The Gawuzela interview
The Bridge (TB): Thanks for making time to talk to us. Obviously, you are very popular in the country at the moment and most people would like to know about your background; may you briefly tell us about your background.
Mduduzi ‘Magawugawu’ Simelane (MS): Thank you for having me. I was born and raised at Phuzumoya. I attended Primary school at Kamkhweli, secondary school at Siphofaneni and for high school I went to Mpolonjeni in Siteki. I then did temporary teaching for a short time before I enrolled at Nazarene Teacher Training College. After tertiary I was a teacher for 20 years – from 1998 to 2018 when I went to parliament. From an early age, my mother introduced me to the Zionist Church and church has influenced me a lot in terms of how I view things. I got married to LaZwide in 1995 and together we have four kids; other than these four with LaZwide, I have three other kids and this makes up a total of seven.
TB: When did you start to be politically conscious? Can you tell us about your political activism background?
MS: My political activism was shaped at an early age. During my high school days at Mpolonjeni high school, I led three powerful student strikes in 1991 and 1992. In 1991 we did not have an English and Maths teacher for Form 4 & 5. We went on strike and our matter was eventually addressed by the Regional Education Officer (REO) for Lubombo. In the same year (1991) there was another strike, demanding water from the school. The third strike was in 1992 when the Head teacher (Mr Malinga) forced a student to dig a pit as a form of punishment – it was a very harsh punishment and after this the student went to hospital and died after three days. The students were angry and we demanded that the head teacher should leave the school. He was later transferred from Mpolonjeni High School. At college, I became Manzini Regional Chair for the Swaziland Association of Students (SAS). During this time I worked with the current President for the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) who was SAS Manzini Regional Secretary when I was Chair. At some point I stayed at the late Bishop Ncamiso Ndlovu’s Roman Catholic Residence in Manzini – it was some sort of safe house. We had joined the teachers’ strike in which they were demanding 18% hike in salaries. We went on hunger strike – we were 11 when we started but later the number was over 50. The matter was later addressed. When I first arrived at Nazarene Teacher Training College, it was like a high school. There were prefects and students wore uniform. We changed all that and the Student Representative Council (SRC) was introduced; I was elected Minister for home Affairs during my first year and I became SRC President during my second year. We addressed a number of student concerns including scrapping off the uniform. We considered the founding President of the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) Benedict ‘Didiza’ Tsabedze as our leader; I attended most of SWAYOCO activities as a student leader. I also had close link with PUDEMO and we used to have evening meetings with former PUDEMO President Mario Masuku and former Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) Jan Sithole every Thursday. It was a multi-stakeholder’s forum and I used to represent students in those meetings. I learnt a lot from these two leaders – Mario and Jan. They were humble and taught us about the power of unity.
TB: How did you get to parliament? You won an election race against a popular person in Gundwane Gamedze; how did you achieve this?
MS: I had made an unsuccessful attempt to go to parliament before 2018. There was a law that did not allow civil servant to contest for elections. You had to resign first before you could join the race. I even challenged this legislation in court. Later we were allowed; you have to apply for leave if you are elected. Right now I am still a teacher but had to apply for 5 year leave when I was elected in 2018. I won against Gundwane and thought his time was up; they had to give chance to others.
TB: When did you realise that the Tinkhundla system had to be changed?
MS: I had always hold the view that the system has to be changed. At the time I thought we should change the government and leave the monarch; I was inspired by Jan Sithole’s views on advocating for constitutional monarch from within parliament. When I was elected the former Prime Minister Mandvulo called to congratulate me. He was still CEO for MTN at the time. He asked if I could be available for cabinet position and I told him that it would divert my focus. I had come to parliament to represent the people and being a Minister could compromise me, I said. As a parliamentarian I analysed things and came to the conclusion that both the legislature and the executive did not have powers; they were just rubber stamps for the royal family. The king is the man calling the shots in this country! Cabinet meets on Tuesdays to discuss about how best to please the king and ensure that his will is implemented accordingly. Then they call few influential MPs to lobby them to support the king’s will. Let me tell you something: the last Bill to be debated by Mandvulo was the loan from India to construct the new parliament building. That Bill changed my mind in terms of how I viewed the system. How can you get a E1 Billion loan to build a parliament when people are suffering like this without healthcare and education? I was vehemently opposed to this Bill and one Cabinet Minister called asking for my support when we vote for the passing of the Bill. I told him I could not do that. It was a Monday and he told me that Prime Minister Mandvulo was going to call me the following day. Indeed, the PM called me and he invited me into a meeting in his office the following day (Wednesday). Mandvulo told me that the king wanted the loan and he was honest to share his frustrations about the system as well. Mandvulo was sinking in frustration. I told him I could not be a sell-out and betray the people. I was not going to vote for that Bill. I came to the conclusion that we need a people’s government. The Prime Minister has to be voted for by the people, I thought at the time. While some people were calling for constitutional monarchy we chose to simplify the message and call for the election of the Prime Minister. This message found resonance with the people. I was charmed by MP Bacede’s bravery and fearlessness and we connected instantly. MP Mthandeni also came in and we started to have meetings before going to parliament. However, the media in Swaziland is captured and did not report about the real events taking place in parliament. During debate, we started to record our submissions and share with the people afterwards. I had many community WhatsApp groups for Siphofaneni and the people were excited to get the submissions that the mainstream media was not reporting about. We used social media and people started to get information. MP Timothy Myeni later joined and we had about 15 MPs supporting the call.
TB: Is it true that you are being supported by the People’s Republic of China to push for regime change in the country?
MS: That is a lie. In fact, the state is driving this propaganda campaign so that the people get confused. We have never met officials from China but I would like to meet them in future – that would be great.
TB: How do you see the country electing the Prime Minister?
MS: Dynamics have changed. I no longer talk about what I used to say. At first I thought the Prime Minister must come from the people through a vote and the king remains head of state. In our view, the TInkhundla centres could nominate candidates to contest at regional level and at a later stage we have 4 candidates (one per region) campaigning for the position on Prime Minister. We thought it was important for the PM to undergo what MPs experience when they campaign so that the person can respect the people. However, after 29 June everything changed and I realized that the king hates the people; he does not care about the people. How can a king command an army to shoot unarmed civilians? The shooting of our people changed me. At the moment I need the total liberation of our people and we should leave it to the people to decide whether or not they want the monarchy. I long got the information that he wanted me dead and this was before the army shooting. That is why I refused to get arrested because I knew they wanted to kill me. When everything is done, we will need a referendum to decide on the monarchy before the process of laying foundation for the new Swaziland.
TB: Do you want to be Prime Minister?
MS: The day I decided to go to parliament I chose to submit to the will of the people; I surrendered my own interest. It never crossed my mind but if people insist I will have no problem taking one term as PM just to establish the systems and after that I can go and purpose my calling – preaching. All I want is a free Swaziland where even politicians trust the public health facilities. I want to live in a country where people share the wealth. I do not want to live in a country where one man controls everything: King Mswati appoints PM and cabinet ministers, majority of senators, judges and even the various councils and commissions like the Teaching Service Commission (TSC).
TB: Are you in touch with MPs Bacede and Mthandeni? How are their spirits?
MS: They are in good spirit and more resolute than before! I am getting information about their situation almost every day. If the system wanted to break their spirit, then they got everything wrong. Their families are okay as well; I check on them.
TB: Some people are beginning to question the numerous donation campaigns by various individuals. Obviously where money is being raised there should be transparency; don’t you think there should be one solidarity fund with clear structure and systems?
MS: Going forward the struggle will be very expensive. The ‘body language’ of the regime tells you that we are going to have a very long and costly struggle. We need to raise lots of money. We need to consolidate and have one fund with a board and clear systems and procedures. Also, it is important for Swazis to know that they should fund their own struggle so that the new democratic government is not controlled by certain powers. Yes, the international community is supporting but we must fund our own struggle.
TB: Are you still getting parliament salary?
MS: Yes, I got it in August but going forward I can tell that I might not be getting it. They refused to let me join parliament virtually even though the current standing orders allow that. I am prepared for any eventuality because I am in a liberation struggle.
TB: What is your assessment of the activities around the Global Week of Action on Swaziland, beginning 6 September?
MS: It was heart-warming to see our people come out in numbers to protest against the regime. I saw numerous videos and I was happy. This is only the beginning; we are still going to get more numbers on the streets so that we send a clear message that people want change.
TB: A significant number of young people want to fight now; they are becoming impatient and want to confront the regime militarily, judging from their social media comments etc. What is your view about armed struggle?
MS: Look, at times people move faster than the leaders and start to do things without the instruction of leaders. Already, there are acts of violence targeted at police and others. You can see that people are angry. I am disappointed by the elders within the royal family who are not coming to the party to avoid a possibility of armed struggle. Obviously there are illegal guns in the country already and the number might be increasing as the state becomes arrogant. I still believe that we have not exhausted all peaceful means and going forward we will move quickly in that regard.
TB: Some people see you as a ‘cult’ because of your popularity and the way people respond to you. What would be your reaction to that?
MS: (Chuckles) Well, I work with civil society including the political party Assembly (PPA) and we are in this together. I am happy with the manner in which we are working as a team. I don’t know where the cult accusation comes from but I am at a point of no return; I want our people to be free and if that makes some people think I am a cult, so be it. I am not the first one to be labelled a cult; even Nelson Mandela was labelled a cult by some people. The most important thing now is unity of all our people. People have died and the regime continues to shoot our people, we cannot be busy talking about things that will not help us to move forward.
TB: Some people at Siphofaneni have expressed their support for LaZwide to replace you as an MP if you are removed, what can you say to that?
MS: It is painful to see your family suffering as a result of your political views. However, I have reached a point where I can do anything for the people. If the people want LaZwide from my family, I cannot stand against the will of the people. If getting LaZwide will make them happy, then I have no problem.
TB: Many thanks for agreeing to talk to us in spite of your evidently busy schedule. Thanks indeed.
MS: The pleasure is all mine. I'm available anytime. Thank you.