/ 22 August 2021

Eswatini cop says ‘not in my name’

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Citizens have been growing increasingly disgruntled (the image below is from unrest in 2018) at the dictatorial regime of King Mswati. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP)

Sergeant Cebile Shongwe has resigned from the Eswatini police service saying she was tired of serving a government that continues to oppress and kill innocent civilians.

The resignation of the policewoman, who was based at Malkerns police station, comes amid calls among civil society organisations and political parties that King Mswati III must be charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

At the end of June protests against Africa’s last absolute monarch, turned violent. Some buildings connected to the king were torched by protesters, and police reportedly assaulted and arrested political opponents. The protest manifested after three pro-democracy MPs advocated in parliament that the country should be ruled by  a democratic government.

After Shongwe’s resignation, the online news site Swaziland News released electronic evidence in which army commander Jeffrey Tshabalala revealed state secrets regarding the killing of civilians, as well as assassination plots on pro-democracy MPs and the editor.

Tshabalala was recorded by Shongwe, the whistleblower, who told Swaziland News that she decided to resign and skip the country so she could share more evidence with the international community.

“I cannot continue working for a government that kills people. The national commissioner claims that just over 30 people died when in fact the number is over 100. The truth is being hidden. A soldier allegedly threw 14 protestors into a fire, alive, at Matsapha Brewery during the protest,” said the police officer, who resigned on 13 August. 

Shongwe’s testimony was corroborated by another police officer, who cannot be named for security reasons, but who was at the scene during the night of the massacre at the end of June. The officer agreed to record an interview on the condition that the audio would not be released until he, like Shongwe, had skipped the country.

“Actually, we were deployed at Matsapha Brewery on that night armed with rubber bullets and teargas, we found a large violent crowd,” the police officer said. “The people were so violent and we tried shooting them with rubber bullets and teargas canisters but that didn’t help. While we were busy trying to control the situation, soldiers arrived. Their commander told them to make good use of the state’s live ammunition and they started shooting. But before the soldiers arrived, we started hearing sounds of shooting from a distance and because we know the various types of military weapons, we noted that these were heavy guns.”

Shongwe’s resignation and Tshabalala’s revelations appear to have shaken the police service. 

When the whistleblower did not pitch for work on 14 August the police’s executive command reported her missing and subsequently sent officers from the criminal investigation department to the Oshoek border post to gather information on how she left the country.

“You are kindly requested to check in your stations and post areas for the above-mentioned police officer who went missing from work at Malkerns police station. She was to assume duty at 21:45 hours on 13/08/2021,” reads the memo from Malkerns police station.

Troubled kingdom: Cebile Shongwe (left) fled Eswatini after she recorded statements by army commander Jeffrey Tshabalala (right), in which he discussed state killings and assassination plots after the latest unrest in the country.

On Sunday 15 August, Malkerns assistant inspector of the Royal Eswatini Police Service, Ndleleni Bongani Gamedze, and another police officer from the Malkerns police station arrived at the Oshoek border post to trace the immigration records. 

They spent close to an hour locked in a meeting with the Oshoek immigration department’s supervisor, Sibusiso Manyatsi.

Manyatsi would not answer questions about what as discussed, telling the Swaziland News that the matter was above his jurisdiction and referred questions to the chief immigration officer or the ministry of public relations. 

The Mail & Guardian understands that Shongwe was taken to a safe place by an international human rights organisation that is collecting information on alleged crimes against humanity in Eswatini. Shongwe is expected to provide more information that will assist in the investigation.

She told the M&G she was aware that police had started tracing her but said she was not intimidated.

“I know what they are trying to achieve by reporting me as a missing person and then pretend to be investigating. They want to change the whole story because it is an embarrassment for them that a police officer can plan to resign and leave the country without their intelligence unit knowing,” she said.

Lucky Lukhele, spokesperson for the Swaziland Solidarity Network, said the officer sacrificed her pension and her benefits by resigning so she can assist the oppressed people of Swaziland in their fight for freedom.

“As per the recordings of the army commander that are in the public domain, it is clear that many people died during the massacre. Therefore, there’s a great need for an investigation to get to bottom of this matter.” 

Neither Sabelo Dlamini, the government spokesperson, nor superintendent Phindile Vilakati, the Eswatini police spokesperson, had responded to questions from the M&G by the time of going to print. 

Speaking to the M&G this week, Sibusiso Nhlabatsi, a human rights lawyer, said the recordings by the army commander released by the Swaziland News corroborated the idea that criminal charges against two MPs were politically motivated.

The M&G last month reported that political tensions had intensified and sources alleged there was a plot to arrest or assassinate three pro-democracy MPs critical of Mswati’s government. 

King Mswati III

The pro-democracy MPs — who have consistently demanded democracy in parliament with an elected prime minister — are Bacede Mabuza from Hosea and Ngwemphisi MP Mthandeni Dube. 

Nhlabatsi said that Tshabalala’s evidence suggests that the charges against the MPs are politically motivated.

“The army commander stated clearly that they got an instruction from His Majesty to arrest [the MPs]; they tried to resist but the king insisted. 

“This means the charges were cooked and that the MPs will not get a fair hearing because the case will not be decided on merits or demerits but the interests of the head of state who wants them in prison.” 

Mswati rules landlocked Eswatini as an absolute monarch with executive, judicial and legislative powers. Political parties are banned from participating in elections and anyone who challenges the king and his government faces treason, sedition or terrorism charges.