends now. I am not accepting the beating. I left the regiments bitter because I understood this as a sabotage to push me out of my turn to join the army. I was bitter. I long wanted to be a soldier. I was angry. This is how I was pushed to the progressives.

TB: Interesting story indeed. Let us rewind a bit though. Take us back to the day you decided to confess. What happened? What drove you to the edge? Did you anticipate you will eventually spend so much time in jail?

TS: To be honest I never thought I would be arrested. What I thought was that the police were going to forgive me given that it had been a long time since the crimes were committed. Also, as a man of God I wanted to start a ministry in Piet Ritief. While praying, God appeared to me and said I must go back home and reconcile with the people I had wronged and prepare for a clean start. Of course I was worried that I was going to be arrested but God said he will be with me all the way. I was given comfort by the words in Isiah 45 verses 2-3.

I remember praying and saying to the Lord, “If indeed it is you who wants me to go back to Swaziland, please confirm it with your own words.” Subsequent to this epiphany I went to a prayer service on a Thursday. Coincidentally, the pastor also preached from the very same verses. To me that was confirmation that God really wants me to go back to eSwatini. Indeed I went back home and the rest is history. I remember when I was in jail I used to ask God why “mislead me into such a mess?” and the Lord would respond, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” In retrospect, indeed the Lord went with me.

Anyways, once I was in eSwatini it occurred to me that I must speak all that I know. This helped because the police never even touched me. They were satisfied with what I told them. Even though it was wrong for me to speak about everything, at least it helped ensure I am not in any way tortured.

TB: At the time, there were rumours doing rounds that it was in fact a woman that had lured you back into the country. In fact, as you would recall, you had gone to eSwatini and had to be taken back several times. So is the woman's story true?

TS: Yes, partly though. The person you are referring to is still my partner and can never have been the main reason for me to come back because where I used to stay (in Piet Retief) they allowed her to visit and stay as long as she wanted. So I didn’t have a problem with seeing her. But there was another issue* at play at the time. This got me unstable, depressed and confused. It contributed a great deal to my decision to go back home. In my mind I had convinced myself I must go to eSwatini and die there. I had become suicidal.

Being unable to kill myself, I figured let me throw myself in the den of lions and allow Swazi police to do it. I am telling you all this to understand my state of mind and the predicament I was in at the time. I was under a lot of stress. I was acting in ways I cannot even explain.

TB: There was also the story that you had been ill-treated by your own comrades in South Africa to a point of being ostracised and isolated. In particular your comrades in the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN). How did that contribute to your decision to go home?

TS: Yes there was that issue but I wouldn’t necessarily like to go back to the past, save to clarify that the main point of consternation was that when we got exiled in South Africa we were supposed to observe strong military command and discipline. Fortunately or unfortunately for me, I was the person in charge of that group. There were about four of us stationed in the Free State. The comrades I was with did not like that I was strict in enforcing the orders and discipline we were meant to live by. This caused friction between us.

I remember one time we went to renew our papers in Pretoria, and then we thought let us go past the SSN office since we were now closer to Johannesburg. There we met Lucky Lukhele [SSN spokesperson] and told him of the terrible living conditions in the Free State. We literally begged him to house us closer to the city so we can be connected with the struggle as we felt isolated where we were.

But the other comrades still carried resentment at how I treated them in the past. They couldn’t fathom that I was now going to live “comfortably” with them after what I had made them go through. It was then that I realised I wouldn’t be able to live with these people. Things were made worse by a suspicion that I was called a “spy” who was still in touch with the wrong faction of the movement. In their mind, they thought I was still aligned with the Swazi comrades they detested. I was therefore not trusted. It was under those conditions that I felt I was not welcome and must leave. However, I cannot say they were ill treating me per se, just that I felt the environment was now toxic for me.

TB: By “oppressing them” what exactly do you mean? You also say you were following some military discipline. Did you consider yourselves soldiers and what rules were you therefore expected to follow?

TS: We were soldiers…(chuckles). What are you talking about? We were indeed soldiers. Remember we were members of Umbane, the armed wing of the movement. When we got exiled we were given strict orders that we do not use cellphones. However, the comrades I was with had cellphones and sim cards, yet I was the only one mandated to have such.

As the person in charge, I would from time to time buy a Telkom service called “World Call” to communicate with my superiors at home and vice versa. I too was instructed not to abuse my status but this didn’t stop my comrades from not being happy that I was in charge. Also, there was the issue of training. I used to insist that every morning we must train just to stay in shape even as we were forced to train indoors. My comrades didn’t like that I was strict in following these orders and this created a hostile environment and fractured relations.

TB: It seems to me you are painting a very hard and tough life. How exactly were you surviving in terms of meals, transport, communication and other basic amenities? How easy or hard was it to get the official exile status in South Africa?

TS: Broe it was tough. Being exiled is difficult. I suppose things were made worse by the fact that the South African government got tired of the influx of Swazis coming to that side, therefore getting official papers was extremely difficult. And without these papers you cannot find a job, cannot open an account and you can be arrested as an illegal immigrant and deported any day. For our group we managed to get temporary asylum-seeking permits that needed renewal every six months in Pretoria. The thought of going to renew papers in Pretoria itself was just depressing because there was a lot of queueing to be done. Sometimes you can line up the entire day and still not be attended and be forced to come back the following day.

I remember at one point we went to renew our papers but they had expired. Officials at the Home Affairs said we must go make an affidavit at the police station explaining what had happened. When we went to the police station instead of getting the affidavit we were arrested (chuckles). Luckily, they had arrested us with our cellphones and we managed to call Lucky [from the SSN] who used his influence to get us out.

All we saw later was the station commander saying he had come to apologise and released us. The [constant renewal of permits] also gave me stress such that sometimes I would find myself asking, “But I know things are tough at home but at least I do not need to put up with such.” I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t give us the papers once and for all instead of the hustle of renewing every six months. For me, I even left South Africa still without the papers.

When it comes to food, we never struggled. From the time when we were in the Free State right up to when we relocated in Johannesburg. To be fair though, Lucky did all he could to get us fed; with not just any meals but proper meals too. We also got regular financial support from Mlungisi Makhanya [PUDEMO President] and when one bumped into people like Bongani Masuku [former SWAYOCO President] we would get some money to use for anything we needed. I can say that we were really taken care of.

TB: Before going to surrender yourself you had gone inside eSwatini only to be returned to Johannesburg. And you subsequently left the Johannesburg group to live in Mpumalanga. Tell me more about that.

TS: Yes I got inside the country [before handing myself to the police]. I had spoken to Bongani Masuku and told him how frustrated I was with my stay in South Africa. Masuku asked if I was sure this was the right move and suggested relocating me to a different place. In fact I had gone to him to ask for transport money to do an emergency passport at the Swazi consulate in Braamfontein. Masuku gave me the money and I got the passport. I then went home without incident.

In fact, I even slept home and my family was happy. The following morning I made calls to Wandile [Dludlu, PUDEMO Secretary General] and he spoke to Mario [Masuku, the late PUDEMO President] and a decision was made that I be taken to a house of a comrade I do not know in Mbabane. I think I stayed there for a week while they arranged to take me to Piet Retief to live with a Lukhuleni family. I was subsequently taken back to South Africa to live in Piet Retief with this family. Oh, that family was very good to me. Actually it felt like home. They were a religious and united family.

From there I had a good time until the things we discussed earlier that messed up my mind. I also remember that, at some point, me and my girlfriend had tried to get married but then the government officials in South Africa told us they couldn’t be of help because we were both not citizens of the Republic yet the inclination to be together was very strong between us. I lived with the Lulakeni family for about a year before deciding to return to Swaziland, but this time I didn't want to make contact with my comrades because I didn’t want them to return me back. I just went straight to the police.

TB: So now you get into Swaziland and reveal all that you said. Were you not worried you will incriminate people especially as Bheki and Zonke Dlamini (who were at the time awaiting trial on terrorism charges) was still in jail? How did you process that?

TS: I must admit I made a mistake there but what I knew relating to Bheki and Zonke is that I couldn’t incriminate them in any way because I had no knowledge of what they had done. Remember the nature of our operations were such that it was not possible for us to know who did what. In fact, my confessions helped save Bheki because I admitted to things police were convinced were done by him.

Even Zonke could have benefited from my confession but I didn't know what police accused him of. Of course there was the danger of incriminating others but at the time I was not thinking straight. I was under a lot of stress and pressure. I was convinced my life was over.

TB: You said earlier you didn’t expect to be arrested. Were you surprised that the police arrested and charged you? How did you deal with that?

TS: The way I had prayed and I trusted the Lord, I didn’t expect the police to arrest me. I thought if I spoke the truth and nothing else but the truth I would be guaranteed freedom. Even the police assured me they wouldn't arrest me. Then later they turned around and claimed the media had gotten wind that I had handed myself over and that police were now forced to charge me. I was shocked. I don’t even know if this was just a trick to deceive me into confessing but I genuinely believed I would be released without charge

TB: In jail you met Mario [Masuku], Bheki [Dlamini], Maxwell Dlamini and [Amos] Mbedzi. How did they treat you?

TS: Oh, those ones. Those are different breed of people. When I got to Sidvwashini I was very ashamed and didn’t want to see Zonke and Bheki fearing they may victimize me. I couldn’t even stand seeing them. I was ashamed of myself. I even asked the prison warders not to put me in a cell where I would meet Bheki or Zonke. They said they won't be told by me how to do their job. Others pretended as if they would heed my request and said they wouldn't put me at G4 but G5.

However, when I went to G5 I immediately bumped into Bheki. In fact, as a new inmate I was carrying my blankets and he was the one who took them and helped arrange for me a place to sleep. I soon realised he was a sibondza (leader). He gave me a very warm welcome. He even protected me against abuse and gangsterism. It became apparent that Bheki was the leader who commanded a lot of respect inside prison. But deep inside I was consumed by guilt that I had wronged these people but this didn’t deter Bheki from treating me well.

Even Zonke, I eventually met him when I was changed to stay in G4 and he too treated me well. Then later Maxwell joined us at Sidvwashini and we became one big family. We lived together in peace and even shared meals together. Once I was in Matsapha prison, I then met Mbhedzi. At first, I was afraid of him knowing he most likely had read about my confession, but he approached me and we spoke about our own history together and the instances we had met. He seemed excited that I knew him and was actually surprised when I told him where we had met before. So I can say we related very well.

Later, Zonke joined us after his conviction and was transferred to the medium section of the prison. In fact, when Zonke left prison he even left me his phone card to which I remain very grateful. Then I also met Mario and Maxwell when they came to Matsapha [prison]. It was at this point that I decided to write a letter explaining my actions and conduct. Mario then advised me to appeal my sentence and I promised him I will.

All I am trying to say here is that these people treated me very well. Even Mfanawenkhosi Mntjali [a PUDEMO member, activist and 2006 treason trialist] found me in jail after being arrested for an offence I may not know and he came to greet me. They saw me and laughed calling me a sell-out in a lighthearted way. You know, I almost forgot Maxwell even bought me soccer boots I used to play soccer with inside.

TB: Lastly, what is the future for you now? What can we expect from Silolo going forward? Will you start a ministry or lead a new party as I have seen on social media what appears to be a new political platform. Perhaps you may reconnect with your old comrades seeing as there is seemingly no love lost?

ST: For now, I am trying to push the vision of The People's Front. Also I am a church person, so I do not know what will follow. But God knows my future. For now I do not want to lose focus on our desire as a country to attain our freedom.

NB: *Some details have been deliberately omitted given their sensitivity and for ethical considerations.

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