ACTIVISTS IN ESWATINI LIVE ON THE EDGE AS SURVEILLANCE HEIGHTENS
The dead, the wounded and those left brutally paralysed by King Mswati III's mercenaries are still waiting for justice.
And the living, particularly activists, who are calling for democratic changes in the country live like rats. They're constantly on the run as they are heavily Monitored by the King's men.
Their basic human rights such as freedom of movement, freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly continue to be grossly violated by the regime that has no mercy on those sympathetic towards the call for democratic reforms in the country.
Just recently, on 20 September, the house of PUDEMO's president, Mlungisi Makhanya, was petrol bombed allegedly by the King's agents. His wife and children nearly became collateral. Makhanya is probably enemy number one. But he's not alone, there are others.
For example, Thabo Masuku, the director of the Foundation for Socio Economic Justice (FSEJ), is one of the endless lists of people who are constantly surveilled. And this dates back to the early 2000s when he was still a student activist. He believes him being a student leader and part of the student union contributed to him being surveilled.
Then, he vividly recalls, it was not as intense as it is now. Of late, Masuku says, the kind of surveillance he's experiencing is that he gets tailed by people working for the regime. Followed and whenever he'd make a stop, they too would stop.
“It is very difficult to protect our families because we have kids who are going to school and you are never able to fully protect everyone but we try by all means to shield them from all the challenges we are going through in terms of security," Masuku says. "We try to ensure that at a very bare minimum to ensure that at least the basic security checks are provided for them.”
Surveilled for raising the Vuvulane farmers' injustices
Allen Mango is a land activist who has been organising the Vuvulane farmers. He started being surveilled in 2012 when he was still staying in Vuvulane in the Lubombo Region, where the residents inherited thousands of hectares of land from the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC).
One day there was a meeting called by officials from the Royal Eswatini Sugar Corporation (RESC), a subsidiary of Tibiyo Taka Ngwane. They had a document that sought to strip off the farmers of their right to the land.
In the meeting, they shouldn’t dare sign the document, Mango advised the farmers. But that is when things started going downhill for Mango and led to the culmination of being surveilled.
The regime, he recalls, sent agents purporting to befriend him, yet it was a clandestine way of tracking his movements. And later, police would show up and become aggressive towards him for no apparent reasons.
A failed attempt to kill Mango
In 2013, Mango was arrested for an incomprehensible reason. While in the holding cells, the police tried to attempt his life. This, he vividly recalls, happened before he was due to appear on a Monday morning at the Big Bend magistrate court for a bail application.
Surprisingly, the police wanted to transfer him to Big Bend around 3am. This was odd, he reckoned, and alerted his lawyer, who then waited for them on the road to make sure that he's handed over to the said destination.
Mango is convinced that the police were instructed to kill him and leave in the veld, or make up stories that he tried to escape.
He advised farmers not to sign fraudulent documents that were likely to benefit King Mswati and his cronies.
The charges didn't hold water. To frustrate him and in a desperate quest to build a plausible charge, he was released on bail with stringent conditions, one of which requires him every last Friday of the month to report to the Tshaneni Police Station. Failure to do so would be reason enough for his incarceration.
Another reason that Mango thinks he was surveilled for is because he was standing in for the race to become a member of parliament, which would have ruffled feathers about the issues pertaining to the Vuvulane farmers.
To this date, Mswati continues to benefit from the land of the farmers as RESC continues to use vast amounts of the land for sugarcane plantation.
Surveilled for being vocal on social media
It isn't only men who are subjected to such close surveillance. For instance, Abigail Jele— an activist for the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO), a member of the Swaziland Rural Women Assembly (SWRA) — found herself surveilled because she's vocal on social media about the regime's injustices, particularly to women-related issues.
She's also a media officer for the Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF). Her role is to report about what is happening in eSwatini that will enhance the freedom and democratic movement in the country.
One day Jele was surprised when an unknown man parked outside her work place and got off when she went. He followed her up until the bus station, where he boarded the bus with her but got off at a different station.
What draws attention for her to end up being surveilled is simply because she does not adhere to the regime's rules pertaining to freedom of oppression.
Catching the spies red-handed
A considerable number of activists who lost their lives is a result of such coordinated surveillance tactics employed on them. And more are likely to lose their lives.
Not many are as lucky as Mbongwa Dlamini, the president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) and a mathematics and biology teacher. He's been tipped off that a certain police officer has been assigned to monitor his movements.
On multiple occasions Dlamini found them red-handed. “I would find strange people either moving around the house and you would see that they are trying to surveil who I am with, and sometimes when I have seen them first I change the location and go to sleep somewhere different,” explains Dlamini.
Student leaders aren't exempt
For student activists, the regime deploys young and upcoming police officers to infiltrate them. On the onset, one may reckon that such surveillance mechanisms are ebbing, yet they're actually transmuting in very alarming scales.
There are new agents that are being recruited and are used to infiltrate the mass democratic movements. Some even go to the extent of registering different organisations and apply for membership in movements so that they can gather intelligence.
Colani Maseko was one of the people leading the protests calling for justice for Thabane Nkomonye, who died at the hands of the police from Sigodvweni.
After the mass revolts had subdued, Maseko says he received a call from a regional commissioner from Manzini that the national commissioner wanted to see him.
Then, one day, students from the University of Eswatini (Uneswa) were protesting over allowances. Among other issues, the students called for a march because there were also break-ins at the dorms where female students reside. Three students were allegedly raped.
When the students delivered a petition which was not given an ear, they got agitated and boycotted classes. As usual, the notorious Operational Support Services Unit (OSSU) came along with soldiers, where Maseko was apprehended and thrown into the truck.
Because Matsapha Police Station was nearby and students would have caused more chaos, the security forces opted to keep Maseko at the headquarters in Manzini. There, he was severely torture to the point that he nearly lost his life.
Upon being released, his phones were kept by the police. Maseko's bail came with stringent terms. And his close ally, Muzi Nhleko's car was petrol bombed, because Nhleko would transport him for revolutionary duties.
As the days of the regime are seemingly numbered, Mswati's sword calamitously becomes more rogue and brutal. In the meantime, those who are working for progressive movements and organising the masses will have to play hide-and-seek. It's a cat and mouse chase.
“The trick to surviving is that we no longer stay in one place, make no confirmations on where you sleep. You always move around all over the place and you ensure wherever you are going to sleep you reach there at night, although at the same time it is dangerous to walk at night. It is hard…. Always make sure that you are surrounded by people,” explains Dlamini.
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.