In the not-so-distant past eSwatini was considerably regarded as a primitive country especially when it comes to surveillance paraphernalia. However, it is quite evident that the government is pulling up its socks and sleeves.

The monitoring of public areas by using various technologies such as closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, facial recognition systems and other sensor-based devices, is the latest strategy that the eSwatini government employs. This is solely meant to curb and assist the armed forces in capturing those against the monarchy.

This public space surveillance targets the few hand-picked pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders that are still grasping to recover from the 29 June 2021 massacre, and the mayhem and political unrest that ensued thereafter. The regime has installed CCTV cameras along the MR3 Highway between Ngwenya and Mvutjini.

If you can actually look closely you will notice these mounted on the lighting poles and on some traffic lights. Previously these were only installed at the bridges closest to royal residences such as Nkoyoyo and Lozitha,” says an investigative journalist, who asked to speak on condition of anonymity due to continued elements of harassment from the regime.

These high-tech 360 cameras can clearly see the inside of vehicles and people’s faces, even though it’s not the best of quality, but [it] gets the job done,” adds the investigative journalist. It comes as no surprise therefore that the government would want to intensify public space surveillance to avoid a repeat of June 29th and to thwart the operations of the militant pro-democracy group, the Swaziland International Solidarity Force (SISF) that carried out a spate of violent attacks for quite a lengthy period.

The use of drones

The investigative journalist revealed that the state has heavily invested in drones from Israel that can hardly be seen. This comes after one of their drones was pelted with stones and crushed during one of Swaziland National Teacher’s Association’s (SNAT) march to the cabinet offices a couple of months ago.

The Deputy President of the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) Women’s League, Nontsikelelo Vilakati, alludes to the fact that the drones can properly be seen hovering at night to monitor gatherings and activities of the struggle movements until the participants disperse. “If you look closely up at the sky you’ll see the flickering of red lights especially over homes of the activists that are under surveillance and next to the royal residences. These are believed to monitor movements and take pictures,” says Vilakati.

Security roadblocks

There has been an increase in mounted security roadblocks on some of the major roads in the country. For example, at Mkhondvo, after Sidvokodvo it has become semi-permanent. Other places with constant random roadblocks include Mhlaleni, eLangeni, Mafutseni, KaLonhlupheko, Hawane and St Andrews. The aim is to completely lockdown all escape routes in all regions of the country so that if ever there would be a shootout, the people would have no escape route at all. All security agencies in the country are manning these roadblocks.

It is not only just the police, the state’s security has been allegedly beefed up with extra security from the Bastion Security run by Arnoldus Pienaar, a former South African special forces soldier and private military contractor. Bastion Security is  allegedly at the centre of bringing right-wing “mercenaries” with Apartheid military backgrounds to eSwatini.

The Bastion guards are often labelled as the “white Men in Black” and are closely linked to Finance Minister Neal Rijikernberg’ Special Security Unit and the Montigny company. Marksmen from the country’s three security forces have been recruited and are now part of this special security unit. An inside source from the Royal Eswatini Police Service mentioned that these are trained by the Men in Black in forests in the country. Even though many army or police personnel deny their existence nor how they all work hand-in-hand, however, the pattern of events suggests otherwise.

They have become the regime's security cluster’s rapid armed response, who often show up in less than 15 minutes, especially to hotspots or previously violent places such as kaKhoza, Matsapha, Logoba, and Msunduza. This unit is actually believed to have been planted in all corners of the country to crush any looming public disorder, particularly in fertile grounds and hotspot areas with a high potential for revolt.

The Mass Democratic Movement is not exempted from this surveillance. State agents are planted to be part of those who will be participating in planned activities such as mobilization and demonstrations. These agents will dress up and impersonate either the leaders or those who are part of the masses on the ground. In other instances, the state will plant people deep within the organizations to play the role of double informants.

Unfortunately, it is very easy to identify these elements more so because it’s literally a small space and an entirely small country and everyone knows everyone. These intruders are also quite inquisitive, they fire way too many questions and it blows their cover,” says Banele Sifundza*, a member of the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO).

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the source.

NB: Magnificent Mndebele is a journalist researching digital surveillance with support from the Media Policy & Democracy Project (MPDP), run by the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Johannesburg