The country’s only fully fledged university has for years been plagued by problems. The source, argues the writer, lies with the state leadership.

For the first time in the country’s recent history, University of eSwatini (UNESWA) lecturers took to the streets to protest. The country woke up to screaming headlines and photographs of lecturers clad in their university garbs singing struggle songs and doing exactly the action many, at some point, looked down as beneath them.

In fact, the month of May 2021 will go down in history as watersheds in the political history of the country. First, the country’s youth and students have risen up following the death of Thabani Nkomonye and mobilised for political reform under the hashtag #JusticeForThabani. We also saw police firing teargas at a mourning family, fueling an already volatile situation. Then there was the WhatsApp group created that forced all the MPs to account to the electorate on a number of political, economic and social issues

As if this was not enough, academic staff from the national university engaged in protest action, a first of its kind in recent times. The university came to a stand-still as students, academic and non-academic staff sang struggle songs side by side. Some might find nothing peculiar with these events. Those who have been closely following the politics of the country will, however, tell a different story.

Of course, for the past decade there has not been an academic year without a class boycott by students. In recent times, we’ve seen non-academic staff, led by the Swaziland Union of Non-Academic Staff for Higher Institutions (SUNASHI), engaging in protests. However, it was the first time we saw the academic staff engaged in fully fledged strike action.

UNESWA academics finally speaking out

On the 5th of May 2021, coincidentally the same day as the commemoration of Marx's birthdate, the academic staff of the country’s biggest university ook to university corridors and, later, the streets. Professors sang struggle songs and demanded change. That alone should tell a different story, at least to emaSwati.

Among the demands by the academic staff was cost of living adjustment (COLA) – due 3 years ago already –, better working conditions, which include competent leadership and management of the institution and a call to government to increase the institution’s subvention.

The obvious question I anticipate is that the reader may say there is nothing peculiar about academic staff striking. Well, context matters. In a country where workers’ rights and welfare are respected, this would not be a surprise. In a country where everyone understands that a strike is an accepted bargaining tool and an extension of workers’ rights, protest actions should come as a welcome show of worker frustration and anger. In a country where academic freedoms exist, strikes are as normal as voting.

Not in eSwatini, however. Not in this country where the regime frowns upon unionism. In fact, none of the “trade unions” in the country legally exist as unions. They’re registered as associations. For the longest time the narrative has been that protests and strikes are for the uneducated, backward and barbaric: “Kutoyitoya kwebantfu labangakafundzi.”

Recent events have turned this fable on its head.

The 2013 problem

The videos of protesting academic staff in struggle songs reminded me of the events of 17 and 18 November 2013. After a lengthy dispute between the university and students that year, the two parties found themselves in the High Court in Mbabane. On November 17, the student representative council (SRC), represented by the late Mandla Mkhwanazi, filed an urgent application asking the court to postpone that semester’s examinations (which were slated to begin the following day, November 18). The case was argued before Judge Mumcy Dlamini.

The urgent court application was preceded by a series of back-to-back class boycotts by students. Outstanding student allowances, poor leadership and management of the institution, shortage of academic staff, inadequate government subvention and shorter academic almanac were some of the students’ grievances.

The case argumentation in court took the better part of the day, ending at around 18h00. Students had already resolved that they were not going to sit for exams, standing behind their slogan: “ASIBHALI!”

The government, acting in concert with the university, did not even bother to wait for the outcome of the application. Students found loads of police officers when they returned to their campuses from the high court.

By the time the verdict was read, some students were already in hiding, some in police holding cells. Many were assaulted, sustaining serious injuries in the process – clobbered by heavily armed police officers. Some of these students were hounded from their dormitories. And, worse, the court found against them.

The institution looked like a warzone. Screams of students could be heard from every direction. Dormitories had been tear gassed and the whole university was full of the riot squad. On the morning of November 18, some students were transported from police cells to examination rooms. They had been tortured from apprehension, and denied food and sleep.

Some came straight from hiding and went straight to examination rooms. After thorough clobbering by the riot squad some students went to exam rooms in pain. Despite all that, the university saw the environment fit to continue with the examinations. There was a heavy police presence throughout the examination period.

The aftermath

About 381 students could not sit for the examination and 282 of those came from the faculty of health sciences. All those students were awarded F grades. At that time the credit system did not exist, the institution had not been fully semesterised. This meant that most students had to repeat the following academic year.

I got an F with other 40 classmates who did not sit for our first exam: Introduction to Research Methods. All 41 of us had to repeat the following 2014/2015 academic year, first semester. We had to attend no more than 12 lectures and sit for an examination. When we fully returned to campus in the ensuing academic year, some of the academic-staff members told us toy-toying is childish and myopic.

Fast forward to the 5th of May 2021, students who were supposed to sit for the examination on the day got a memorandum notifying them that all examination papers were held in abeyance till further notice. To some of us this came as a surprise because we were once told that examinations, once set, cannot be postponed.

The management team of every place or institution serves as a nucleus. Those who have had the chance to read to understand the functions of nucleus know that for stability and unison, the center (nucleus) must hold. In the case of UNESWA, these are symptoms of a bigger problem: there is no center in the country. The nucleus long failed to hold. Hence there is a need for a practical alliance amongst all motive forces towards forming a center and a nucleus that will hold.

This I say inspired by Martin Niemöller´s words:

                        First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

                        Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

                        Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

                        Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

NB: Stacky is the former President of the Swaziland National Union of Students. He writes in his personal capacity.

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