New book points towards a new Swaziland

There are not enough books coming out of Swaziland to describe what is after all a unique culture and society that is, in its present absolute-monarchy-dictated form, in many ways brutally detrimental and stifling to its population.

Literature from Swaziland, in both English and siSwati, is a relatively recent phenomenon and those who have had the courage to challenge the status quo of poverty and repression in Swaziland in their fiction, such as Sarah Mkhonza, have often been harassed, ordered to stop, and exiled.

There have been many reports on the brutal and undemocratic nature of Swaziland. But describing a population, a group, a situation can and should be done in both more overall and more personal ways. By way of statistical, qualitative measures and methods, sure. But it is also necessary to describe and thus try to understand the individual to be able to truly understand the mental set-up of any population or group. And here fiction is indispensable.

In this respect a new semi-autobiographical (but as yet unpublished) book by SIkelela Dlamini,“Nothing to lose,” is a welcome and interesting take on the lives of its main characters, and thus on Swazi culture and society.

But the book is not simply a comment on Swazi society from the sixties to the present, but also a highly personal account that is seemingly an attempt at showing the potential success of Swazis from poor backgrounds by their own means. Without the aid of the corrupt and repressive culture that is dictated by the absolute monarchy that runs Swaziland.

It was entered in the Macmillan creative writing contest in Swaziland, where it was recognized as runner-up in the novel category. The author is planning to add to the final chapter that includes an elaboration of his own experiences and direct involvement in the mainstream struggle for a democratic and just Swaziland.

The book tells the story of Sabela, a boy who is born into a poor and ultimately broken rural family in the fictitious country of Soshangane, a country that in many respects is strikingly similar to the point of being virtually indistinguishable to the author’s native Swaziland.

Sabela grows up in the tough pre-independence sixties where he is initially is ordered to herd his uncle’s livestock. He also ends up working as a child labourer cane cutter in neighbouring South Africa, like his father.

The lack of parental love and close friends initially left Sabela vulnerable, solitary and disorientated, identity-wise. But he nevertheless manages to belatedly succeed in first primary school, against all odds, and later in getting first a degree at university in English and History and eventually a PhD.

For Sabela, school is a “gateway to all things good in life; from obscurity and the ignominy of poverty and deprivation.” He attributes his academic success to having learnt to suffer inwardly and persevere to prove himself outwardly and in the process earn the social recognition that he was deprived of as a child growing up without his parents.

Throughout the book are many more or less thinly veiled criticisms of Soshangane society (and by extension to this also of Swaziland) and the absolute monarchy that controls everything from the economy to the definition of culture.

The situation of women, and the reasons for Sabela’s mother being barred from contact with her two sons through a stifling traditional culture that is more or less dictated by the monarchy, is elaborated upon.  “Women are still largely [and legally] regarded as minors who can’t even access bank loans without the consent of their husbands or male relatives,” as the narrator conveys to the reader.

That plight of children is equally criticized, both the corporal punishment of pupils in Swaziland’s schools and child abuse at home. “Many orphaned children were actually battered to death and the matter was carefully swept under the carpet as were other cases of child abuse, including rape without their knowing neighbours either raising the alarm or coming to the victim’s rescue,” as the narrator puts it. And according to Sabela, “corporate punishment finds justification in the wider Soshangane culture … [and even by] the Ministry of Education.”

Inspired by the reading of South African literature and history at university, not least the ANC’s struggle for liberation that he is introduced to by black South African student’s at his university, Sabela begins to the question the foundations of his own society.

He “suddenly realized that it was possible after all to alter the circumstances that had held his own family back, subjecting him to all the exploitation that he had gone through. It started with education.”

After having worked as a High School  teacher, attempting to introduce a more anti-oppressive manner of pedagogy, Sabela becomes a full time political activist “to bring back democracy to his country,” as he puts it.

Having experienced some of the set-backs that such a line of work entails, Sabela is left somewhat disheartened at the prospects of a better and more democratic Soshangane in the near future. He also problematizes the consequences of being deliberately barred from meaningful job prospects because he is an activist.

The reason for Sabela’s pessimism in regard to the democratic movement’s ability to bring about the democratization of Soshangane is due in no small part to what he describes as the lack of willingness to constructively criticize and be criticized that he says exists within Soshangane’s democratic movement, something he says is “one of the fundamental flaws” of people and culture in Soshangane.

Nevertheless, Sabela admits to the struggle for socio-economic justice and democracy being a work-in-progress that might be “fraught with errors,” but is still “firmly on course.”

Having read Sikelela Dlamini’s book, it is clear that any true and meaningful opposition to the present Swazi regime must also be an educational and cultural revolution, so to speak. A revolution that not only changes the political system, but also the mindset and outlook of the population through art and culture. Political and social change is after all not really truly possible without either a preceding or simultaneous mental, pedagogical and cultural change.

You can receive a Word or PDF-copy of the book by mailing Sikelela Dlamini at: s1kelelad@gmail.com
Sikelela Dlamini holds a PhD in Early Childhood Literacy Development from the University of Cape Town.

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