‘I am a victim of circumstances,” says activist Mphandlana “Victim” Shongwe of the nickname he is known by because of the decades of state harassment he has endured in his homeland, Swaziland. “But what has kept me going is the desire to be free.”
“Victim” is the name that Mphandlana Shongwe – a founding member of Swaziland’s democratic movement, Pudemo – is commonly known by in the small absolute monarchy of Swaziland.
He was given his nickname after reflecting on his life in Matsapha Central Prison, while awaiting trial for treason in 1990. It was here he started counting the many setbacks he had experienced. He has been expelled from college, denied a living by the government because of his activism, arrested for “offences” such as shouting “viva Pudemo” and wearing a Pudemo T-shirt, and been held in solitary confinement, beaten up and tortured by police.
As with most other ordinary Swazis, Victim had to choose at an early age whether or not to accept the enforced poverty and cultural control that is a fundamental part of King Mswati’s Swaziland.
“My introduction to poverty and oppression at a tender age had prepared me for a life of activism,” Victim says. “My life has seen more sadness than joy, more funerals than weddings, and more visits to police cells than parties.”
And he has had a life of struggle for justice and democracy that neither his daughter, his daughter’s mother nor his own mother have been able to understand.
Victim, who was born on September 27 1960, did not have an easy childhood. When he was 6, his father was arrested, charged with murder and died a few years later in jail. His mother suffered from a stroke that left her temporarily paralysed and meant she had to return to her parents’ homestead.
Victim landed up in a mission school, where he got his first introduction to oppression and the struggle to end it – by being on the receiving end of whippings by teachers, and by learning about the 1976 Soweto uprising in South Africa in history lessons.
Victim and his classmate Richard, two of the top students, both listened attentively. Later, they would put these lessons to very different use when they met on the streets of Manzini and Mbabane, Victim as a political activist, Richard as a police officer.
It was in high school that Victim first started to reflect on the influence of the unreflective “banking model” of teaching that was, and is still, employed in many schools in Swaziland.
“As students, we lacked independent thinking. We were treated as if we were empty containers which needed to be filled up with knowledge. I would later discover that this was intentional to keep the Swazi student docile. The school curriculum was designed to produce a student who accepted things without question,” he says.
Victim began to link the problem of Swaziland’s educational system with the broader lack of democracy, leadership and direction in the country, and as a result, he ended up taking a teacher’s degree after high school.
It was at teachers’ training college that Victim truly became aware of the injustices of the Tinkundla-system of Swaziland’s absolute monarchy. And it was here that he started his “career” as a more-or-less full-time activist.
“When people went to sleep, we went to distribute pamphlets,” he says. As a result of his involvement in door-to-door campaigns, pamphlet distributions and political meetings, Victim ended up facing a long prison sentence. Along with 11 other activists, including Pudemo president Mario Masuku, Victim was arrested and charged with treason in 1990.
Other charges included conspiring to form a political party with a military wing with the intention of overthrowing Mswati’s government; organising trade unions; and holding political meetings where overthrowing this government was discussed.
But as several prosecution witnesses claimed that their statements had been made under duress, and other prosecution witnesses’ statements seemed rehearsed, the judge ruled that any treasonable or subversive activities had not been proved.
Victim was given a six-month sentence for a couple of minor charges, instead of the year-long sentence the prosecutor had called for. And instead of crushing the movement, the trial had given Pudemo and Victim a public face both in Swaziland and beyond.
The High Court had also proved that there was no armed insurrection being planned by Pudemo, and the organisation was simply concerned with bringing true democracy to Swaziland. As Victim had already been in jail for six months, he was released immediately. “It was that trial that registered the people’s movement, and from there on we have been in and out of courts but never looked back,” Victim says of the importance of the trial.
Another effect of the trial was that the state increased the victimisation of Pudemo leaders. Masuku was dismissed from the bank he had worked in for 18 years, Victim was expelled from college, and others suffered a similar fate.
In fact, it took only a couple of weeks for the police to detain Victim again, this time on consecutive detention orders, without him and his two co-detainees being told what the charges against them were.
The trio went on a hunger strike that only ended after weeks of agony and a royal pardon, after Victim had suffered heart failure and been told by a doctor that he could die.
Since the hunger strike, Victim has been in and out of prison and constantly harassed.
On one occasion, he was beaten up and tortured by the police. He has also remained unemployed because of his activism.
In 1994, he was arrested for demonstrating peacefully against the government, and became an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience. In 2006, he was beaten unconscious by police under interrogation and dumped in a hospital bleeding profusely.
In 2009, he was arrested for shouting slogans wearing a Pudemo T-shirt, and charged with terrorism. The list goes on.
“Long prison terms are a risk that anyone who stands up against the system faces,” says Victim. “But every time I face danger, I recall the words of ANC member Solomon Mahlangu, who, when leaving the court to be hanged by the apartheid regime in 1979, said: ‘Mama, tell my people that I love them and my blood shall nourish the tree of freedom’.”
And regardless of the setbacks and endless victimisation, Victim is today a free man in an unfree country (although out on bail since 2006, and having to report to the police station every Friday).
He is optimistic about the future of Swaziland and believes that it is a matter of years, not decades, before it will become a democracy. But he also warns of the dangers of the struggle for democracy and freedom, the closer victory seems.
“The hour before dawn is a period where some people start pushing personal agendas at the expense of progress. And any agenda which excludes group representation is bound to keep the status quo intact,” he says, alluding to the fact that the struggle is not about personal gain but a constant fight for a better future for everyone.
Democracy will not be delivered on a silver platter or necessarily follow a collapse of Mswati’s Tinkundla-regime, says Victim.
“There is no scenario in history where the ruling class voluntarily handed over power to the oppressed,” he emphasises.
“The country is where it is today because people were quiet when they were supposed to speak. But change will only come when the people of Swaziland choose to die on the streets… if necessary.
“There has never been a time when I thought of giving up the struggle and I have never looked back with despair, although I have nothing in material form except the willpower to hold, even when there is nothing to hold on to.”
This article is based on Victim’s book, The Last Mile.
Swaziland has been an absolute monarchy since 1973, when King Sobhuza declared a state of emergency that banned all political parties and centralised all power within the monarchy.
The 2005 constitution reinforces this by leaving freedom of speech and control of virtually all aspects of the government and the judiciary at the mercy of the king, as does the Suppression of Terrorism Act, an “inherently repressive act” according to Amnesty International, which defines terrorism in sweeping terms.
Swazi legislation thus leaves almost no political space for the population but gives the police and security forces almost unlimited powers to clamp down heavily on peaceful demonstrations and meetings deemed to be “political”.