Swaziland a magazine editor and a human rights lawyer are sitting in jail
awaiting trial on ‘contempt of court’ charges. The ‘crime’ of Bheki Makhubu and
Thulani Maseko, was to write and publish articles in the Nation magazine critical of the Swazi judiciary. The full force of
the state was unleashed on them and they now await trial.
jailings were meant to intimidate journalists and other critics of the non-democratic
kingdom of Swaziland, which is ruled by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s
last absolute monarch.
intimidation has worked and newspapers are censoring themselves and tempering
their criticism of the government, the judiciary and the King.
The Times Sunday, a member of the only independent
newspaper group in Swaziland, has declined to publish an article this week (30
March 2014), written by its regular columnist Musa Hlophe on the subject.
who is a leading human rights activist in Swaziland, wrote in his article, ‘On
trial now is no longer Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu, for whatever they
might have been accused of, but on trial now is the country and its
institutions of power.’
is the full article, published with Musa Hlophe’s permission.
What a Boomerang!
By Musa Hlophe
A fortnight ago, we woke up to headlines
that said Mr. Thulani R. Maseko, a prominent human rights lawyer in Swaziland,
had been arrested, and that the Nation's Managing Editor, Mr. Bheki Makhubu was
also wanted by the police. That was soon
to be followed with their appearance at the High Court, on allegations of
contempt of court.
At this point, no one expected what was to
follow. First, they were not brought before
an open court - hence we are not privileged to know what exactly happened, except to say that
we then heard that they had been remanded to prison for another week. Much as
this did raise questions, but we said to ourselves, this is Swaziland wherein
the rule of law and the respect, protection and promotion of human rights count
for nothing. Therefore accept this as it is:
justice Swazi style.
But we were soon to be outraged by the
pictures of Bheki Makhubu going to court in leg-irons. What an insult to those
Swazis who cherish the ideal of the respect for human dignity? Section 18 of
our Constitution has this to say about protection from inhuman or degrading
treatment: (1) the dignity of every person is inviolable. (2) A person shall
not be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or
This provision of our Constitution was
totally violated when Mr. Bheki Makhubu was brought to court, in a van, in
leg-irons. This was the most humiliating, degrading and embarrassing treatment
we, as a country, could subject a decent citizen to. The embarrassment did not reflect just on the
individual we thought we were humiliating, for whatever reason, but it
reflected how barbaric we can be as a nation. While it must be humiliating to
have two prominent law abiding citizens being incarcerated as the two have been,
to put them on leg irons as though they were not only dangerous, but violent
common criminals is totally inexcusable and insulting in the extreme.
Unfortunately, for the Government, which is
currently worried about its public image and the image of this country in
general, this particular case and the manner it is being handled: (as if to
instil fear in the lives of the citizens, as Senator Chief Kusa Dlamini
observed in parliament,) has renewed the calls for Swaziland to uphold the rule
of law and respect and protect human rights. What a Boomerang! On trial now, is no longer Thulani Maseko and
Bheki Makhubu, for whatever they might have been accused of, but on trial now is
the country and its institutions of power. As I have said in recent articles on this
subject of the country's image, it does not need any mischievous person or
persons to paint a bad picture about it, the Government and its structures are
good at doing that job. When power is abused by any structure of government,
the action reflects, not only on the Government of the day, but on all our
institutions of governance. What this reflects is an extreme form of assault
not on peoples, rights, but a serious assault on justice and the rule of law in
Swaziland. It is that bad!
So, when Mr. Percy Simelane says the King
never ordered the arrest of Bhantshana Gwebu, he misses the point that when the
State prefers charges against a citizen or citizens, it does so on behalf of
the Crown or the King. Therefore, when the charge is said to be The King vs,
Bhantshana Gwebu, it does not mean that the King has personally ordered the
trial of this citizen, but a certain arm of government has ordered the action.
But, above all, Mr. Simelane must know when to defend Government, even when
Government actions are indefensible! Sometimes it is advisable just to keep
quiet and let those departments or agencies of state which have blundered,
sweep their mess. It is called wisdom.
Now, how has this case boomeranged? In this
way: it has come about at a time when the Government is facing difficult
deadlines on both the issues of the ILO and the imminent cut off from being
entitled to low or no import taxes to our goods in the USA through AGOA/GSP.
Both these demands are about the promotion and protection of human rights
generally, but especially worker rights. The Americans have already expressed
their displeasure at how this case came about and how it is being handled. This
has a direct impact on whether we retain our privilege of AGOA/GSP
or lose it. We cannot, and must not hope to deceive the international community
by doing some patch work on worker rights, in total isolation of the broader
rights of citizens to freely express themselves, peacefully assemble and
associate, and hope that the international community will believe us. To think
so is utter foolishness.
The Prisons Department, by its action of
having these two decent citizens on leg irons, their denial of access to them
by their regional colleagues, has damaged the image of this country
irreparably. At the time of writing this article, I was aware of several high
level meetings of jurists in Pretoria, South Africa, to discuss this issue. I
was also informed by our colleagues in Brussels, that Trade Unions in Europe
were planning their own responses to this insult to human dignity. It has to be born in mind that the European
members of ITUC are very influential to their governments and EU Aid and Trade
Preferences are also subject to review if Swaziland openly and seriously abuses
human rights. If they were to take an
anti-Swaziland stance, we may face embarrassments in future; if not the same
pressure we are faced with, because of how the Unions in the United States of
America have done with regards to the AGOA/GSP. We must just wait and see.
But why are we finding ourselves in this
mess? Who is responsible for all this? Others will say that it has to do with
challenges in the exercise of power by some agents of state. Others will be
tempted to blame it on some foreigner or such kind. As you would probably know
me by now, I am neither racist nor tribalist! I am, if anything, a
pan-Africanist. Therefore I shall never criticize someone on the basis of
his/her country of origin.
In the present case, the problem we see is
simply a symptom of a much larger political problem. We, as a country, have
allowed ourselves to act above the law, with no consequences. The initiator of
this scandalous case will not be questioned as to his/her wisdom for doing this
thing the way it has been done: bringing shame to the country and its respected
institutions. It is because of such bad, if not poor political culture, which
has created a culture of impunity and unaccountability by agents of state.
Instead of those in power focussing on
those whose actions have brought this shame and embarrassment to the country,
sadly, they will be looking for some scapegoats to hang.
What we have seen these past two weeks
should embarrass every decent person who knows both Makhubu and Maseko: two
decent citizens of this country, and who, by their calling, have demonstrated
their love for King and country; will say the government stooped too low in its
handling of this case. While I am the first one to say the courts deserve
respect from the population. I am also the first one to say, that the courts
must earn the trust and respect from the citizenry. Respect and trust are never
imposed but earned. The Honourable Minister of Justice needs to know this.
the most astonishing thing in all this is the silence from the Human Rights Commission!
Where are you throughout this episode? You mean to tell the nation that this
has not come to your attention and caused you worry? Which rights will you ever
protect? Do not bother trying to answer: we understand your limitations and
they are deliberate.
sympathy goes to the families and friends of both Makhubu and Maseko. Your
loved ones may be incarcerated, but may you find comfort in the knowledge that
they are not the ones on trial, but that it is Swaziland's justice and
political system in the dock.
EDITOR APPEARS IN COURT IN LEG IRONS