Human Rights – an account from the democracy movement in Swaziland

He is a fast speaker, and is always short of cash. “Why is this door locked?” – “What is this guy doing?”  – “Why are these chickens not in the garage?”. He is a Human Rights lawyer and believes that he should therefore be entitled to a car. “We are in the struggle, but we need not be poor!”

But Thulani Maseko is not rich – and “the struggle” has definitely lasted too long, he believes. So he is short of cash. At the maternity clinic he complains about the price of the bed that his wife is confined to during her hospitalization, and while we are discussing the price of antibiotics her water breaks.

The newborn girl is in an incubator, which is also expensive. “You see doctor, I don’t have this kind of money” – “What are we talking about. Just give me a rough figure so we know – how much is it?” The doctor has no idea what this costs so Thulani has to ask the receptionist.

Then there is the question of a car. Thulani and his wife live in the countryside, with its gravel roads and ravines, and travelling between there and Mbabane without a car is not an option. “We need a car!”. Indeed.

Thulani spends a lot of time in his office, calling his clients. Swaziland Democracy Campaign is one such client, as its coordinator, Bongani, is a good friend of Thulani’s, but the relationship is strictly pro bono. He also used to represent some white women in Jo’burg who never paid what she was due.

The office has not been fully painted, and the walls that have been painted are now a rather unattractive shade of yellow. The walls are made of masonite and the they have made the doors themselves. At the back of the room is a young secretary currently discussing a case with one of the other lawyers. The case turns out to be about a young female rape victim. Actually, the girl was not raped as such. But she is only 12 or 13 years old and had spent the night with a young man without trying to escape, which makes it rape. The problem is that the young man is also a minor, just 14 years old, and can subsequently not be charged with rape according to Swazi law.

Such is the illogical nature of Swazi law in general. At Tum’s George Hotel in Manzini, where the largest trade union in Swaziland, SFTU, has called a meeting on the new Public Service Bill, Thulani finds himself trying to explain why a law stipulates that it is illegal for all civil servants to be members of a political party when all such parties are already illegal in Swaziland.

Thulani has also represented several Human Rights activists, as well as having helped them get out of detention or jail in the first place. One such Human Rights activist had recently been treated somewhat harshly by the police, and was unaware that two lawyers were waiting in the next room. He was finally taken to the Police Inspector’s office where two  men were waiting for him, believing that this was the beginning of the more sophisticated part of the interrogation. That this was where the more rationally minded interrogators would take over from those who had merely shouted abuse. The two men looked poised to take him to Mbabane in a police car, he thought.

A strange kind of game ensued where everybody greeted everyone else in the room formally, as is the custom in Swaziland: “How are you?” I am fine”. He could hardly claim to be fine after the ordeal he had just been through.

The Police Director was fiddling with a pen, seemingly not knowing what to say. Finally, Thulani introduced himself, and the Police Director acknowledged that he had no intention of arresting him and that he was free to go. Many comrades from the Democracy movement were waiting outside to greet them.

Thulani Maseko is a founding member of the Swaziland Association of Students, a former president of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of Swaziland, a former Secretary General of PUDEMO, a founding member of Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland, and a founding member and chairperson of the National Constitutional Assembly. Thulani Maseko has represented PUDEMO-leader Mario Masuku and PUDEMO activist, Sipho Jele, amongst many others. He was arrested on charges of terrorism in 2009 for having expressed support for two alleged terrorists who died in September 2008 when a bomb in their car prematurely detonated near the royal palace, but subsequently released.

From the Democracy Movement in Swaziland.

Links:

Draft paper by Thulani Maseko: Constitution-making in Swaziland: the cattle-byre Constitution Act001 of 2005

Article on the arrest of Thulani Maseko in 2009 in the Times of Swaziland

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