From April 12 uprising to #JusticeFor Thabane: the decade that marked the beginning of the end for Tinkhundla

When Sobhuza introduced the Tinkhundla system of governance in 1978 he surely didn’t think it would last this long. In fact, some go to the extent of claiming he introduced the system as a mere experiment. To be fair to him though, we must see his decision in context, both internal and external to the eSwatini state. Like today, he was responding to public pressure following the students and teachers’ strike of 1977 that brought the country to a standstill. Many historians attribute the militancy of the time to the influx of politically charged exiles fleeing the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto uprising. In any event, the country was long simmering with political tensions after the late king had abrogated the independence constitution, introduced a draconian April 12, 1973 decree that outlawed not just political parties but all political activity and then to top it all transforming himself into an absolute monarchy.

Tinkhundla was, in the final analysis, a way to give in to the pressure and to appease a relentless nation tired of authoritarian rule. It is indeed interesting that today conservatives want a referendum on Tinkhundla as if Sobhuza sought public input on it or called for a referendum to test public approval of his system. Internationally, Sobhuza was not acting in isolation though. In fact, he was following a script already penned by many newly liberated African states. Banning political parties and cutting down on civil liberties was at the time not a diversion from the norm; it was happening whether in President Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe’s Nigeria or Julius Nyerere's Tanzania. But if Sobhuza lived in an era where he could use his charm to pacify a nation, his son is facing a different set of problems. The centre cannot hold and he is clutching at straws because he is clearly out of depth.

His father’s system is curving in and King Mswati does not have the political sophistication to renew its lease of life. It is easy to dismiss this growing anti-Tinkhundla wave as a repeat of the momentary consciousness of the late 90’s that died as fast as it rose but that in and of itself is a pedestrian analysis devoid of contemporary nuances. To understand why we are here today one must cast his eyes back to the last ten years and the picture begins to form clearly.

The economy

We started the decade with the economic collapse of 2011. The government was forced to go to South Africa cap in hand begging for a rescue package amounting to E2.4 billion. South Africa tied the loan to what it called ‘confidence building measures’ that included a slew of fiscal reforms. The government hung on until their share of the E7 Billion South African Customs Union (SACU) receipts were received later that year then boasted that they were out of the red. The collapse of the economy was a result of the uncontrolled expenditure by the rapacious royal family. No one seemed to care that the socio-economic indicators were signalling red lights as early as 2006. For example, the country’s Integrated Labour Force Survey of 2006 put the unemployment rate at 40% and by 2010 it had shot up to 45.6%. The dire state of the Swazi economy led to Swazis migration to South Africa seeking greener pastures. This wave was best captured by a report carried by the Mail & Guardian in 2013 that stated that at least 117,552 Swazis were working in South Africa. This was about 11.54% of the total Swazi population.

Protests in Manzini. The decade saw increased public anger at the state of the economy

Reported the newspaper: “Each of these people remitted on average R3, 326 back to Swaziland in 2011 to a total R391 million for all Swazi Diasporans. Despite Swaziland’s small size, it is the fourth largest exporter of human capital amongst the SADC countries at 3.61%. Swaziland miners constitute 1.8% of all miners employed in the gold, and coal mines of South Africa…” It became clear by the middle of the decade that the country sat on a powder keg and everything pointed to a disaster waiting to happen. As the decade progressed things got worse. The government could no longer pay for university students and could not attract foreign investment. Graduates who previously could be kept on a leash by threatening to either withdraw their scholarships or not offer jobs soon realised they no longer had anything to lose.

The Barnabas effect

When historians eventually write the history of eSwatini no man will feature so prominently than our late former Prime Minister, Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini. When Dlamini was recycled from the dustbin of history he had one mission; sniff out all opposition to the Swazi monarch. Remember the king had been riled up badly following the attempt to bomb the bridge at Lozitha Palace. With the so-called lightning arrestor in charge, all state considerations would prioritise neutralising the political threat the king feared. Neutralising it he did. First, Dlamini put in the legislative framework that set the scene for his assault on the opposition, of all shapes and sizes. First, he proscribed the King’s arch-nemesis, the People United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), arrested activists for something as silly as saying ‘Viva PUDEMO’ or wearing their T shirts, banned the country’s only trade union federation and forcefully cut down protests at the University of eSwatini. And when push came to shove, he was never afraid to fire almost half the teachers in the country and never lose sleep over it.

Former Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini. Writer says he wreaked havoc on the credibility of the system 

For the first time jelly kneed union leaders had to go beg for forgiveness if they so much as wanted their jobs back. Dlamini was that ruthless and unforgiving. It was either his way or the highway. Fear reigned at Hospital Hill and his nemesis, both real and imagined, knew where they stood with him. If this meant firing his cabinet member Macford Sibandze on trumped up charges or arresting Marwick Khumalo for some equally flimsy accusation he did it without so much as flinching. Even the king’s trusted blue eyed boy Qhawe Mamba was muscled out of the palace and isolated like a suburban rat. Others from the royal family like the late Liqoqo Chairman Prince Mangaliso Dlamini thought they could intimidate him based on their proximity to the king but they met their match in Dlamini who was never afraid to dress them down in public. He once reminded Prince Mangaliso to humble himself because he was a Bantustan Professor. Below the belt or not, Dlamini knew how to deal with his enemies. But the king loved him to bits. After all, Dlamini understood exactly what tickles the monarch’s fancy: money. Dlamini kept the taps open down at Ludzidzini and like a spoiled brat let loose at a candy store, the king was spoiled rotten. During his reign there was never a NO for every request from Ludzidzini. That is why even when the former Army Commander had a fall out with Dlamini the king chose his trusted errand boy. When the former Chief Justice, the late Michael Ramodibedi and his lawyer friend Sipho Shongwe, tried a palace coup they found Dlamini ready for them. Even though this was the closest he felt threatened he still was the last one laughing. It was his ability to sacrifice the nation to satisfy the insatiable greed of the king that endeared him down at Ludzidzini. For example, he was never afraid to halt civil servants’ recruitment or adjust their salaries as long as Ludzidzini was happy. By the time Dlamini was gone he had created so much damage to the credibility of the system no one was prepared to stand by it anymore.

Failed vote of no confidence

When The Nation Editor Bheki Makhulu enrolled for a Law degree at UNISA he became a newly found evangelist for the constitution. He was exalting its virtues column after column coming short of screaming why we didn't see what he was seeing. It was not clear whether this was a case of momentary excitement in finally understanding the law or he genuinely believed in the bona fides of the document. But the last ten years showed beyond reasonable doubt that Tinkhundla cannot be changed from within and that the constitution was not worth the paper it was written on. For the first time in contemporary history, Members of Parliament had tried to pass a vote of no confidence hoping to send the Barnabas led government home only to come back with their tails neatly tucked between their legs. Nothing best demonstrated where power lies in our country’s politics than the king forcing duly elected members of parliament to reverse a vote of no-confidence motion. It became clear even to distant observers that change could not be engineered from within no matter how well intentioned one may be. Even international organisations who were naive enough to want to give the constitution a chance quickly realised they were wasting their time. The continued delay of the SODV Act in parly under frivolous reasoning from Ludzidzini frustrated diplomats and international policymakers alike who saw just how unworkable the system had become. Even the American embassy's excitement that Jan Sithole had finally marshalled his Swaziland Democratic Party (SWADEPA) to participate in the system (after a failed court application to allow party representation) everything melted like morning dew upon entering parliament. Everyone remained hopeless what was to be done to force reforms.

Judicial and media capture

If there is anything that defines the last ten years under Tinkhundla misrule then surely it has to be the brazen capture of the judiciary and media. For a long time the Times of Eswatini was seen as a ‘legal’ opposition in a country where political parties are banned. At its prime, the newspaper could hold power accountable, or at least make pretences to. But the king knew that with the Observer under firm control in Mbongeni Mbingo the recalcitrant child was the Times of Eswatini. It, therefore, came as no surprise that Martin Dlamini, the Managing Editor-turned-SMART Partnership-boss, was fished from the newspaper then sent back again with a double agenda; be a speech writer for the king and manage the editorial content of the publication. The result was a conservative and reactionary editorial posture the paper took that confirmed once and for all that the media capture was complete. If that was shocking then think of the elevation of a corrupt foreigner Judge into the Chief Justice position and the drama that ensued. Not only were progressive judges like Qinisile Mabuza isolated but the more independent ones like Thomas Masuku were fired Kangaroo court style much to the shock and utter disbelief of the nation. Perhaps the spectacular arrest and charging of lawyer Thulani Maseko and Editor Bheki Makhubu for an opinion piece in The Nation magazine just sealed the fate of what had happened at the high court. Even lawyers who tried to fight against both Ramodibedi and his shoeshine boy Mpendulo Simelane, that disgraced former Judge, understood that something deeper was happening in the legal/judicial corridors of power. But the proof was in the pudding just by observing the type of judges that were appointed to both the Supreme Court and High Court. From Judge Mumcy Dlamini to his husband Majahenkhaba Dlamini or the controversial former AG Phesheya Dlamini it became apparent the direction the country was taking. If judicial capture needed a face then why not go for a polygamous indvuna Bheki Maphalala who oozes conservatism from a mile away. All hopes of using the judiciary to win some small democratic reforms were flushed out of the toilet. Even if anyone could win a political case at the High Court the government was guaranteed its Supreme Court lieutenants could correct any High Court wrongs.

Siphofaneni Member of Parliament together with Hosea MP Bacede Mabuza became the roses that grew out of concrete

Regional fall of political pillars of oppression

If anyone had predicted in 2010 that we would end the decade without Gadaffi, Ben Ali, Omar Al Bashir, Mugabe or even Burkina Faso traitor and dictator Blaise Compaore we would have all laughed. But it happened. The fall of these dictators had a ripple effect all over the continent and the failed April 12 uprising became testament to the suppressed appetite for change in the country. Even though the April 12 uprising was nothing more than a mere social media generated excitement it panicked royalty and put the country under global focus. But that did little to offset the balance of power in the region where the king was guaranteed support from equally authoritarian peers. What was of significant consequence was the death of Gadaffi who treated the king as some junior protégé and Robert Mugabe who provided the regional pillar of stability for the monarchy. The shared playboy personality of both Jacob Zuma and the King meant that he could be protected from the pressure from South Africa’s alliance partners who support political change in the country. But Zuma is a shady man, if not coming to the country for state visits he would come just for his many squeezes or to solicit voodoo powers. But their relationship was solid nonetheless and helped provide a buffer for the king. However, the Cyril Ramaphosa administrations plays by a different script especially after reports linking the missing Gadaffi Billions to the country. He has sent several missions to try and recover the money. Indications point to the king increasingly being isolated in the region. Kabila is gone, Mugabe is gone, Zuma is gone and all new heads of state have little regard for some tinpot dictatorship in some economically insignificant and backward semi feudal enclave. 

Social media and the rise of Zwemart effect

All and everything that happened in the last ten years never prepared us for the rise of the Zweli ‘Zwemart’ Dlamini phenomenon and how it would shift the balance of power in the country. Only he was able to steer public anger directly to the king. A former private investigator turned journalist, Zwemart became the public face of state persecution for his work as a journalist and this garnered him public sympathy. Luckily for him, with a discredited Times and Observer, his Swaziland News online publication was to rise in influence and shook the political establishment to its very core. No one has riled the king the wrong way in recent times than him. Even more frustrating for the king was that even with absolute powers he couldn't do anything as the man was operating from his hideouts in South Africa. Zwemart took his type of street journalism a notch up and pointed the problem not to some mysterious ‘labadzala’ or ‘the government’ but at the feet of the king. Where his journalism lacked in the presentation of facts he compensated with his bravery. This woke up a nation that was already frustrated with all that was wrong in the country. Even the newly found bravery of the ‘democracy MP’s’ tapped on the fertile ground that had been cultivated by Zwemart. Over the decade the reach and influence of mainstream media became second to social media, Facebook in particular, and this unleashed a form of rebellion never seen before. Of course all this was happening in the backdrop of years of behind the scenes mobilisation done by the trade unions, civil society and banned political parties that often go unacknowledged.

With all this happening all the nation needed was a public face and hero to tap into this decade long decadence and there came MP Mduduzi Magagwugawu and Bacede Mabuza. Not only did these two beautifully craft an agenda for change that was simple, discernable and understandable to everyone but they also spoke with so much clarity and finesse it became difficult to ignore or dismiss them. The rest, as they say, is history.

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