The fourteenth of November marks the anniversary of the time Swaziland soldiers invaded the University of Swaziland and according to independent witnesses beat students with sickening brutality.
It happened in 1990 and each year on or about this day students and others commemorate the events.
Dr. Joshua Mzizi, a theology lecturer at UNISWA at the time (and now deceased), called the event which became known as Black Wednesday a ‘sceptic sore’ in the history of UNISWA. In an account that appears in the book Religion and Politics in Swaziland he recounts that ‘a combined army of young soldiers and the police were ordered to flog students at the Kwaluseni campus.
‘The students were beaten under the pretext that they had refused to vacate the campus after the Senate had ordered that it be closed.’
Students had begun boycotting classes on 12 November in protest of a lack of faculty lecturers, poor food conditions, and the suspension of a popular young sociology lecturer for promoting democracy in Swaziland, according to another eyewitness, Michael Prosser, a professor from the United States who was working at UNISWA.
In Mzizi’s account, ‘A great number of students had assembled in the library where they thought no one in their right senses would disturb their peace. But their action was perceived as potentially volatile; hence the safety of the library and the entire campus could not be assured.’
Mzizi writes one version of events was that students threatened to burn the library down but another was that they were peaceful and non-threatening.
Mzizi personally witnessed events. He wrote, ‘The brutality of the armed forces was sickening to say the least. There was blood and torn limbs, all inflicted on defenceless and fleeing students.
‘Students were chased from the library via the front of the administration building to the main car park where another bunch of blood-thirsty soldiers kicked them with boots, batons and guns to escort them to the gate.’
Prosser also witnessed brutality He wrote an account on his own webpage, ‘The young soldiers broke into the library and the student hostels, dragging students out, beating both men and women with their night sticks on their arms and legs, and forcing them to run a gauntlet toward the front gate while the soldiers gave them sharp blows.
‘The soldiers taunted the students: “We’ll beat the English out of you.” They were especially vicious toward the women. The soldiers had been stationed that day at the high school next door to the campus and drank lots of beer before they attacked the campus, making them even more violent than otherwise so likely.
‘A neighbor warned us that at 10pm, soldiers would search our houses and arrest any students found there or on campus. Two Canadian families and I, in a caravan of three autos, took 11 frightened Swazi students in the three cars to the front gate to take them to safety.
‘With a gun pointed at the first driver’s cheek, he got permission from the guard to leave the campus with the students. In the swirling rain, lightening, and thunderstorm, we took the students to safe shelters. When we returned to campus late in the evening, two soldiers were posted all night in the back and in the front of our houses.
‘With some students, I drove to the nearby hospital where more than 120 students had received emergency treatment. We visited more than a dozen badly injured students. We learned that soldiers possibly had injured as many as 300-400 and had killed perhaps as many as two-four students.’
In 1999 the Inter Press Service (IPS) looked back at the events. It called the student action a ‘rebellion’ that ‘became a seminal event that signalled a new generation’s political consciousness’. It was, IPS said, ‘a dawning political awareness born from a confluence of historical forces then sweeping the world and the Southern African region’.
The IPS report quoted Manzini lawyer Lindiwe Khumalo-Matse, a university student at the time, saying, ‘The reason why soldiers were called in was because government
saw our protest as a political uprising.’
saw our protest as a political uprising.’
In 1990, one of the Swazi Government’s most draconian measures, a 60-Day Detention Law, was still in force, permitting authorities to lock up anyone they saw as a threat to public order. All political protestors were designated as such threats.
The violence that ensued after soldiers swept through campus has been a sensitive subject with government ever since. A commission of enquiry had its report secreted away for years, with a bowdlerized version finally released to the public in 1997.
People in Swaziland were shocked by the brutality. Particularly offensive was one newspaper photo depicting a young woman carried out of the library between soldiers ‘like a slaughtered pig’, according to a letter writer to the Times of Swaziland.
The Times Higher Education Supplement, a newspaper in the UK, later reported, ‘In the ensuing melee several students were crippled for life, hundreds injured and one woman successfully sued the government for an out-of-court settlement of E225,000 for the loss of an eye.’
Mzizi wrote, ‘The painful part is that the children of the nation were brutally beaten by the security forces, they very people who were supposed to protect them.’
He added, ‘Since we know that security forces are under the state, we still wonder who exactly ordered them to pounce on defenceless students.’
Mzizi concluded, ‘The memories of 14 November 1990 will never be wiped away. They will linger on until Domesday.’
Black Wednesday at Swaziland University
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