eSwatini with Cebelihle Mbuyisa

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Judd Devermont: Welcome to 49. My name is Judd Devermont. I'm the director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. I was the national intelligence officer for Africa and worked at the National Security Council.

Nicole Wilett: And I'm Nicole Wilett. I'm chief of staff at the Open Society Foundations and, like Judd, I served at the National Security Council. I also served at the U.S. State Department at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, all with a focus on Africa.

Nicole Wilett: This episode is about eSwatini, formerly known as Swaziland. And we're joined by Cebelihle Mbuyisa, a writer and editor at New Frame.

Judd Devermont: It's important to note that we're recording this episode in early July. Events in Swaziland are very fluid right now. There have been protests and police brutality against students, journalists, and civil society activists. We’ll talk about that a little bit throughout the episode, but first Nicole, can you give us a short history of US policy toward eSwatini?

Nicole Wilett: Sure. The United States assigned its first consul to Mbabane, the capital in 1946. The objective was to buck up the British who were under pressure to hand over Swaziland, as well as Botswana, and Lesotho to the South Africans. The U.S. position was that Swaziland should be free from South African influence and eventually become independent. Until 1979, the U.S. ambassador was based in Botswana and responsible for Swaziland and Lesotho. While there was a fondness for King Sobhuza II. A lack of U.S. senior diplomat presence meant the job was primarily about showing the flag. Swaziland was also viewed as a meeting place, essentially a neutral ground for talks about Rhodesia and South Africa.

Nicole Wilett: As a full-fledged monarchy, Swaziland was not a democracy. Political parties were banned and U.S. diplomats were concerned about the monarchy's lavish spending, but it was important because of its location to U.S. interests. In fact, when King Sobhuza died in 1986, President Reagan sent his daughter Maureen to attend the coronation of the current King, Mswati III. There was a Foreign Broadcast Information Service(FBIS) station there, and many U.S. companies such as Coca-Cola moved their Southern African regional headquarters there instead of South Africa. There were also South African refugees seeking sanctuary in Swaziland.

Nicole Wilett: As the Cold War ended and South Africa transitioned to a multiracial democracy, U.S. officials started to increase their engagement on democracy governance and human rights issues, especially regarding freedom of the press and state repression. In 2014, President Obama removed Swaziland's eligibility for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) because of the weakness of workers' rights. While Trump restored AGOA eligibility in 2018, a recent U.S. ambassador in 2020 rebuked the king for his extravagance, citing royal trips to Disneyland and the purchase of 11 customized Rolls-Royces for the Royal family.

Nicole Wilett: Judd, do you want to talk about a major US success or policy failure?

Judd Devermont: Well, this one is a strange episode for us because we're right in the middle of a crisis. And I would argue that the answer so far is that we're failing. It's clear that the people of eSwatini are standing up for democracy, they are pushing back against the monarchy and the fact that much of the government isn't elected.There has been police brutality as our guest will talk about. And yet the U.S. statements have been fairly anodyne, not enough to align themselves with the protesters. And before we get into the strategy, maybe Cebelihle, you want to talk just a little bit about what you've experienced on the ground.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: Cebelihle Mbuyisa here, sub-editor and journalist for New Frame in South Africa. I have been reporting about the current unrest since the 26th of June 2021. I want to begin on the 17th of May, when students and other young people marched from Kwaluseni, where one law student, allegedly killed by the police, went to school. Students marched to the Sigodvweni police station to demand justice for him. That was the beginning of the unrest. It was an expression of anger by young people who see the police as corrupt, brutal, and as an extension of the system.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: So ordinary citizens led by students marched to the police station in Sigodvweni, where they delivered a petition. They then marched to the country's biggest town, and along the way police dispersed them using tear gas, force, water cannons, and injured many. They even fired rubber bullets at one Phiwayinkosi Dlamini who nearly lost an eye. The issue here was the death of one Thabani Nkomoye, and people demanded justice for him. He allegedly died at the hands of the police. There was a memorial in Fairview for Thabani, attended by three pro-democracy Members of Parliament and ordinary people. The police came rushing in, in combat gear and sprayed tear gas on the mourners. Public anger intensified and immediately after that, there was a parliamentary session where the King's brother Prince Simelane called upon police and security officers to fight fire with fire, characterizing the young people who had been marching as crooks.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: The minister of the Tinkhundla administration, Cruiser Ngcamphalala, also advised Members of Parliament in the House--who are not members of political parties because political parties in eSwatini are banned--to ignore these young people. Characterizing them as mere noise and concluding that young people in this country do not vote. And it is true. Voter turnout in the last elections was less than 30 percent if I recall correctly.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: Immediately afterwards, prominent Members of Parliament who are pro-democracy held a press conference, supporting young people, calling for justice for Thabani, and for democratic reforms. The one thing they are calling for is the election of a prime minister. In eSwatini, a Prime minister has always been appointed by the King, he has always been a Dlamini, he has always been a member of the extended Royal family. It's always just one surname, the King's surname.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: After, this pro-democracy MP specifically called for democratic reforms. Young people, on social media approached their Members of Parliament, sent them tweets, WhatsApp messages and asked specifically, "What is your position, first, on the murder of Thabani Nkomonye, on police brutality in general, and why are you silent in parliament? Why don't you say something?" Many of the Members of Parliament responded to that with hostility, but public pressure grew until young people started petitioning their MPsphysically.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: Young people marched to constituencies in eSwatini, with their demands. They began calling for the election of an MP in support of Mduduzi Simelane and the other pro-democracy MPs. This happened to about half the Tinkhundla centers in eSwatini in about half the administrative constituencies, until on the 24th, the government decided to ban the delivery of petitions. But people continued to organize. I was with young people on the 25th, a day after the delivery of petitions was suspended by the government citing anarchy. I went to a place called Nkoyoyo and the Motshane constituency, where young people with speakers were going from community to community, calling upon all people to come and demonstrate, and take a petition to their Member of Parliament.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: The following day, on the 26th of June. People came out in numbers and tried to assemble at Motshane, Nduma but there was a crowd of police officers who immediately dispersed them using teargas and batons. A sickly community member by name of Sithembiso Reggie Dlamini from Ngqeleni was assaulted for wearing a PUDEMO T-shirt. PUDEMO is a banned political party in Swaziland and citizens are not allowed to wear political party colors. They still do but they get assaulted and jailed. One Sipho Jele, a PUDEMO member, was assaulted and killed in police custody after being arrested for wearing a PUDEMO T-shirt.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: On the 27th, protests erupted in Matsapha, the country's industrial town, and soldiers moved in. There were reports that a number of people had been shot and killed. There are also reports that a number of people, at least three that were shot were pulled and thrown into the embers of a fire at a factory, Swaziland Beverages, right next to the MR3 Highway.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: On Sunday, 3 July, when I was arrested together with my colleague, Magnificent, we were passing that very same factory, and we stopped briefly to take pictures of the damage, where the fire had been. A soldier came out of nowhere with a rifle and pointed it at us. He demanded to know why we were taking pictures and then demanded that I delete the pictures.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: I had used my cellphone to take pictures and Magnificent had used his camera. Magnificent quickly removed and hid the memory card so we were able to save some photos. I deleted mine and then he detained us and called his superior who stood there for at least two hours. Then one big boss of theirs came and took our belongings--but this was not before we notified our editor. After being taken to Sigodvweni police station, we were thrown into a holding cells, where we stayed for at least an hour and 30 minutes until one officer came and took us for questioning.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: We gave them the basic information about who we are and what we do. And when it came time for them to ask leading questions, to incriminate us I suppose, we requested that we do that in the presence of a lawyer. We asked if we had that right, and they said, "Sure." And then they took us back to the holding cells and left. They were gone for two hours. And when they came back, it was another police officer not in uniform, who took me out of the holding cell, leaving my colleague in there. He took me to a communal office with 15 other police officers, also not in uniform. I was made to sit on the bench and the police officers began questioning me, simple and basic questions.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: I responded with who I am, what I do, what have I covered so far and where I had been. Then it got to leading questions, and again, I asked to do that in the presence of a lawyer. The moment I mentioned a lawyer, one of the officers who was nearby, slapped me really hard on the side of the face. I fell off the bench and I crouched, and it was a shock to me because I didn't expect it. They seemed friendly to me. I thought I was just going to get a call, to call a lawyer. So I was there having received this blow, crouching on the floor and shaking. Then he wanted to know who my father was, where I had gone to school, who my mother was, what she does, and what their numbers are.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: Before I could say my father's name, I received another blow to the head. I fell all the way through and by this time I'm visibly shaking. It was blows after blows after blows. They called me disrespectful and said, "you got an education here. You're writing stories and you're sending them to South Africa. Are you one of these people burning things up here? Are you sponsored by the EFF?". The EFF is a South African organization. But by this time, I can't speak.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: Then the leading officer said, "ceasefire." and they stopped assaulting me. I sat on the bench for some time, shaking, then they began asking questions again. I no longer bothered about a lawyer. I answered as best as I could and tried to remain calm, but my voice was breaking and there was a smirk on my face because I was really, really shocked. Because of this smirk, and because perhaps I was not crying, one of the officers gets really angry. He had a big paper puncher which he threw at my ribs. The leading officer, instead of asking questions, came toward me, ran his hands through my unkempt hair, throttled me a bit and then let go, before pulling me by my hoodie. Another officer pulled my feet, then they let me go on to the bench. I fell, and the bench came over me.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: I was in that position for a long time. I received blows after blows before they said "ceasefire" again. It was not the pain that was scary, it was the helplessness, and the thinking that you I was going to die. I thought I was going to die, came to terms with it, and finally they took me back to the cell and let me sit there for an hour. When I got to the cell, there were others detained--accused of having taken part in the protest. They hadn't eaten and their urine was there.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: Magnificent wanted to know what had happened, but I couldn’t really recount as I was in shock. I tried to recount it but instead I just cried, just tears. I just cried, shaking, and I was ashamed because I have always known myself to be strong, but I was shaking because this had never happened to me before. I did not expect it. The police officers seemed civil, friendly even.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: So, I sit there and I shake, visibly. And one of the guys in the holding cells had managed to get a cellphone. I don't know how they smuggled it, but a battery came from one place, and the shell of a cellphone came from another. They assembled it and Magnificent gave them a South African number. They had airtime so they sent an SMS to Magnificent's mother, who then contacted our editor. We were in that cell for a long time before they came back and took me up again, but not to the room I was in earlier. This was a bigger conference room where I found superiors sitting at a long table and the rest of the intelligence officers, not in uniform, sitting around.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: I think it was 51 of them, maybe less. They interrogated me. They were angry that I was in Swaziland covering the events as an eSwatini citizen but sending it to South Africa, while working for a South African company with a South African. I told them that it's just a job. I could not get a job in Swaziland, but I got it in South Africa, luckily, and it is journalism. I told them that I'm not a member of any political party, not that it's a sin, but I'm not. While answering questions, I was sitting in a way that one officer interpreted as disrespect. He kicked me and ordered me to sit properly.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: And I sat properly and went through the questions. Then I was ordered to unlock my phone because they wanted to go through it. They wanted to know how I'm employed in South Africa. I explained that it's an independent contractor agreement and that I write and edit. The questions were never-ending, circular, "Why are you doing this? Who are you taking pictures for? Are you part of an organization? Blah, blah." I told them who I was, but they didn’t seem to care. They kept abusing me and asking me to go out every once in a while, so that they can caucus amongst themselves.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: Senior officers kept coming and I had to start afresh, over and over again, until they took me back to the cells. Then they took Magnificent and he said he was tortured too. He was there for a long time, until later, a lawyer came--he had been contacted by New Frame. We were released, visibly shaking. We then ran to Mbabane, and we were followed for some time, but we managed to get to the Mbabane clinic. And a doctor checked us.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: There we made friends with the staff. They learned what had happened, they tried to hide us, they gave us food, they gave us tea, and they gave us cell phones. Then they told us to just sleep in the car in the parking lot, because we were in danger of being murdered if we went back to the road. Curfew is at six and soldiers were on the roads. Especially because we had a South African plate, we did not look presentable, and the police had our profile. So, we slept at the parking lot in Mbabane clinic. In the morning, we quickly went to Malkerns, near where we had been assaulted to get our clothes.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: I then quickly went to Manzini for a COVID 19 test, because you can't go through the border without a test. I got it in two hours and then off to Oshoek we went. Luckily it rained, so there were no longer any soldiers on the road. The moment we were out, we gave them the go ahead to publish the story and that was the end of the ordeal. But by then, we had seen families of people who have been killed. In fact, I was at Ngwenya when one victim was killed, Msimisi Mkhwanazi. I passed at a roadblock that some guys had set up as part of the protest and one of them, knowing that I'm a journalist, came running, saying, "Man, they have killed one of us. They have killed one of us. They've killed one of us. Come, come, come." I went with him and found Msimisi’s body lying there. Msimisi’s brother was also there. I took a photo and video and the police came immediately after. They told me to delete the photo and I deleted what they could see, but I had a back-up.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: They told me to get out of there but I did not leave and just stood with the crowd. Msimisi’s body had been covered with a blanket, held down with stones as it was windy. When the pathologists came, they took one of the stones saying it was evidence. Msimisi had no stone with him when he was killed. I lied and said I was a member of his family and I got into their car with his brother, before we went to the hospital. When we got to the hospital, a doctor came out, looked from a distance and made a note. Msimisi’s body was not properly observed. They explained the process and the way I understood it, the same people are just in charge of everything.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: They shoot him dead, then they are in charge of the investigation. They play a big part in everything. Still lying that I'm a member of the family, I asked about getting lawyers to be a part of the process. The police officer became really hostile and said, "What do you need lawyers for? We will do the investigation ourselves." The family was distraught, no one seemed to care, and it bothered me a great deal. But I could not really do anything. I am just a journalist. I was there trying to observe what was happening.

Judd Devermont: Cebelihle, thank you so much for sharing such a horrifying and harrowing journey that you have experienced at the hands of the people who are supposed to be protecting eSwatini citizens. I know I speak for Nicole in saying that we are grateful that you shared that story, because people need to hear what's happening in eSwatini. Nicole, I think we should end with, perhaps just a couple of thoughts from you on what the U.S. government should be doing to address some of the protests in eSwatini and push for accountability for the violence against Cebelihle and other journalists and citizens.

Nicole Wilett: Cebelihle, I just also want to add my voice to say, thank you for sharing your story with us. I am so sorry for what you and Magnificent have experienced and been through. And for so many other citizens of your nation, it is a horror to hear it in detail, and yet also incredibly important. When you say that you felt like you couldn't do anything, that you were just a journalist or that you felt great shame in your experience, I just hope that sharing it with the world is doing something incredibly important for your country at this moment. So we are very grateful. The answer, of course, to what the U.S. should be doing on this is: more. We speak about human rights and democracy as being a core American value. And I think this is a situation in which policymakers really need to pay greater attention. And they need to hear stories like this in the same way that they do in other places in the world where there's torture and abuse at the hands of security forces and police.

Nicole Wilett: The United States, I don't know that we've used our leverage significantly, and this is certainly the time to do so. In terms of public diplomacy, private diplomacy, I would like to think that there are very serious conversations happening about AGOA suspension, about the U.S. government bringing greater attention and bearing witness to these crimes in the capital. But I also think between Congress and the U.S. government, there should be serious consideration about how to support civil society at this critical moment. Investigative journalists like yourself, who are doing everything they can to get the story out, the U.S. government is able to amplify those messages and certainly should be doing so.

Nicole Wilett: In terms of what we could do that would really be impactful, but certainly not typical would be to seriously think about how to support those who are driving for change. Even when there's this question about political party affiliation, there's certainly a lot we can do from the governance side to be influential. Judd and I will do everything we can, to have this story be shared as widely as possible. And again, we're really grateful for your bravery and being here and telling it today.

Cebelihle Mbuyisa: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Judd Devermont: Well, that's the show. Thank you for listening. Please subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. If you want to read more of our analysis, check out our website at Thank you.