The businessman’s murder that rocked the Swazi kingdom

Big shot: Swazi businessman Victor Gamedze was murdered in January. He forged useful partnerships but also made enemies. His new company, Swazi Mobile, was a competitor to MTN Swaziland and was alleged to have been ‘established through corrupt means’

Big shot: Swazi businessman Victor Gamedze was murdered in January. He forged useful partnerships but also made enemies. His new company, Swazi Mobile, was a competitor to MTN Swaziland and was alleged to have been ‘established through corrupt means’

It was a warm Sunday evening on January 14, still light, when Victor Gamedze pulled into the petrol station that was about to become the scene of his murder.

The 52-year-old telecoms tycoon had just watched his beloved Mbabane Swallows, a team he owned and had built into a local footballing powerhouse, beat rivals Manzini Wanderers. It was the last victory he would see.

Two bullets to the side of the head brought a bloody end to the life of a man who had climbed his way to the top of Swazi society — and, in doing so, illuminated the rot at the heart of Swaziland’s royal regime.

Who was Victor Gamedze? Who was behind his murder? And what does his death mean for Africa’s last absolute monarchy?

When you begin digging into the life of Gamedze, a picture emerges of a controversial figure with power — or, more significantly, with access to power. He was a self-made man who worked hard, struck deals and got things done.
A businessperson and sports administrator who won friends just as effectively as he made enemies. A man with considerable wealth who could stroll into the royal palace and talk shop with King Mswati III.

So great was his influence that he would regularly visit the offices of the country’s two daily newspapers to discuss how best his public image should be portrayed. His many detractors called this censorship, claiming he had captured the media. His defenders say he was shrewd, suggesting this was just Gamedze working Swaziland’s system to his advantage. A feudal system, it must be said, that is as opaque as it is nepotistic.

Gamedze wasn’t born into Swazi royalty but he did marry into it. His wife, and now widow, Princess Lungile, is a granddaughter of the former king. In Swaziland, Gamedze was often referred to as King Mswati  III’s “brother-in-law”.

Swaziland’s royal family is a sprawling and secretive entity but it is well established that Gamedze was close to Mswati. But, as several Swazi commentators said, you can be close to a king but never a friend.

[Feudal: In a country controlled by a secretive and powerful monarchy, crossing King Mswati III of Swaziland (centre) could be detrimental. (Gianluigi Guercia, AFP)]

That said, Gamedze was clearly doing something right. At the time of his death, he was a member of the king’s board of trustees, the body that looks after the private and public financial interests of the monarchy.

The king “was probably making money via Victor Gamedze, as he does with most big companies in Swaziland”, says Richard Rooney, a close observer of the country who has been writing the Swazi Media Commentary blog since 2007.

Over the years, Gamedze had also become synonymous with Swaziland football. Besides owning and running Mbabane Swallows, he was the chairperson of the Premier League of Swaziland and vice-president of the National Football Association.

Not bad, all things considered, for a kid from Kalanga, a small village on the outskirts of Siteki in Swaziland’s far-flung eastern region, a stone’s throw from Mozambique and a long way from the bustle of Mbabane, the capital.

When you said the name “Victor” in Swaziland, people knew who you were talking about. When considering his life, what emerges is a dubious and talented man of national recognition who won state tenders, built companies and brought people together through sport — but divided them in opinion.

“It depends on how you knew him,” says John Sicelo Vilane, head of the Media Workers’ Union of Swaziland. “If you happened to know him on the good side then it’s a loss, however, if you knew him on the bad side then it’s some kind of relief.”

This view was echoed by several Swazis.

“The death has divided the country,” said a source speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals. “Some are mourning and some are in a celebratory mood.”

Ackel Zwane, the head of investigations for the daily Swazi Observer newspaper, which is owned by the king, says Gamedze’s death is “a definite loss” for the country.

Zwane, also the Manzini bureau chief for the newspaper, describes Gamedze as a “renowned sports administrator” and tells of how the tycoon was “building inroads in becoming one of Swaziland’s private sector employers” by establishing the country’s second mobile telecommunications company, Swazi Mobile.

Zwane is well aware of Gamedze’s less than salubrious reputation but notes “his personality touched many Swazis through his philanthropy” and “many small and medium enterprises owe their existence to Victor’s assistance”.

Bheki Makhubu, editor of the Nation magazine, thinks Gamedze’s power may have been overstated but doesn’t doubt the effect he had on the country’s business culture.

“I do believe that he had stolen our innocence and had deepened the culture of corruption, cutting corners, [going for] quick-fix solutions without much regard for the law,” says Makhubu, who spent 470 days in jail in 2014 and 2015 after exposing judicial corruption.

Death threats all round

In recent times, much talk about Gamedze revolved around his new company, Swazi Mobile, which is now competing with MTN Swaziland, the local subsidiary of a global telecommunications company, for mobile and data customers. MTN Swaziland previously had a monopoly on them in the country.

Swazi Mobile was “established through corrupt means”, says Zweli Martin Dlamini, 35, a newspaper editor who doubles as a private investigator who fled to South Africa in mid-December 2017.

Swazi Mobile “won a cellphone licence, beating other international players in the industry, despite having no experience in the industry”, says Dlamini, who was the editor of Swaziland Shopping, a weekly tabloid that was shut down by the government at the end of last year.

Swaziland Shopping covered the Swazi Mobile deal extensively but it was another story that got Dlamini into serious trouble. In mid-December, he was about to publish a front-page scoop. The page was ready to go to the printers in Nelspruit, and the headline ran: “Victor Gamedze’s plot to kill King Mswati: Powerful businessman ordered ICT ministry to urgently close this newspaper to prevent this story from reaching public domain”.

But before the paper could be published, Swaziland Shopping was shut down — and, according to the editor, an angry Gamedze phoned Dlamini and issued him with a death threat. It was this threat that forced Dlamini to flee.

Did Dlamini really have information that Gamedze was plotting to kill the monarch? And could this be why Gamedze was killed?

“That article at the time when the newspaper was closed, I was investigating that matter but I had some information — even though I cannot disclose to you the nature of the evidence — but I had some information, that’s what I can tell you,” says Dlamini.

He says the tip-off was more like “intelligence information” and the evidence he had was “very, very true”. Moreover, he says Gamedze “wasn’t [acting] alone”. The connected businessperson was plotting to kill the king with “his mafia”, Dlamini claims.

The smell of mafia around Gamedze was not an invention of Dlamini, even if his newspaper did push the perception that Gamedze was operating his mini-empire as a mafioso might.

“Gamedze dominated in every aspect of Swazi society,” says an analyst who requested anonymity. “He was indeed a person of influence in Swaziland, just like the Guptas are in South Africa.”

The speculation runs deeper, suggesting that Gamedze was competing with other “mafia” figures.

“But, of course, he was executed mafia style, which then raises fears that there might be a mafia now operating in Swaziland and in charge of businesses,” the analyst says.

Other observers are not so sure. They say it is fanciful that Gamedze would want to kill the king, given the assumed financial relationship between the men. If this is true, then why did Swaziland Shopping attempt to publish the story?

Several sources confirmed a perception existed in the kingdom that MTN Swaziland was funding Dlamini to attack Gamedze and, in the process, damage the new kid on the block, Swazi Mobile.

The Mail & Guardian found no evidence to suggest that there is any truth behind this speculation. MTN Swaziland was contacted for comment but hasn’t replied.

Dlamini’s Swaziland Shopping didn’t have a great reputation with many people. It tended towards extremes with splashy scoops and it did have a following but it was viewed by some observers as a gossip rag that didn’t verify its stories.

But Dlamini says one thing separated his newspaper from most of the competition — unlike Swaziland’s major dailies, he was not in the pocket of Gamedze.

Dlamini’s accusations were echoed by Vilane.

“We are also aware of some of the editors having their kids’ school fees covered by Gamedze. Despite all the bad things Gamedze would do, not even on a single day you would find them in the media but the good ones will always be there. Connecting the joints and all that stuff you are left with no other option but to believe that indeed he captured some editors.”

Mbongeni Mbingo, managing editor of the Swazi Observer and chairperson of the Swaziland Editors’ Forum, denies these allegations and says the news and sports sections would often carry critical stories about Gamedze.

“There is no basis in the claims that the Swaziland Editors’ Forum was on an individual’s payroll. This is not possible in such an organisation of individuals who are very professional, have strong views on issues and also have different owners.”

Unusual suspects

Having risen to such prominence, and in such dubious circumstances, there is no doubt that Gamedze had more than his fair share of enemies. So who killed him?

The police and crown prosecution think they have found their man. Murder suspect number one is Sipho Shongwe, arrested on January 19. He was charged with arranging the murder by allegedly getting three hitmen to carry out his dirty work. He denies the charge and says he has a strong case. He is applying for bail.

[Blamed: Swazi businessman Sipho Shongwe has been accused of plotting the murder of Victor Gamedze using three hitmen]

Shongwe is a Swazi businessperson with a few things in common with Gamedze — most importantly, perhaps, a questionable reputation. He also owns a football team, Matsapha United.

In a pre-trial hearing in February, Shongwe said he owned and managed Gree Air Conditioners, a franchise company, and owned properties valued at $1.29-million.

“According to the principal investigator of the case, Sikhumbuzo Fakudze, there was overwhelming evidence against Shongwe,” reported the Times of Swaziland.

Fakudze is quoted as saying: “I state that, as much as the applicant will plead not guilty to the charge, which is his right, there is overwhelming evidence that he committed the crime of murder he is charged with.”

Shongwe and three others are accused of plotting the murder, two of whom are said to be South Africans and are accused of fleeing back across the border after the trigger was pulled.

“Currently, the police have arrested two of the three suspects who are alleged to have acted jointly with Shongwe to kill Gamedze,” reported the Swazi Observer. “The two are Mbuso ‘Ncaza’ Nkosi and Siphiwe Tata ‘Ntjebe’ Ngubane, who were both arrested while in South Africa.”

One suspect remains at large, Swazi nightclub owner Sicelo “Dzodzo” Zikalala.

The theory goes that Shongwe enlisted these three men to kill Gamedze. But not everyone is convinced of it.

Vilane says he has no intention of undermining the court case but “if you closely analyse the situation you can see that the suspect Sipho Shongwe is just a cover-up to try and impress the public”.

“Sipho is a well-known long-time rival of Gamedze and it is from that basis that he gets arrested but one doesn’t think he is the one who killed him.”

Swaziland police were contacted for comment but haven’t replied.

If the officials have it wrong and Shongwe isn’t the boss behind the killing, who else is in the mix?

This is where speculation gets especially slippery.

Could the king, or people working for him, have been behind the murder of his in-law? Could a business deal have gone wrong, inflaming tempers, perhaps involving the newly launched Swazi Mobile? Could the king have taken seriously the allegation in Swaziland Shopping that Gamedze was plotting to kill him?

“The allegation by Zweli that Gamedze wanted to kill the king might have been taken seriously by the king or those close to him,” says a source, who understandably requested anonymity. “The king, I am told, believes everything said to him. It might be possible the king ordered the hit.”

Attempts were made to contact the king’s private secretary but without success.

Any number of other possibilities remain. Suggestions are that, because Gamedze was so close to the king, many people were jealous of him.

“It might be that someone wanted to assume his position due to his proximity to the monarchy,” says another observer.

In an absolute monarchy, having the king’s ear is a sought-after role. Was there someone, or a group of people, who saw Gamedze as blocking their way into the king’s good graces? In secretive Swaziland, though, such a question often leads to more questions and, ultimately, obfuscation.

Then again, his death may simply have been the result of a petty small-town dispute gone wrong. As one interlocutor put it sagely: “Don’t get too bogged down in conspiracy theories; they usually prove to be false.”

But perhaps even more important than the identity of Gamedze’s killer is what his death means for Swaziland’s delicate politics. Was Gamedze operating as a parallel source of authority to the royal family? Or was he operating as a “Swazi Gupta”, telling the king how to run his fiefdom? Will his death allow the king to reassert his power? Some bat away these questions while disagreeing even with the premise.

“The king has authority; he isn’t losing any of it to the likes of VG,” says Richard Rooney.

Others stop and ponder, though still agreeing that the king and his family weren’t in any danger of being outwitted by a powerful businessperson, even one with as many tentacles and talents as Gamedze.

“There are no indications that his death would lead to any rearranging of power in the kingdom,” says Swazi Observer’s investigations editor Ackel Zwane, “given that his influences were not visible among power brokers, especially given the complex nature of Swazi politics centred around the monarchy, traditional rule existing alongside a modern parliamentary system”.

Similarly, Makhubu doesn’t see a significant shift of power but he did say Gamedze was one of a kind.

“I don’t think there had been transference [of power] to the extent that this kind of behaviour will continue. I think he took it to the grave. There will be pretenders, but he was on another level that will be difficult to replicate.”

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