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Just after 10pm Percy Mawelela was driving on the highway between Eswatini capital Mbabane and the city of Manzini when he heard a loud explosion and saw ahead of him the smoking wreckage of a white car on the yellow line under an overpass.

The scene at Lozitha was brightly lit by floodlights when Mawelela stopped to find an injured man with a bloody face and his jacket sleeve torn, leaning on the ruins of a white Toyota Corolla. The roof of the sedan had been blown off.

In the middle of the fast lane lay a dying man, his intestines spilling out and one of his legs severed. In the drainage ditch lay another dying man, with both arms and one of his legs torn from his body.

A fourth man shouted down from the overhead bridge in a language Mawelela didn’t understand, threw a red cord down to the highway below, and walked off into the darkness. Another motorist who arrived at the scene took the man with the bloodied face to hospital.

The blast on the night of September 20 2008 occurred only 600m from the Lozitha Palace of King Mswati III, Sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch ruling a country. The king had been due to pass over the bridge that night, while he had been facing an escalation in resistance to his autocratic regime since the petrol-bombing that extensively damaged the houses of parliament in 1995.

Last weekend saw another apparent escalation of Eswatini’s “secret war” when human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was murdered by unknown assassins, shot dead while watching television at his home with his wife and children on a Saturday night. Maseko chaired the Multi-Stakeholder Forum with which the monarchy is supposed to engage in Southern African Development Community-sponsored political dialogue, but the king had dug in his heels and negotiations stalled.

Expressions of shock and outrage poured in from the opposition People’s UDM (Pudemo) and its youth wing Swayoco — both outlawed as “terrorist organisations” after the 2008 bombing — lawyers’ bodies, and the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN), based in exile in Johannesburg.

Failed strike

In 2008 the premature detonation of the Lozitha bomb proved to be the height of a bombing campaign against state targets claimed by the Umbane (“Lightning”) People’s Liberation Army, purportedly a secret armed wing of Pudemo. The turn towards armed struggle had been occasioned by frustration with the glacial pace of political change in which the monarchy was intransigent.

A large but failed general strike in 1997 by the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, which led tens of thousands to down tools, including public servants, showed that despite moral support from SA’s Cosatu (though not its ANC ally), organised labour just did not have the critical mass among the barely-million populace to change things.

By 2006 a nascent armed structure, then called Swaziland Liberation, had emerged from self-defence squads within Swayoco to protect its meetings from raids by the Royal Swazi Police. With a strength of about 50 organised into cells, according to an interview I conducted then with a defector unhappy with its intentions to kill, it was trained in secret by Swazi, Kenyan and Mozambican “commanders” in the dense thornbush-clad hills of the Nkomazi district of Mpumalanga, just across the border, to bring about what Pudemo then envisaged as its “rush hour” towards democracy.

My source informed me that Swaziland Liberation was given political education in Marxism-Leninism by six Cosatu members led by Godfrey Sibiya, chair of the Nkomazi district of the SACP’s Young Communist League. Sibiya admitted to me that he held regular “socialist forum political schools” and assisted Swayoco refugees in his district, but denied knowledge of the armed formation.

That the defector claimed former right-wing Mozambican Renamo commanders were among its instructors made any SACP involvement strange — though at the time an SACP resolution calling for the “overthrow of the neocolonial and semifeudal” Swazi government by the imposition of smart sanctions and “the intensification of resistance” by Pudemo was endorsed by 40 communist and workers’ parties in Lisbon.

Detention deaths

Back then, Pudemo president Mario Masuku denied to me that the organisation had any armed wing. Yet Pudemo’s then latest strategy document called for “a new and organised force for liberation that captures the imagination of the oppressed masses and inspires them to action”.

The armed struggle against the police, and traditional military regiments with evocative names such as “Walking and Weeping”, failed. Swaziland, as it was then still called, fell into a slump of low-intensity tit-for-tat attacks, replete with a handful deaths of activists in detention.

A favoured tactic to keep the struggle out of the public eye, according to local underground militants, is for the police to poison activists so their eventual deaths seem to be of natural causes. Meanwhile, older generation pro-democracy leaders such as lawyer Simon Noge and Pudemo’s Musuku died — so the initiative seems to be in the hands of the youth again.

In 2008 the severely injured men at the Lozitha blast scene who died shortly afterwards of their wounds, were identified as Swazi Pudemo member and lawyer Musa “MJ” Dlamini and SACP member Jack Govender of Durban.

The man treated in hospital and subsequently sentenced to an effective 26 years in prison — including for “murdering” Dlamini and Govender — was former MK guerrilla, SACP member and SSN co-founder Amos Mbedzi. Paralysed and wheelchair-bound, Mbedzi died in an SA prison, to which he had just been transferred, in June 2022 aged 58. The Swazi national students’ union likened him to Ché Guevara.

Opponents of the king suspect his forces’ hand behind the Maseko assassination as the lawyer had been at loggerheads with the monarch since Maseko praised the would-be bridge bombers in 2008, later spending two years behind bars for contempt of court. King Mswati had boasted in a speech only hours before the killing that “demonic elements” perpetrating disharmony ... will be eliminated in this new year.

Eswatini’s political fortunes have long been entwined with those of its more powerful neighbour. It became a political refuge for opponents of the apartheid regime, and so was on the receiving end of many military cross-border raids to capture or kill suspected ANC and SACP militants.

Former president Jacob Zuma was stationed there from 1975, rebuilding resistance structures in Zululand and Natal, and meeting Thabo Mbeki, before relocating to Mozambique. After the coming of democracy in SA many SACP and Cosatu militants treasured the hope that Swaziland would be next. But it was not to be.

Though the tiny kingdom’s own communist party has called on “the people of Swaziland to wage a relentless fight, under the ‘Democracy Now’ campaign, for the complete dismantling” of the monarchy, the reality is there is no end in sight for Eswatini’s political impasse.

• Schmidt is a veteran journalist and author. 

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