LAWYER SICELO MNGOMEZULU SPEAKS TO US
At the centre of contemporary Swazi politics is a legal matter of two Members of Parliament (MPs), Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube from Hosea and Ngwempisi constituencies (Tinkhundla) respectively. The two were arrested after last year’s June Uprising in eSwatini. Among the charges they face is that of terrorism and the state believes they have a case to answer.
Leading the MPs' legal team is South African-based attorney, Sicelo Mngomezulu, who has recently been banned by the eSwatini government from entering the country, following a statement he made at Hosea inkhundla where he pledged a cow to be slaughtered for maidens who would not attend the country’s Umhlanga (reed dance ceremony). Besides leading the MPs’ legal team, Mngomezulu has been a prominent figure in Swazi society, addressing activists and being vocal about the lack of democracy in the country. It would seem the culmination of this has been his declaration as the persona non grata in eSwatini (Swaziland).
Renowned philosopher Karl Marx said history repeats itself, first as a tragedy and second as a farce. In the case of eSwatini, the government first declared Peter ‘Mabhodweni’ Forbes as an undesired immigrant, then went for South African Communist Party Secretary General Solly Mapaila, and now lawyer Sicelo Mngomezulu.
The Bridge took some time to talk to Mngomezulu about his forced ‘exile’, at a time when he is leading a high-profile legal case of pro-democracy MPs Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube. We also ask him about his background, business, and community development life. We hope you will enjoy reading the interview below.
The Bridge (TB): Good day Dlakadla (clan name for Mngomezulu). It feels great to see you in good spirit, and thank you for giving us time out of your very busy schedule to have this interview.
Sicelo Mngomezulu (SM): It is a pleasure to speak to you.
TB: Since the start of the MPs' case, you have been a prominent voice in the politics of eSwatini, and following recent developments bordering on your ban in the Kingdom I am sure you are aware that a significant number of Swazis would like to hear more from you. But, first things first; please tell us briefly about yourself – who is Sicelo Mngomezulu?
SM: I consider my roots to be in Swaziland because that is where I was born. My mother is from Nyakeni and my father comes from the royal family of Ngwavuma in the Republic of South Africa where we are descendants of Inkosi Lubelo of the Mngomezulu clan. However, due to internal clan conflicts at the time, my father founds himself in Swaziland where I was subsequently born. I have many siblings from my father’s side. I grew up in Nsangwini, Pigg’s Peak, at my aunt’s place and only left when I had to start my primary education. I did my primary school education at Ngwane Park in Manzini from1986. In 1993 I went to St Paul’s High School in Manzini until I finished in 1997. I then went to the University of Swaziland (UNISWA) where I studied Law; during that time you had to study Law for 6 years – the first 4 years you had to study BA in Law (with a focus on the Social Sciences), then an extra 2 years for the Bachelor of Laws (LLB).
TB: And when did you move to South Africa, and was that always in your plan?
SM: I left in 2004, after graduating from UNISWA. As you would imagine, I had a choice to be either in Swaziland or South Africa, given my background. I decided to go to South Africa and I had prepared my South African national Identity Document (ID). I settled there, served my Law Articles, and was admitted as an Attorney of the High Court of South Africa in 2007, after which I established a Law Firm in Sandton in 2009. I also branched into business and, as you would know, went into manufacturing, property development, and retail, among others. Through my companies, I employ 300 people directly and those that I employ indirectly are approximately 1000. Most importantly, over the years, I have maintained a strong bond with Swaziland because this is where I was born and raised. I consider this to be home as well.
TB: In addition to being a lawyer and entrepreneur, you seem to have a high political consciousness, where did it all start and how do you balance being a lawyer, business person, and community development enthusiast?
SM: Unbeknown to many, in 2003 I participated in the Tinkhundla elections in Swaziland and entered the race to be a Member of Parliament for Manzini South inkhundla. I was 24 years old at the time and still doing my LLB at the University of Swaziland. I lost by a small margin and came number 3 in a highly contested election. I have always been politically conscious and wanted to make a contribution to the lives of people through positive political impact. I also think what contributed to my political consciousness was the architecture of the curriculum for training lawyers in Swaziland back then. It was a comprehensive training; we started with the Social Sciences such as Sociology and Political Science in the first 4 years before doing Law in the last 2 years. This immensely raised my consciousness on societal issues and the importance of understanding the social and political environment around which Law is applied. It sharpened our tools of analysis. So, I am a product of that training and it led to my hatred for injustice and that is why I take interest in development issues such as infrastructure, education, health, and employment. I am not a naïve and apolitical lawyer who would keep quiet when security forces, for instance, take unlawful and immoral orders because I am aware that, as they say, “Evil triumphs when the righteous are quiet.”
That is why I strike a balance between my Law career and community involvement. For instance, while in Swaziland I always knew Tinkhundla was undemocratic and despotic, but the killing of people by the state in June 2021 changed the way I looked at it completely. As someone who grew up in Swaziland, I make no apology for my commitment to contribute to the Swazi struggle for democracy. I grew up in Swaziland, was educated through the tax of Swazis, and therefore have full entitlement to contribute to the country’s politics. Swazis have been good to me and that is the reason I want to give back in different ways.
TB: At this point, we would like to know how you met MP Bacede and MP Mthandeni; have you always known them?
SM: (Sighs in anticipation) Well, Bacede’s brother, Bheki Mabuza, is a long-time friend of mine, long before we both went to business. During his wedding in 2002, I was the groomsman. That was before he relocated to do business in South Africa. I was closer to the Mabuza family, including MP Bacede. At the genesis of the civil unrest in early 2021, I got a briefing from MP Bacede who, apparently, had some premonition about being pursued by the state. He explained what they were doing in parliament regarding the call for an elected Prime Minister and democratization of Swaziland so that I was prepared should the state arrest them as it has done to pro-democracy leaders before. That is why when they got arrested in July 2021 I organized the legal team to defend them.
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TB: You are a South African-based lawyer, and this must have probably been the first time you’re involved with the country’s courts of law in this manner. How does this feel and what have been your experiences insofar as the country’s judiciary and politics are concerned?
SM: With due respect, I would not like to make a comment regarding the country’s judiciary because it has the potential to jeopardize my clients’ case which is currently before the Swazi courts.
TB: That is understandable, Dlakadla, especially since the matter is still sub judice, but perhaps it has dragged long enough for you to form a reasonable opinion on it. Do you think the state has a case against the MPs and why do you say so?
SM: The state does not have a case against MPs Bacede and Mthandeni. The state is also aware of that. The truth of the matter is that, following the growing call for an elected Prime Minister by the MPs and the nation, the state’s intention was to remove the pro-democracy MPs from the public discourse so that the message could not gain traction. Of all the state witnesses, none implicated the MPs because they did not commit any crime.
TB: Would you kindly share with The Bridge readers the latest developments on the case; at what stage is it now and how far is it from finality?
SM: We are towards the tail end of the case. MP Bacede has finalized his testimony and only left with re-examination and calling of further witnesses, after which accused number 2 (MP Mthandeni) will be called upon to testify as well. I think we will be able to finish within the allocated time, which should be the end of November or early December. The case proceeds on 8, 9, and 10 November.
TB: You are the third person to become persona non grata on Swazi soil, at least in recent times, after the current General Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP), Solly Mapaila and Peter ‘Mabhodweni’ Forbes were declared as undesired immigrants. What does this mean to you as a person and as a professional attorney, as well as businessman? How does it affect you and what are the implications? Also, how does this government announcement affect the case of the 2 pro-democracy MPs?
SM: Obviously, the ban is disappointing because Swaziland is the country of my birth – I have relatives there and you will know that, as an African, it is important to have a connection with your ancestors, and, in this case, mine are in Swaziland. My mother died in 2020 and was also buried in Swaziland, Elwandle in the Manzini region.
However, it was not unexpected that the government of the day in Swaziland would not pursue me, given its despotic and dictatorial nature. The reasons advanced for my ban do not tally with what I said at Hosea inkhundla; the recording is there for all to see. Also, in issuing the ban the Swazi government also violated its own laws. In any case, my clients are also in jail for no reason. We will be challenging the decision in the courts. Regarding the MPs’ case, my ban does not affect the continuation of the trial because the Senior Counsel and the Attorney from Swaziland (Ben) are the only two people needed for the trial to continue. My role is putting together the legal team and its coordination, but my clients have a right to have a legal team of their choice, and they had wanted me to play the leading role and this ban has the potential to disturb them.
TB: You were quoted to have said something about what the state was planning to do against you, to the extent that you said, "I can't die alone" - what was in your mind, or what had you heard at the time you said this?
SM: One Swazi journalist had asked about the state drone that was always following me when addressing supporters of the jailed MPs at Msunduza or in town, and wanted to know if I did not fear for my life. My answer was that I had no reason to fear because, as far as I know, I had not committed a crime – I am running a clean business. I then said that if someone could consider taking my life, then I would not die alone. I still stand by my words.
TB: Would you like to say something about an insinuation made by the Prime Minister who, at some point, said something to the effect that the reason behind all these is hunger (‘baphetfwe yindlala’)? The general assumption was that the statement was directed at yourself; granted this was the case, what would be your reaction to it?
SM: Yes, I am aware of that allegation. If that was directed at me, then Cleopas (Prime Minister) should know that is not the case. It’s quite ridiculous! By the way, I can afford to pay his salary and that of his entire cabinet. In fact, if I were Prime Minister of Swaziland I would serve for free and not take my salary – and go ahead to pay for the salaries of my cabinet team members, as well as my security detail! But we should understand the bigger issue; it is not about individuals but the majority of Swazis who are suffering and living in poverty. As we speak, we have qualified teachers who have been unemployed for the past 5 years in Swaziland. Look, I left the country 18 years ago (2004) and there has been no substantial development – the healthcare and education have deteriorated, and there is a high rate of youth unemployment. Swazis are intelligent and you must see how they perform whenever they get opportunities outside of Swaziland where they get high positions in the private sector. That is why you will not find a Swazi begging on the streets here in South Africa and elsewhere because whenever they are given opportunities they thrive. Instead of focusing on such issues, people like Cleopas behave childishly.
TB: When you addressed the people of Hosea in Swaziland you mentioned that you'd be slaughtering a cow for those who would not attend Umhlanga (Reed Dance ceremony) - is that correct? Can you please repeat what you said and why you said it? We ask this because there seems to be an accusation that you incited people to boycott this national event, something that you have denied.
SM: These people in government are shallow-minded and childish – they thrive on trivialities. I mean; one has been involved in this case for over a year now, during which time I made numerous political statements; they didn’t engage me on those statements and they choose to engage me only when I speak about donating a cow! First and foremost, I never incited the maidens to boycott Umhlanga. There was a speaker who spoke before me and said, “Away with Umhlanga” to which the people responded with approval. When I stood up to speak I asked if they were not going to Umhlanga and they said “yes.” I then said, since they will be at Hosea, I will slaughter a cow for them, understanding that the Umhlanga ceremony comes with feasting of meat (i.e. KFC) and I decided to offer something to eat since they had told me they were not attending the event. The maidens are the ones who told me they are not going to the ceremony; I never said they must not attend. I only offered a cow. This is a mischaracterization of what I said.
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TB: You are a donor that is impacting the lives of people through charity work in Swaziland. Now that you have been banned from entering the country, can we expect you to continue with your donations in Swaziland?
SM: I have been donating and giving to the needy for the longest time; it’s just that I now represent the MPs in a high-profile case and what I do becomes public. I spend no less than E1 million on various forms of giving each year. For instance, at Ngwavuma I donated boreholes in every village and refurbished some, funded youth and cultural events, developed an office for the community – and donated 20 laptops last year for the youth computer skills program. In Swaziland, I can do more but I am not allowed to enter (chuckles). But I will continue to donate to Swazis because they helped me and I am what I am because of Swazis; I benefitted through their tax which gave me an education.
TB: What do you think about the Swazi struggle for democracy and its current phase; do you think the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) is making inroads and, if so, to what extent? And what do you think needs to be done to strengthen the efforts to democratize Swaziland, particularly in the context of the proposed SADC-mediated political dialogue to resolve the political impasse?
SM: There is light at the end of the tunnel. Swaziland has never been where it is now, in terms of its political struggle for democracy. The current government is incapable of taking Swaziland out of the national problem; there is inherent corruption and the government is preoccupied with satisfying the desires of the monarch, in the process neglecting basic services like healthcare and education. Even the roads that are there exist to service the monarchy. For instance, the Nkonyeni road is for Princess Sikhanyiso and it has nothing to do with uplifting the standard of living for Swazis – which is why that road had to be prioritized over other roads like the Maloma one which is busy and linked to industrial development. The International Convention Centre (ICC) looks old even before being used. When MPs demanded oversight over the spending on the ICC they were told it is a royal project. That is why the Tinkhundla parliament will never work; you can’t achieve anything while working inside that parliament. What happened when MP Marwick Khumalo was voted as Speaker of the House of Assembly back in 2003? The king could not open parliament because he did not want Marwick, and he was removed.
The current system is a total failure and it would have collapsed even if the MDM wasn’t there. Lack of service delivery and suffering leads to riots and, ultimately, an unled revolution. The MDM is making progress and could do more without fragmentations. However, it is a new phase altogether and all are learning as they move forward. What Swazis must know is that they are on their own and must work hard to liberate themselves. I do not think the SADC process will yield results favourable to the people, but the country is part of a region and the international community, hence the need to give chance to these bodies in addressing the political problem.
TB: We have to end with this one issue which is currently trending. The King’s Private Secretary and Interpreter, Sihle Dlamini, has agreed to the challenge for a public debate with you, albeit on conditions. Should the nation prepare for this debate?
SM: Sihle has, of late, been speaking on a number of issues and I thought, considering his proximity to the king, his thoughts were in line with those of the king, hence the need to expose him in a public debate so that we clarify most of the lies and misconceptions. I also have my own conditions and I am keen to take him on. He is free to call me and we agree on terms of engagement and moderation. They can also send Cleopas in the debate (chuckles).
TB: Mr. Mngomezulu, thank you for your time.
SM: It has been a pleasure.