A victim of circumstances
March 4, 2016 Leave a comment
“I am a victim of circumstances”, says activist Mphandlana ‘Victim’ Shongwe of the nickname he is known by because of the decades of state harassment he has endured in his homeland, Swaziland. “But what has kept me going is the desire to be free”.
“Victim” is the name that Mphandlana Shongwe – a founding member of Swaziland’s democratic movement, PUDEMO – is commonly known by in the small absolute monarchy of Swaziland. He was given his nickname, after reflecting on his life in Matsapha Central Prison, while awaiting trial for treason in 1990.
It was here he started counting the many setbacks he had experienced. He has been expelled from college, been denied a living by the government because of his activism, been arrested on many occasions for trivial “offences” such as shouting “viva PUDEMO” and wearing a PUDEMO-t-shirt, and been held in solitary confinement, beaten up and tortured by the police on several occasions.
More sadness than joy
As with most other ordinary Swazis, Victim had to choose at an early age whether or not to accept the enforced poverty and cultural control that is an fundamental part of King Mswati’s Swaziland.
“My introduction to poverty and oppression at a tender age had prepared me for a life of activism”, Victim says of his childhood. “My life has seen more sadness than joy, more funerals than weddings, and more visits to police cells than parties”.
And he has had a life of struggle for justice and democracy that neither his daughter, his daughter’s mother nor his own mother have been able to understand.
Victim, who was born on the 27th of September 1960, did not have an easy childhood. When he was six, his father was arrested and charged with murder and died a few years later in prison. His mother suffered from a stroke that left her temporarily paralysed and meant she had to return to her parents’ homestead.
Victim ended up in a mission school, where he got his first introduction to oppression and the struggle to end it. Firstly by being on the receiving end of whippings by his teachers, and secondly by hearing about the 1976 Soweto uprising in neighbouring South Africa in history lessons.
Victim and his classmate Richard, who were two of the top students, both listened attentively. Later in life, they would put the learnings of these lessons to very different use when they met on the streets of Manzini and Mbabane, Victim as a political activist, Richard as a police officer.
No independent thinking
It was in high school that Victim first started to reflect on the influence of the unreflective “banking model” of teaching that was, and is still, employed as the manner of teaching in many schools in Swaziland.
“As students, we lacked independent thinking. We were treated as if we were empty containers which needed to be filled up with knowledge. I would later discover that this was intentional in order to keep the Swazi student docile. The school curriculum was designed, as it is still designed, to produce a student who accepts things as they are without question”, Victim says of his high school days.
He began to link the problem of Swaziland’s educational system with the broader lack of democracy, leadership and direction in Swaziland, and as a result of these reflections, Victim ended up taking a teacher’s degree after having finishing high school.
No sleep ‘till justice
It was at teacher’s training college, that Victim truly became aware of the injustices of the Tinkundla-system of Swaziland’s absolute monarchy. And it was at here that he started his “career” as a more-or-less full time activist.
“When people went to sleep, we went to distribute pamphlets”, he says of this period of his life.
It was as a result of Victim’s involvement in a seemingly endless row of door-to-door campaigns, pamphlet distributions and political meetings that the he ended up facing a long prison sentence for the first, but by no means the last, time.
Along with eleven other activists, including PUDEMO President Mario Masuku, Victim was arrested and charged with treason in 1990.
Amongst the charges was conspiring to form a political party with a military wing with the intention of overthrowing King Mswati’s hand-picked government, organising trade unions and holding political meetings where overthrowing this government was discussed.
But as several prosecution witnesses claimed that their statements had been made under threats, and other prosecution witnesses’ statements seemed rehearsed, the judge ruled that any treasonable or subversive activities had not been proved.
A public face
Victim was given a six month-sentence, for a couple of minor charges, instead of the yearlong sentences that the prosecutor had called for. And instead of crushing the movement, the trial had given PUDEMO and Victim a public face both in Swaziland and beyond.
The High Court had also proved that there was no armed insurrection being planned by PUDEMO, but that the organisation was simply concerned with bringing true democracy to Swaziland.
As he had already been in jail for this duration, Victim was released immediately.
“It was that trial that registered the people’s movement, and from thereon we have been in and out of courts but never looked back”, Victim says of the importance of the trial.
The usual suspect
Another effect of the trial was that the state increased the victimisation of PUDEMO leaders. President Mario Masuku was dismissed in the local bank he had worked in for 18 years, Victim was expelled from college, and many others suffered a similar fate.
In fact it only took a couple of weeks for the police to detain Victim again, this time on consecutive detention orders without him and his two co-detainees being told what the charges against them were.
The trio went on a hunger strike that only ended after several weeks of agony, a royal pardon, and after Victim had suffered from heart failure and was told by a doctor that he could easily die.
A bright future?
Since the hunger strike, Victim has been in and out of prison and has been constantly harassed and on occasion beaten up and tortured by the police. He has also remained unemployed because of his PUDEMO activism.
In 1994 he was arrested for demonstrating peacefully against the government, and became an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience. In 2006 he was beaten unconscious by police under interrogation and dumped in a hospital bleeding profusely. In 2009 he was arrested for shouting slogans wearing a PUDEMO t-shirt, and charged with terrorism. And the list goes on.
“Long prison terms are a risk that anyone who stands up against the system face”, says Victim. “But every time I face danger, I recall the words of ANC member Solomon Mahlangu, who, when leaving the court to be hanged by the apartheid regime in 1979, said: ‘Mama, tell my people that I love them and my blood shall nourish the tree of freedom’”.
No personal agenda
And regardless of the setbacks and endless victimisation, Victim is today a free man in an unfree country (although out on bail since 2006, and having to report to the police station every Friday).
He is optimistic about the future of Swaziland and believes that it is a matter of years, not decades, before it will become a democracy.
But Victim also warns of the dangers of the struggle for democracy and freedom, the closer victory seems at hand.
“The hour before dawn is a period where some people start pushing personal agendas at the expense of progress. And any agenda which excludes group representation is bound to keep the status quo intact”, he says, alluding to the fact that the struggle is not about personal gain but a constant fight for a better future for everyone.
Not on a silver plate
He also insists that it is obvious that democracy will not be delivered on a silver plate or necessarily or automatically follow a collapse of King Mswati’s Tinkundla-regime.
“There is no scenario in history where the ruling class voluntarily handed over power to the oppressed”, Victim emphasises.
“The country is where it is today because people were quiet when they were supposed to speak. But change will only come when the people of Swaziland choose to die on the streets, so to speak, if necessary. There has never been a time when I thought of giving up the struggle and I have never looked back with despair, although I have nothing in material form except the willpower to hold, even when there is nothing to hold on to”.
This article is based on Mphandlana “Victim” Shongwes book “The Last Mile”, as well as on conversations and correspondence between the author and Shongwe.
Swaziland has been an absolute monarchy since 1973, where the King Sobhuza declared a State of Emergency that banned all political parties and centralised all power within the monarchy.
The 2005 constitution reinforces this by leaving freedom of speech and control of virtually all aspects of government and the judiciary at the mercy of the king, as does the Suppression of Terrorism Act, an “inherently repressive act” according to Amnesty International, which defines terrorism in very sweeping terms.
Swazi legislation thus leaves almost no political space for the population but gives the police and security forces almost unlimited powers to clamp down heavily on peaceful demonstrations and meetings deemed to be “political”.