In recent days, King Mswati III’s gunmen kill unarmed people without any form of accountability. One murder is the police, the next one is committed by the soldiers, and the day before would have been the mercenaries.
It’s those believed to be possessed by the spirit of longing for freedom who are on the receiving end of persecution. As such, the surveillance of dissidents in eSwatini— from critical journalists to activists— is intensifying. Now, those who defy King Mswati III are either in hiding, living in fear of being assassinated or thrown into jail.
The president of Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), Mbongwa Dlamini, is one of those who have been heavily surveilled for years. He’s been calling for better working conditions of teachers and better education for pupils amongst.
What puts him in an acute position is the fact that political parties are banned in eSwatini. So, robust unions like SNAT, are a serious powerbase which the regime cannot easily control nor intercept their existence.
SNAT as an institution itself is openly calling for democratic reforms in the country. As a result, over the years— as an attempt to demoralise him— Dlamini has been given at least 110 bogus charges. Some, for instance, are as ridiculous as being charged with absenteeism while on union duties, and for that matter, only he is charged despite having reported to the headmaster.
He’s constantly watching over his shoulders, but recently he received credible intelligence that he has to escape the country because his death was imminent. The regime has a hitlist, especially people of influence like Dlamini, political activists and more.
Dlamini’s escape to a place of safety came the next morning after the news had already broken that human rights lawyer and Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF) chairperson, Thulani Maseko, was assassinated at home. It is believed Maseko was part of the hitlist, although the regime denies involvement.
“I decided to go to Thulani's funeral and when I got to the border I called one of my associates to pick me up at Oshoek. When I crossed I received a call from a comrade in eSwatini and he said, ‘comrade, please don't come to eSwatini, they are waiting for you at the border.’”
Dlamini is unaware the extent to which he’s surveilled, but the one question that lingers for him; how did those waiting for him at the border know of his movements, especially on that particular day?
Mbali Dludlu, a human rights activist has also been surveilled. She recalls how when she had to evacuate home for safety with her children during the June 2021 protests in eSwatini, she received a call from an unknown person.
The individual said that he knew Dludlu’s whereabouts, and in fact, was looking for her husband, a political activist she is married to. “It was that clear that it [was to an attempt to] intimidate and trigger my emergency or support structure. I think they thought I would lead them to my husband,” explains Dludlu.
And, quite surprisingly, as soon as the call ended, there was no trace of it at all. These days Dludlu’s phone and those close to her have their communication tempered with. For instance, one time one of her sisters sent her a weird message. When she enquired as they were in the same vicinity, her sister wasn’t even aware of ever sending such an SMS.
This points to the usage of sophisticated surveillance paraphernalia— the likes of which the regime procured from Israel. In the not so distant past, the regime's intelligence cluster clandestinely planned to manipulate messages between SNUS president Colani Maseko and SWAYOCO president Sakhile Khumalo with the hope of eventually assassinating them with diversion.
Being constantly surveilled has rippling effects.The cost of emotional and psychological toil is abhorable. And for Dludlu, one incident remains a classic one. It was June when she went to a retail store to buy bread where her trigger was activated after noticing one of the officers who was present when her house was raided in October 2022.
She immediately rushed to her car in the parking lot, but she couldn’t see it because of anxiety. Only a guard told her that the car was right in front of her.
“What makes me mad is that you are losing control so they are invading your life in every sense of individuality you just being a person. They are invading that space, they don\'t have a limit. They might as well put a police outside to guard you,” explains Dludlu.
It’s not only activists who are hunted. Of late, eSwatini journalist Eugene Dube earned his spot from being surveilled. One morning while at a bus station, a white double cab with a Mpumalanga province (South African) number plate drove up closer to Dube, taking pictures of him. The side windows of the car were tinted, obscuring his view, but he recognised one of the police officers.
He is convinced had he not been amongst a crowd the car would have abducted him. As a result, he believes, they had to abort their mission. “I believe the police and the mercenaries were given an instruction by the king to kill journalists, [especially those who] are promoting democracy and exposing the wrongdoing of the king,” says Dube, who has since fled the country out of possible harsh reprisals and threat to life.
The secretary general of PUDEMO, Penuel Malinga, recalls a time before their home was petrol bombed on 15 October 2022, where they discovered at least 47 cartridges. But the recent incident that happened on 08 January 2023 was the last straw for Malinga, as his family was attacked with 27 bullets in Mobeni. Malinga had to flee eSwatini fearing for his life.
And each sunrise, each sunset, the number of those who are surveilled and whose livelihoods are ruined, continues to sprout unabated.
NB:Magnificent Mndebele is a journalist researching digital surveillance with support from
the Media Policy & Democracy Project (MPDP), run by the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Johannesburg.
SNAT President Mbongwa Dlamini.