The women changing the face of the Swazi struggle

The recently launched Swazi Lives Matter Global Solidarity Movement (SLMGSM) has shown a refreshing glimpse of what the future could look like if the Swazi struggle elevates women into leadership positions. 

The organisation is led by women and the aura of a changing narrative about male domination in struggle is building to a sweet crescendo.

For a long time mainstream political organisations, trade unions and civil society have at best reduced women participation to fringe roles in male dominated leadership and at worse systematically pushed them to busy themselves in womens’ only movements.

The SLMGM has taken a different route though. Here women are refusing to be passive players or spectators in a game they should be playing. Whether by design or coincidence, the SLMGM has surfaced new faces that are redefining not just the place of women in the struggle but their position in society too.

The steering committee of the organisation, made of two representatives from each of their five chapters, has over 70 percent women representation. This is true of the local chapters too. The SLMGM has presence in Taiwan, USA, Europe, Canada and South Africa.

By any measure, this is impressive especially for a struggle still trying to find its bearings internationally and locate a place for women in the new society we all envisage. It seems the SLMGSM understood very well that if women do not rewrite the narrative and insert themselves forcefully as active leaders of the struggle, their role will be erased in history.

For example, even though Karl Marx is acknowledged as the greatest revolutionary who laid the theoretical basis for the women’s movement little is known about the sterling role of his wife, Jenny.

It is Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital, an excellent biographical account of the Marx family based on assiduous evidence-based research that gives us a cameo peek of the role Jenny played in making Marx what he eventually became. In the book Gabriel illustrates the volatile and poverty-stricken lives that she and Karl Marx lived as life-long revolutionaries, out of which the ideas of Marxism were conceived and refined. 

Marx himself considered Jenny as an intellectual peer and often discussed and reviewed the ideas he had in mind with her, and in turn Jenny would provide vital suggestions and feedbacks. She was also one of the very few people in the world who could understand Marx’s notoriously inscrutable handwriting and transcribed much of Marx’s manuscripts before they were sent to the printers. 

She also played a central administrative role in organizing and coordinating the First International, a revolutionary organization that spanned across Europe and North America. On top of all the intellectual and revolutionary works, she also had to raise seven children, as well as raise finances for the debt-ridden Marx family. Even in eSwatini there are countless women on whose shoulders these SLMGSM leaders can stand proudly. Perhaps one that stands out from the rest  has to be PUDEMO Deputy President Zodwa Mkhonta.

Little is known of Mkhonta because she operates within the shadows of a male dominated leadership. But she remains the only woman in contemporary history to ever be charged with High Treason. Mkhonta was initially part of the now famous 1990 treason trial that redefined the history of eSwatini.

Add to the fact that she was also in the leadership of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) that gave us the 1996 popular workers strike then surely she deserves her flowers while still alive. Even better, she is still involved in the women’s movements to date.

It was people like Mkhonta who crawled so that the new generation of Temantungwa Ndlangamandla can walk. Ndlangamandla is one of the leaders of the Taiwan Chapter of SLMGSM and tells The Bridge she can trace back her political consciousness to how she was raised. She grew up in a household that did not adhere to gender norms, which meant boys were allowed to cook and girls would clear the yard.

This gender fluidity meant that anyone could join in a political discussion and their voice would be heard and considered. As a result, I would speak out a lot, especially for causes that were dear to my heart,” she recalls. It seems this activist spirit only lied dormant over the years until she won the International Cooperation Development Fund (ICDF) scholarship that took her to Taiwan to study International Business.

It is here that, like the proverbial phoenix, her political activism rose again. Once in Taiwan, she got active in student politics and participated in student councils and cultural activities. Asked how the Taiwan Chapter came about Ndlangamandla says it grew as an organic reaction to what was happening at home during the recent uprising.

Temantungwa Ndlangamandla

It first started out as a support group for Emaswati in Taiwan, as we were all stressed and anxious for our families back home. Our mission was to help emaswati get in touch with their families while keeping a look out for students whose relatives might have been murdered in the unrest so as to give moral support. However, with time we decided to start advocating for quality sustainable change through art and storytelling. This subsequently led us to work on a campaign to donate funds to a young boy named Nkosephayo who had been one of the many victims of the army massacre. When we read his case, the whole team broke down in tears as we could not comprehend what had happened to this boy. We all vowed that the case of Nkosephayo should never happen again in our lifetime,” Nldlangamandla said.

Ndlangamandla’s story mirrors that of Saneliswa Magagula who describes herself as a feminist and social justice activist. Magagula is a Manzini girl through and through. She attended high school at St Michael’s before studying in South Africa for her undergraduate and Masters’ degree. She is a qualified chemical engineer and a PhD candidate in an American University. She is one of the leaders of the American chapter of the SLMGSM and the recently appointed spokesperson for the eSwatini Institute of Alternative Ideas.

Saneliswa Magagula

She tells The Bridge that she got involved in the struggle out of necessity especially after seeing the recent massacre of up to 70 civilians by the army and police.

I wept (after seeing the stories of the massacre) and then heeded the call to join other Swazis in protest at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. That vigil brought us together. We mourned the lives we lost and together we committed to ensuring that their ultimate sacrifice would not be in vain,” she tells of her first time joining the picket lines in America.

Magagula has a dream though. She wants to see a democratic and free eSwatini where every Swazi from all walks of life has a chance at a decent and quality life.

I want to live in a country that is governed with empathy and a service delivery. I want a Swaziland that none of us need to escape from; not for healthcare, education or job opportunities. I want to live in a country that is safe, where all human rights are respected. At this point, we need every Swazi person to identify their role and put in the work to achieve our collective goal. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” she says, echoing a popular call that reverberated on social media at the height of the protests.

For Nosimilo Vilakati, a Swazi living in Britain, hers was a case of destiny meeting purpose.

Nosimilo Vilakati

The struggle found me,” she says of how she became an activist. “I have never been a fan of the tinkhundla system. I have always known what type of eSwatini I wanted. Freedom does not just come you have to fight for it in your own way,” she says.

Vilakati has voiced her opinions with a lot of organisations where her work as an attorney has taken her. Whether this was the AU, United Nations, The Hague , and others.

I have sat and had a cup of tea with a few Ministers in the UK and eSwatini has always been my ice breaker. The challenge in all these is that most of these big conferences are attended by the Royal family. So I would be there talking my lungs out and then comes a royal blood discredit everything I said. At some point I was even told that I should stop advocating for SD as I now have British citizenship. However, eSwatini is my birth country. I have my roots and family there. I would be part of the oppressors if I didn’t advocate for change. Each time I attend these meetings in different countries, I make sure that I talk about eSwatini. It’s the least I can do,” Vilakati narrates.

Vilakati has a Masters Degree in Human Right Law from the University of Nottingham and has a better understanding of where the country fails on international law and respect for human rights.

By far the biggest anchor of the SLMGSM has been their chapter in South Africa. Under the stewardship of Qhawekazi Khumalo, the United Eswatini Diaspora has been the theatre of activism and the pillar that holds the entire movement together.

Qhawekazi Khumalo

Khumalo says in South Africa they have been able to implement various programmes and campaigns. They have already delivered a petition to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Pretoria, wrote their submission to the SADC TROIKA Mission, submitted a letter to the International Criminal Court and have been involved in the humanitarian support for victims of the massacre through coordinating medical assistance in South Africa. On why she joined the struggle Khumalo says she just  couldn’t stand by in silence after the Massacre in July.

As a response I wanted to make my small contribution to the fight for change and justice. I had to play my part and speaks out and fight against the human rights violation in eSwatini,” she says.

The veteran of the struggle within this women collective is Hleli Luhlanga. Luhlanga is currently pursuing a Political Science PhD at York University with majors in Women and Politics and a minor in Comparative Politics. Even though she holds a part-time position on her campus as an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant she still finds time to serve as a Co-Chairperson of the Swazi Canadian Diaspora chapter.

Hleli Luhlanga

Luhlanga says studying feminist theory and classic politics has enabled her to gain a deeper understanding of eSwatini political landscape and the lack of political will to create meaningful avenues for women’s integration to politics. 

Says Luhlanga: “For example, the individual merit basis that is employed as a conduit for mobilizing women into politics has been sternly criticized by feminist theorists as a meritocratic and gender blind system.”

She says her vision for the country is a government with a genuine desire to advance gender sensitive laws. She says this because she means and has fought for it. Her identity has always been women struggles and this has won her friends and foes alike. She is hopeful though with her team and the many young women leaders emerging inside eSwatini.

I see an emerging crop of leaders who represent the Swazi society in its diversity, something new and unprecedented. I want policies that will nationalize and resuscitate our economy and make it work for the average Swazi, including women and the youth. I also want a viable social protection system that is grounded on politics of intersectionality,” she continued.

The SLMGSM is hosting human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa in a virtual seminar to be broadcast on social media. This is part of the Global Day of Action for democracy in eSwatini. A series of events are planned, including a border blockade by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).