Slain human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko died on the road to justice

Slain human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko died on the road to justice


Slain 52-year-old world-renowned liSwati human rights defender, Thulani Rudolf
Maseko, will go down in history as a true advocate for peace, human rights and
democracy who died on the road to justice.

Maseko was gunned down by a silent assassin in front of his wife, Tanele, and two little
sons at his parental home in Ka-Luhleko area near Bhunya. The killer shot him three
times through an open sitting room window. He was watching a televised English
Premier League (EPL) game on Saturday evening on 21 January 2023, according to
Sibusiso Nhlabatsi, his protégé and close friend. What appeared to be rather a strange
coincidence, his cold-blooded murder happened a few hours after King Mswati III had
issued a warning of eliminating those he described as ‘demonic elements’.

When dispersing the regiments at Engabezeni Royal Residence after weeding the royal
fields, Mswati warned the ‘demonic elements’ to brace themselves for the worst this
year. Not a kind of leader to mince words, he poured scorn on the sweeping claims of
mercenaries killing people. He dismissed such complaints about the mercenaries killing
people as retaliation. He wanted those killing citizens and burning properties, thus
causing instability, to suffer the consequences. It was abundantly clear to all and sundry
that the ominous threat was directed to the pro-democracy campaigners and some
rogue elements which had hijacked the struggle for democracy.

Since eSwatini was rocked by violence in June 2021, it is in the throes of what is
becoming a guerrilla warfare, waged by an underground armed struggle group called
the Swaziland International Solidarity Forces (SISF). It claims to be the peoples’ army
on a mission to avenge the citizens killed and maimed by the security forces during the
mayhem which has since developed into a low-key civil war.

A shining light of the mass democratic movement, Maseko, who was the Multi-
Stakeholder Forum chairperson, expended his energy on creating a conducive political
environment for a much anticipated national dialogue, as promised by King Mswati. But
his heinous murder had left emaSwati shell-shocked and has sparked outrage across
the globe. Tributes and condolences have poured in from leaders and organisations like
the United Nations, African Union, European Union, Southern African Development
Community, embassies, civil society groups and religious bodies.

Paralysed by fear and despair, emaSwati are battling to come to grips with the reality
that a man of peace with a charming and disarming smile has passed on in such a
callous and brutal way. This was affirmed by the People’s United Democratic Movement
(PUDEMO) stalwart, Mphandlana Shongwe, who described him as a well-disciplined
cadre who would not raise his voice in anger.

As fate would have it, Maseko paid the ultimate price while he was still on the long road
to justice. In the Africa’s last absolute monarchy beset with human rights violations and
draconian laws, he was a godsend to a majority of emaSwati trapped in poverty,
unemployment and inequality. Inspired by his global social justice doyen, Nelson
Mandela, he used judicial activism to build a just, equal and inclusive society in the 21 st
century eSwatini.

Coming after the generation of the late fiery PUDEMO youth leader Benedict Didiza
Tsabedze, who formed the Swazland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO), he cut his teeth in
judicial activism at the University of Swaziland (UNISWA), which was a melting pot of
student politics in the 1990s. The bright law student headed the Student Representative
Council (SRC) body at the turbulent times. The iron-fisted Prof. Lydia Makhubu
administration was hell bent on purging the SRC of the burgeoning PUDEMO-aligned
group of students.

Maseko challenged the purge in court which ruled in the SRC’s favour after interpreting
the SRC Constitution and University Statutes. But the university continued to expel
them and set up a tribunal which wanted them to appear before it. His executive was
divided over the tribunal decision, he sought legal advice from attorney Lindifa Mamba.
He advised him to go there and also to re-apply to avoid summary expulsion. From his
UNISWA student days, he preferred the legal route to solve issues.

Fast forward to 1998, Maseko carved a niche for himself as a leading human rights
lawyer in the country. With a small group of like-minded lawyers, he co-founded the
Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland (LHRS) to deal with the rampant human rights
abuses perpetuated through draconian pieces of legislation enforced by the royally
hand-picked judges.

Along the long road to justice, the human rights activist stepped on the toes of the high
and mighty in the judiciary, legislature and executive which inadvertently earned him
friends and foes alike. In March 2014, he landed in jail for 15 months as a prisoner of
conscience for criticising the eSwatini judiciary. He was found guilty of writing an article
criticising the then Lesotho-born Chief Justice Michael Ramodipedi for miscarriage of
justice. Speaking from the dock , he said: “The path to freedom goes through prison, but
the triumph of justice over evil is inevitable. Nothing this Court can do will shake me
from my commitment to simple truth and simple justice.”

Interestingly, while in prison, Maseko (Prisoner 353; 438/2014) wrote American
President Barack Obama a letter ahead of the  summit of African leaders  at the White
House imploring the American government to support eSwatini struggle for democracy.
He appealed to the US government and its partners around the globe to pressurise
Mswati to agree to introduce democratic reforms. The prison authorities threw him into
solitary confinement for sneaking out the letter. The Methodist Church member, who
believed that a man cannot live on bread alone but also the word, beat the breakdown
prison strategy by reading the Holy Bible.

The constitutional expert and human rights activist had left an indelible mark on litigation
in general. In 2018, he challenged Mswati in court for contravening the constitution by
unilaterally changing the country’s name, Swaziland to eSwatini. He argued that,
constitutionally, all citizens had a right to be involved through a legislative process in
Parliament or through Sibaya before a name change could be made. At the time of his
demise, the judges had not handed down the judgment.

Maseko had left his footprint regionally and globally. Considered as a legal expert, he
was consulted time and again on eSwatini constitutional and human rights issues. A cut
above the rest, he was the first liSwati lawyer to approach the African Commission on
Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) to challenge Mswati’s dismissal of Judge
Thomas Masuku in 2011. The African Commission found in his favour that eSwatini government violated the African Charter articles. It then urged the government to compensate his client for the violation of the rights.

Maseko will forever be remembered for championing the queer rights in a conservative
patriarchal society. He challenged in court the refusal of the registrar of companies to
register the Eswatini Sexual and Gender Minorities (ESGM), a queer rights movement
for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons (LGBTIQ+). Although
the High Court judges, Mumcy Dlamini and Mzwandile Fakudze affirmed the LGBTIQ+
rights in eSwatini, they denied them the right to register.

Raised by his widowed mother, Maseko grew up harbouring no divided loyalties
between conservatives and progressives. Unlike his learned friends who liked finer
things in life, he lived a modest life at his parental home with his mother until she
passed on last year. His extended Maseko family and community members at large
benefitted from his legal and human rights expertise. His PUDEMO comrade, Shongwe,
described him as the most down-to-death person, yet he boasted enviable academic
and professional achievements in the legal field.

A product of Mater Dolorosa High School, Maseko earned his Bachelor of Law (1994)
and Bachelor of Laws (1997) from the then University of Swaziland. In quest to fulfil his
thirst for human rights, democracy and justice, in 2005, he graduated with a Master’s
degree in Human Rights and Democratisiation in Africa from the Centre for Human
Rights, University of Pretoria. Six years later, he added another feather in his hat,
another Master’s degree in International Legal Studies from the American University
Washington College of Law, United States of America.

Born on March 01 1970, the last-born child of Mbanana and Beauty Maseko (nee Vilakati) is survived by his wife, Tanele, two sons Nkosenhle (10), Nkosivile (6) and
sister Dumsile.

His assassination has provided the most sensational grist for the conspiracy theorists
across the divide. From the outpourings of grief from across the globe, emaSwati are
yet to see if the prominent human rights activist did not die in vain.

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