Police in Africa’s last-remaining absolute monarchy have all but crushed pro-democracy protests in Swaziland — beating protesters, threatening journalists and “disappearing” union leaders amid rumours of torture.
“We can’t meet, we can’t talk, we can’t express ourselves — this is the Swaziland we want to change,” said Ntombi Nkosi, a teacher and treasurer general of the Ngwane National Liberatory congress.
Nkosi was speaking to the M&G at the offices of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (Snat) just outside of Manzini where she, together with more than 500 activists, had gathered by mid-morning. This after their planned anti-government protests had been suffocated earlier in the day by government forces patrolling Manzini and detaining people thought to be unionists or activists.
By mid-morning there was a stand-off at the Snat offices as police in riot gear stopped people from entering or leaving. The M&G was smuggled into the centre after earlier in the morning being warned by police that any coverage of the “uprising” — planned to coincide with the 34th anniversary of the declaration of a state of emergency in the kingdom — would lead to instant deportation.
Activists and unionists in the Snat offices remained defiant: “We are denouncing this dictatorship because it is just like [Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe in Zimbabwe and [Muammar] Gaddafi in Libya. We are tired of corruption and want a new multiparty political system,” said Chopper Shabangu, an activist with the banned People’s United Democratic Movement.
“Things are really bad here. There are only a few Cabinet ministers and their families who are getting rich while the rest of us suffer. We need accountability, not corruption,” said Wandile Simelane, a teacher.
Just after the M&G interviewed the teachers and activists at the Snat centre, they marched to the Manzini bus rank.
Half a kilometre down the road they were met with police teargas and water cannons: “There were caspers [armoured police vehicles] and everybody scattered. Some of us tried to regroup by the Nzimnene River but the police followed us and would not let us out. Others managed to get to the bus rank and there were skirmishes with the police there. We tried to fight them back with stones,” said Snat executive committee member Vernon Magongo.
By lunchtime the Manzini business district had shut down.
Anyone in a red T-shirt — considered a symbol of the uprising — was harassed and in some cases beaten by police or security personnel armed with truncheons who patrolled the streets in groups looking to subdue dissenters.
Shopping centres such as Bhunu Mall were being cleared of people and many workers were standing around on the streets observing the increasing waves of repression being meted out to citizens.
A shopworker said: “Swaziland’s economy is falling apart and now we are all closing shop because of this. If the police were not so [confrontational] those of us who have been contributing to the economy would continue doing so.”
The Swazi government had last week banned the march, but labour leaders were defiant, saying the march was legal as it dealt with “social economic issues” around their salaries, and not politics.
An oppressive pall hung over Manzini all of Tuesday as the state security suffocated the anti-government protests.
In the morning, police in riot gear marched to the streets singing while others were positioned at every intersection in the city centre and at 50m intervals in-between.
A police official told the M&G that an estimated 1 000 security personal had been deployed to Manzini.
Swaziland is under lockdown. The M&G passed two roadblocks between Malkerns and Manzini (an estimated 15km) on Tuesday morning. On Monday night four roadblocks were passed between Golela border post and Malkerns.
Freedom Square, the planned gathering place for protesting groups including the Swaziland United Democratic Front, Snat and the Labour Coordinating Council, was also blocked off by police on Tuesday.
The M&G witnessed people being shepherded into the Manzini regional police station where they were stripped of their union T-shirts and caps, denigrated, intimidated, called “dogs” and interrogated by police. One activist at Snat who did not reveal his identity for fear of reprisal said that this was the police strategy: “They have taken most of our leaders away and they hope this will kill the protests, but we won’t let it happen,” he said.
Wandile Simelane said: “I am worried about another teacher from my area. They were stopped at a roadblock outside Manzini and people who were wearing union and Snat T-shirts and caps, were taken away in a bus. I have not heard from them, I can’t get hold of them and there is a fear that they have been taken away to be tortured.”
By late Tuesday evening, unionists were regrouping to formulate a strategy for Wednesday’s planned protests. According to union leaders who had not been detained, the planned overnight vigil in Manzini seemed unlikely to continue in the face of state repression.