Engineered consent in Swaziland

Imagine you’ve started your first job after a year’s unemployment of endless number of job applications, after finishing your engineering degree. You are excited, not least because you have had no source of income while unemployed and because several of your friends speak of their newly found jobs on Facebook and LinkedIn.

What you are met with is an unsigned contract of employment with no job title and no mention of wage rate or working hours. You receive no introduction to your new work place. You have to pay for your own tools, and are met with racism, poor working conditions with multiple accidents and ill-treatment once. Your wages turn out to be US$10 a day, the same as an unskilled domestic worker.

This is what 27-year-old Mkhonzeni Dlamini experienced while working as an assistant electrician for a sawmill company in the small absolute monarchy of Swaziland, as he outlines in his second book “delayed dreams”.

Desperate for work
Dlamini had studied electrical engineering at the University of Swaziland. He had grown up in a mud hut in the rural areas of Swaziland, with barely enough money to eat or to attend school, and he and his family had to make great sacrifices for him to attend and complete his engineering degree.

With his degree and job opening, he was now looking forward to being able to support himself and his family. Both his mother and father are ageing and unemployed and caring for one’s parents is a burden successful family members have to bear in Swaziland, says Dlamini.

But after a month he had nevertheless handed in his resignation. He was fed up with the racist remarks from management, threats of dismissal for trivial matters and fellow workers being kicked, slapped and beaten by their seniors.

His fellow workers stayed on, too desperate for work in a country with over 40 per cent unemployment and where over two thirds of the population survives on under a dollar a day. “They can be paid peanuts and ill-treated but they won’t complain since life is too miserable for most of us”, writes Dlamini.

‘We change but remain unchanged’
“I made changes in life. I saw myself better off than others. But I saw no change and I remained like everybody. Life is a merry-go round. We change but remain unchanged”, Dlamini continues.

A short but highly relevant comment on living in an absolute monarchy, where your opportunities and place in society are almost fully dependent on your connections and willingness to comply with the decrees of Swaziland’s absolute monarch, Mswati III.

“In Swaziland you can rarely find a company or government parastatal whose board of directors does not include a prince, princess, chief or the king’s business associate. We live in an absolute monarchy where the king is above the law”, as Dlamini puts it.

Don’t accept defeat
“My stick-and-mud house was no more safe, termites had destroyed most of the supporting poles on the wall and roof. To avoid the iron sheet from being blown away by the wind I had placed some old car tyres and bricks on the roof”, Dlamini says of his present predicament in what is a fitting metaphor of the state of Mswati’s kingdom.

“Most of us in Swaziland are subjected to oppression and others have become accustomed to oppression and no longer express any resistance to it. They have accepted defeat”, he continues.

Not Mkhonzeni Dlamini, however. After resigning, he wrote a letter of resignation that eventually led to several changes in the company he had worked for, including the introduction of management skill courses, his racist and violent superior being reprimanded, and the arrival of his final pay check that had been missing.

And he wrote a book about his experiences where the last sentence reads “if any man were to believe in himself and unite with like-minded people, nothing can stand in his way”.

The future
For his part, Mkhonzeni Dlamini wants to take a postgraduate degree in Engineering, depending on whether he can get a scholarship, after which he wants to work as a consultant engineer and part-time lecturer, he tells me. He also plans to write several more books in his series about life in Swaziland.

As for the future of Swaziland, he is less optimistic. “The future of Swaziland is gloomy, everyday things are getting worse”, he says. Dissenting voices are therefore on the rise and there is subsequently a real possibility of talks between the democratic movement and the king.

“But in my opinion these democracy talks are merely a PR-strategy by the regime. The prerequisite for such an exercise would be to first unban political parties, release political prisoners, call for the return of exiles and allow freedom of speech and association”, says Dlamini.

Buy “Delayed dreams” at Amazon.

Read more about what it is like to grow up below the poverty line in Swaziland, but succeeding academically against all odds, in Mkhonzeni Dlamini’s first book, Phoenix mysteries – memoirs of a born oppressed.

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