In what may come as a surprise to many, only two Swazis are recognized by the South African government as exiled.

The two are Bongani Masuku and Mandla Hlatshwayo. Masuku was exiled in 1998 after the explosion of a bomb at the then Deputy Prime Minister's office. He was at the time the President of the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO).

He now works as COSATU International Secretary and an activist for the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO). Hlatshwayo was exiled in 2008 after a bomb explosion at Lozitha and was thought to have had a relationship with the late lawyer Musa MJ Dlamini who died at the scene. He was forced to flee the country after some senior officials in the security establishment tipped him off his pending arrest.

From the first wave of exiles in 1998, the second wave in 2005 (following a spate of petrol bombs on Tinkhundla centres), the third wave in 2010 right up to the recent wave of exiles in 2021 none of the Swazis who have sought refugee status in South Africa have been granted. If anything, most are given temporary permits that they must renew perpetually after a few months. Many have been frustrated by this arrangement.

Mandla Hlatshwayo. He is one of only two recognised exiles.

From a policy perspective, the South African government does not recognize eSwatini as a repressive state and is very circumspect to grant exile status to Swazis. To understand the frustration of Swazis in South Africa one needs to read the lucid account of being a refugee that was written by the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS) International Secretary Pius Vilakati for the Daily Maverick.

"Exile isn’t a holiday or a mere excursion. It’s traumatic. Refugee status does not guarantee you security," wrote Vilakati in an article for South Africa's Daily Maverick.He continued: "Imagine travelling by taxi. All of a sudden, there’s a police roadblock. If you’re a citizen, you might not comprehend this part, but I want you to try and fit yourself into my shoes right now — the unattractive and tired shoes of a poor foreigner who is beyond unemployable. The moment the police stop the taxi, your heart starts beating faster. It’s even worse when they’re checking papers. You want to vanish into thin air if, say, your asylum-seeking permit has long expired, and the Department of Home Affairs’ Pretoria immigration centre hasn’t renewed it for reasons only the officials know."

Most Swazis prefer going to neighbouring South Africa for refugee status perhaps because of distance to home, cultural and language similarities, and importantly job opportunities. A few end up in the UK, Canada, Norway, USA and other parts of the world. However, upon realizing how tedious, bureaucratic and time consuming the process of applying for exile status is in South Africa, most opt to get South African IDs or stay as illegal immigrants.

The worst part is the tiresome routine of renewing temporary permits at the Home Affairs office in Pretoria where a person can line for up to an entire day just to get renewal. Swaziland Liberation Movement (SWALIMO) spokesperson Thantaza Silolo was the first to blow the lid on life in exile. Faced with continuing with his stay in exile, Silolo was so frustrated with life in South Africa that he decided to go back home, confess to the police and spent eight years in jail.

To him this was better than the life he was living for over five years as an illegal immigrant in South Africa. He told The Bridge in an interview three years ago about how he had sunk into depression and was prepared to do anything to end the misery of exile life. He spoke of how they were treated like second class citizens and couldn't get a job, couldn't open a bank account and were routinely rounded up by police for lack of official residence papers.

CPS International Secretary Pius Vilakati. He wrote an article about the pain of exile for the Daily Maverick

Even exiled President of SWALIMO and former Siphofaneni Member of Parliament Mduduzi Magawugawu Simelane stayed briefly in South Africa before relocating to the UK where he is now based. Exiled Secretary General of the CPS, who has been exiled since 2005, once briefly stayed in Lesotho before relocating back to South Africa. Some activists who were exiled a long time ago in South Africa have quietly come back home while others, like Big Boy Hlophe from Big Bend, a former SWAYOCO and now Economic Freedom Fighters activist, just defied the odds and came back home prepared for the worst.

He was arrested, got bail and won his case at trial. He subsequently got married and started a business at home. Most of those exiled are more economic refugees in South Africa, owing to the jobs they occupy in that country. Some secretly come in and out of the country without announcing themselves. Most of those exiled in South Africa are around Mpumalanga where they have integrated with their communities because of the ease of language.

A few are in Kwazulu Natal, with a majority in Gauteng. Most exiles are linked to Swazi political parties with a few, like Sarah Mkhonza, the Swazi intellectual based in the USA, left under none political circumstances. Those in Canada, who are a majority, used a loophole in the country´s immigration laws and claimed dubious threats in the country and were accepted.

Most were, in all honesty, escaping the poverty in the country and could only secure permanent residency by making up stories about their activism in the country. When the country erupted into conflict in 2021 most folded as a Canada wing of SWALIMO Once in South Africa Swazi activists soon realize they are on their own as the Swazi progressives have not established a relationship with the South African government to get permits, more like the one Zimbabweans use, in order to be able to stay and work in the country.

In fact, most activists who end up exiled quickly regret and start being despondent as homesickness eats them, while disconnection with the political cause they came for only adds to their misery. The worst part is getting a place to stay. One activist told The Bridge that having a place to stay is the biggest headache. Housing is expensive in South Africa and without a source of income life quickly becomes unbearable.

"There is also no counselling for us here. Remember not seeing your relatives and not being able to bury them can take a toll on you. Sometimes we undermine how important it can be to be in local surroundings and meet friends and relatives easily. "The psychological scars of exiles are too deep. That is why I can never blame Silolo. Only we understand here. We drink because life here is hell. It has driven us to alcoholism even," said an exiled member of the CPS based in Mpumalanga who preferred to remain anonymous.

Bongani Masuku, writer says he is one of the few recognised refugees in South Africa

Some exiled activists are supported by unions who sometimes take care of their basic needs but with South African politics changing too quickly it is increasingly getting difficult for unions to justify supporting them when unemployment is high in South Africa. The rise of nationalistic chauvinism and xenophobia in South Africa has also meant that activists have also had to reposition themselves differently especially as it relates to politically linked jobs. As South Africans fight their own political battles Swazi activists employed by these unions get to be the first casualties.

Worse part now is the cozy relationship the main political parties in eSwatini have with opposition parties in the Republic. This has meant exiles are now seen more as an extension of the opposition as opposed to the ruling party. Another activist told The Bridge that it is getting worse nowadays as they live with the fear of getting snatched by the Swazi police as they did to the alleged Commander of the Solidarity Forces, Thabo Kunene.

"Things have changed a bit now. In the past, all we needed to do was escape to South Africa and that was it but now there is a new trend where the state can hunt you even when you are in Cape Town or lure you back through some unscrupulous means like they did to Thabo. The next thing we must expect is having what will look like criminal hits by izinkabi for some of the highly profiled exiles" continued the CPS activist.