By Vuyisile Hlatshwayo
Victims of violence unleashed by the security forces during the political unrest that rocked eSwatini, once dubbed an oasis of peace in Africa, in the second half of 2021 are still reeling with pain, trauma, shock and grief.
In the face of King Mswati III’s government reluctance to set up an inquiry into the violence against ordinary citizens, Inhlase Centre for Investigative Journalism travelled the country to reveal the harrowing ordeals of the unrest victims at the hands of the security forces deployed to quell the countrywide uprising.
The absolute monarch, who doubles as the commander-in-chief of Umbutfo Eswatini Defence Force (UESDF) and Royal Eswatini Police Service (REPS), never condemned the shooting and killing of tens if not hundreds of innocent civilians. Instead, he condoned the deadly violence branding the pro-democracy protesters as ‘dagga smokers’ in his national address. He said they were high on marijuana for protesting his autocratic rule.
Inhlase has met and interviewed many unrest victims who gave harrowing testimonies of their ordeals, which have left them with indelible physical, emotional and psychological scars and with no trust in the oaths of the police and soldiers to protect and defend the citizens in the kingdom.
One such victim is a fatherless teenager, Maqhawe Lukhuleni (17), of Lomahasha whose horrific injury left him paralysed and has re-ignited the daily realities of poverty, unemployment, and inequality in this impoverished society. Lukhuleni has become the poster boy for the state brutality inflicted on this community along the north-eastern eSwatini border.
Lukheleni is still in hospital so Inhlase relied on the eyewitness accounts of Mpoloti Mahlalela, who was also involved in the running battles with the police on the fateful day.
According to him, on 30 June, Lukhuleni’s sister sent him to buy her airtime and vegetables from the shop.
He walked into the melee that had ensued between the youth and police in the sleepy Lomahasha border town. Mahlalela revealed that one Lomahasha-based police officer, Twenty Matsenjwa, who is also a member of the king’s regiment, allegedly shot Lukhuleni in his spinal cord when police allegedly opened fire on the fleeing protesters.
Mahlalela said he took courage upon noticing that the police had left the shot teenager for dead. He had to duck and dive to avoid bullets passing above his head as he turned back to save the boy writhing in pain at the shooting scene. Little did he know that the police on the warpath would make him rue his noble deed.
He recalled that his frantic attempts to get their help were met with hurls of insults. He said the police told him in no uncertain terms to “let the dog die”. When they refused to call an ambulance to rush him to hospital, Mahlalela carried Lukheleni on his back for about 500 metres to the Lomahasha Police Station to ask for help.
“I resigned myself to death as I ran through the police barricade to the police station. It was heartbreaking to get the same ‘let-the-dog-die’ attitude from the police desk officer. Seeing the boy groaning in pain on the floor without help in sight, it became clear that the police wanted him dead,” he said, adding: “Again I put him on my back returning to the shooting scene. I then phoned the local priest to borrow us his car to take him to hospital. When we reached Good Shepherd Hospital, the nurse told us that he had lost a lot of blood.”
Mahlalela said it never occurred to him that he was courting trouble by saving the boy’s life. He said he subsequently became the main target for police harassment. He alleged that the police wanted to silence him as an eyewitness to the boy’s ordeal. He also said they imprisoned him unlawfully after a magistrate slapped a E5 000 fine on him for partaking in the protest.
“That I had money to pay the fine was immaterial to the police hell-bent on silencing me. They locked me up in Big Bend Prison where my parents found me on a prison uniform. By finding me guilty, it became clear that the magistrate was sending a message to other protesters,” he said.
Samkelo Mantimakhulu pointed at an unstitched hole in his school uniform pants, which remains a stark reminder of the terrifying ordeal that befell him on 14 October 2021 during the Shewula student uprising against classes ending late at 5:00pm and inadequate food supply by the school feeding scheme. He said a live bullet ripped through his pair of trousers when the police opened fire on the protesting students.
“I fell down with my right thigh suddenly freezing and cramping. Seeing blood coming out, I knew that a bullet had hit me. I told those next to me who then carried me to a shade under a tree,” he said, adding: “I got help from a passing car owner who rushed me to Shewula Clinic. After bandaging my wound, the nurses transferred me to Good Shepherd Hospital.”
He said the police arrested Bheki Sifundza, a neighbour, who was rushing him to hospital. He said the delay at Maphiveni area caused by the arrest almost cost him his life. The police ended up transporting him to hospital in their own car. He spent a week in hospital because the doctor found that the bullet was deep. He lived with the bullet until part of it was removed on the third week.
Mantimakhulu, who is an avid footballer, said that he is still reeling with shock and trauma. The shooting memories still haunt him and the fears of almost losing his leg. He perceives the police as enemies of the citizens instead of their protectors. He maintains that nothing warranted the police shooting the protesting students.
In another horrific ordeal, two teachers told Inhlase how the Operational Support Services Unit (OSSU), the eSwatini police paramilitary wing, turned two 75-seater-buses with teachers and nurses into the gas vans like the suffocation method used by the megalomaniac Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany to kill Jews, Poles and Romani people. The teachers who are members of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (Snat) from northern Hhohho were en route to Mbabane to deliver a salary review petition to the prime minister on 20 October 2021.
Patson Makhubu, a Snat member and Mayiwane High School teacher, relived the hellish experience when the OSSU officers threw teargas into the two buses and opened fire at the fleeing passengers.
He revealed that the OSSU officers shot at a group of passengers who wanted to walk past a roadblock at Nkoyoyo to avoid arrest for breaking the Covid-19 social distance restriction. They blocked their lane and started shooting and firing teargas. During the mad scramble for the bus door, a rubber bullet hit him in the cheek. They went on to throw teargas into the buses with the passengers locked inside.
“I was hurting after being hit and breathless due to the teargas smoke. As we’re escaping through the windows, we’re met with a hail of rubber bullets. I ran for cover to one of the nearby homes,” he said, adding: “One driving Snat comrade who later found us gathered at the crossroad rushed few of us to Pigg’s Peak Government Hospital where I received 7 stitches in my cheek and 4 stitches near my nose.”
Another female Snat member, who preferred anonymity, recounted her traumatic ordeal in the other bus. When the police refused to listen to the driver’s plea to take them back, the passengers disregarded the order to alight from it locking themselves inside. She said one cop managed to open the driver’s door and throw a teargas canister in.
“With the teargas smoke choking us inside, I joined the stampede for the exit. As I continued running for cover to the nearby homes, I didn’t feel the bullet hitting my buttock until I saw blood,” she said, adding: “My colleagues said it was a rubber bullet because I was able to run. After the police combed the homes, we later gathered at Motshane crossroad.”
She said the 18 injured victims phoned the paramedics to come and administer first aid. She said the paramedics rushed them to Mbabane Government Hospital for medical treatment. Despite having a 6-centimetre deep bullet in her buttock, she did not receive the requisite medical treatment.
After bandaging her wound, she was told to go home and wait for a call due to a long queue for the operating theatre. She said she failed to have the bullet removed and after enduring pain for a month, she parted with over E25 000 to have it removed at eZulwini private clinic.
“When I drove past Nkoyoyo recently, I relived the memories of my ordeal. It’s clear that the traumatising incident has left me with emotional and psychological scars,” she said: “I was also shocked to learn that there was a pregnant nurse in the teargassed bus. I saw her WhatsApp post thanking God for saving her baby from miscarriage. Such brutality of our royal police under oath to protect the citizens is unforgettable and unforgivable.”
A Swaziland Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union (SAPWU) member, who also preferred anonymity, underwent a terrible ordeal at the hands of the soldiers deployed to break up the 28 October protest in the eastern town of Siteki in the Lubombo region. She counted herself lucky to be alive after the soldiers subjected her to brutality and left her for dead in the forests of Matsetsa area.
Her escape from soldiers at the Mzilikazi roadblock through the forests on the Lubombo escarpment to Lukhula Road was short-lived when they caught up with her in a kombi she had just boarded heading home. They ordered her to get off her kombi and board the trade union bus that they were in and which she said they had hijacked and then put on the red Tucoswa T-shirts to lure the hiding workers. She said what the soldiers did to her was an experience she will not soon forget.
“Upon arriving at their truck, they ordered us to hand over our cellphones and board it. They told us to bend down and put our heads under the truck bench seats exposing our buttocks. As the truck was driving towards an unknown place, they took turns beating us up and hurling insults at us,” she said.
This, she said, was only the beginning of her terrible ordeal at the hands of the soldiers. When the truck reached a puddle on the gravel road, they ordered them to alight from the truck and wallow in the mud like pigs.
“As we’re rolling in the mud, they told us to shout Bayethe Wena Waphakathi. We love King Mswati III and Fuseki Gaw’zela! We don’t want Gaw’zela but our King. Feeling exhausted and thirsty, I asked for drinking water. A female soldier, who was hard on me, told me to look up as she poured water in my month. When they saw me gasping for air, they left me there for dead. A driver of a car, who saved my life, found me hobbling along the road.”
This article is part of ‘The Palpable Stirrings of Change in eSwatini’ series made possible with the support of the Canon Collins Educational & Legal Assistance Trust under the Sylvester Stein Fellowship.