Picture: CPS Swaziland/via Facebook – ‘I am well and safe,’ Mvuselelo Mkhabela says in a recorded statement. Speaking to Peoples Dispatch from his hideout, the 21-year-old narrated how he escaped from the police and made it to safety with the help of his comrades, following hours of torture, after being shot by the King’s police while leading a pro-democracy protest.
By Pavan Kulkarni
Mvuselelo Mkhabela, 21-year-old activist of the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS), confirmed that he was safe in a video message on March 9, over a week since his escape from the hospital where he was brought by the police after being shot and tortured by them.
Security forces of King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch, shot Mvuselelo on February 28 while he was leading a local protest to disrupt a government campaign aimed at convincing people to vote in the upcoming parliamentary election, expected to be held in the second half of 2023.
Only those individuals approved by the King’s local chiefs — who also control the community land and resources — can contest the elections to the parliament of the southern African kingdom, where all political parties have been banned since 1973.
Describing the parliament as the King’s “puppet,” with no power to hold to account the executive directly appointed by the monarch, CPS International Secretary Pius Vilakati told Peoples Dispatch that these elections “have nothing to do with the interests of the people of Swaziland”. Held every five years, they only serve to legitimise the monarchy, he said, justifying the CPS’ campaign to disrupt the election.
‘Neither free nor fair’
Pius argued that the election can “neither be free nor fair,” when the chiefs who decide who can and cannot contest the elections also control community members’ access to land, which in Swaziland is all owned by the King.
Nevertheless, determined to get people to vote and counter the campaign for boycott, the government has launched its own propaganda campaign to convince communities about the virtues of this election.
Agents of what is called the “Elections and Boundaries Committee” arrived on the morning of February 28 to campaign in Mvuselo’s small town of Hluti, in the Hosea constituency in Shiselweni region, about 180 kilometers south of Swaziland’s capital Mbabane.
Along with 25-year-old Bongi Mamba, another CPS activist, Mvuselelo had been organising this rural community and campaigning to raise awareness about the need to boycott and disrupt the elections.
No stranger to police torture
On February 7, heavily armed policemen barged into Mvuselelo’s home at 4am and arrested the duo, two days after they had led a local anti-monarchist protest calling to lift the ban on political parties and release political prisoners.
They were tortured and interrogated in custody before being released the next day, after Hosea community members protested outside the station. Bongi was released without any charge, but Mvuselelo was released on bail and charged with burning property and possessing cannabis seeds.
On their release, they were briefly hospitalised. Unfazed, the duo went right back to Hosea, and continued organising the community and campaigning against participation in this election.
When the agents of the election committee arrived with police on February 28, youngsters in the area led by Mvuselelo quickly mobilised to stop them from entering the community. Carrying banners proclaiming ‘No to Mswati Election,’ ‘Democracy Now!,’ ‘Mswati Must Fall!’, ‘Unban political parties’, and ‘Free all political prisoners’, they blocked the small mud-road, stomping their feet in a rhythmic dance and chanting in chorus a protest song against Mswati.
“Without any warning, the police who were accompanying the election agents shot me in the right thigh from a close range. The bullet missed my bone and exited from the other side,” Mvuselelo told Peoples Dispatch while speaking from a hideout where he is being treated by a doctor who is also a CPS member.
“Other community members tried to fight back. Some even tried to grab their guns to stop them from shooting more people. But they fired several rounds. When people ran for cover, the police picked me up and threw me in one of the vans they had brought.” The seats and floor of the van had already been covered by plastic sheets to prevent blood stains, he said, concluding that the police had come with the intention to shoot and arrest protesters.
‘They fingered my bullet wound to cause more pain’
“They drove past the nearby community clinic, but did not stop to get me first aid. They did not even call an ambulance. Instead they intentionally took a long gravel road and drove for almost 40 kilometers to cause me more injuries,” Mvuselelo said.
“All the way they beat me, and fingered my bullet wound to cause more pain and bleeding. They threatened me, saying this is only the start, there are worse things they were going to do to me.”
When the van stopped, it was not at a hospital but at the Hlathikhulu police station, where he was profiled, interrogated, and further tortured. “They were trying to pin some false cases on me to justify what they had done,” he recollected. “It must have been two or three hours after I was shot that they finally took me to a hospital,” sometime between 3 and 4 pm.
But hospitals in Swaziland have been under-equipped, under-staffed, and running short of even basic medicines from well before the COVID pandemic. Healthcare, like education, is chronically underfunded by the monarch, who controls much of Swaziland’s economy and splurges the national wealth on his palaces, extravagant parties, a fleet of Rolls Royce cars, private jets, and other luxuries, while 70 percent of his subjects live in poverty.
“I had to wait for more than 40 minutes after reaching the hospital to be attended by a doctor and nurse,” Mvuselelo said, adding that he could not, however, blame them. Severely understaffed, the overburdened medics were doing their best, struggling to treat patients with the few resources at their disposal, he explained.
“But they did not have the medicines needed for my treatment. So they only gave a painkiller injection, bandaged my wound, and admitted me for the night,” he said. “Even while the nurse was cleaning my wound, the police continued to question me. I realised they were going to frame me with some serious false charges.”
That evening, as Mvuselelo was lying on the hospital bed in a daze after having lost blood for hours, thinking of all his comrades killed by police, the police had briefly dropped their guard, apparently confident that he couldn’t escape with the hole in his thigh.
Taking advantage, he said, “a party comrade snuck into my hospital ward with clean clothes around 7:30 in the evening.” Changing out of his blood-stained clothes and concealing his bullet wound under the clean pair of trousers, Mvuselelo set out of the ward, limping with his comrade’s support, counting on his change of clothes as a disguise.
“We made it out of the hospital quickly, but I had to sit down on the road every now and then, because my leg was extremely painful. But I could not sit for long. Police vehicles were patrolling the main road,” he said.
After making a dash across the road to the bush, he says he slowly limped through the forest in the dark, leaning on his comrade’s shoulder for support as the duo made it to a homestead a kilometre away, from where another member of the party picked him up after dinner and drove him out of the area.
“There are many doctors and other unionised professionals in our party,” he explained, while saying that the very next morning a doctor came with the needed medicines to treat him secretly in his hideout.
Uncertain future underground
Mvuselelo is recovering fast, but still needs support to walk. The police remain on the lookout for him. On March 3, they visited his home and questioned his father about his whereabouts. Mvuselelo says he must soon flee the country. Most political dissidents pursued by the monarchy end up in exile, mostly in South Africa, after going underground. Others have been assassinated or imprisoned on charges of terrorism.
“We are facing trying times in our country. But we need to be strong and fight against this inhumane system,” an unfazed Mvuselelo said in the video message shot from his hideout and published on the CPS social media page on Thursday, March 9.
Wearing a red t-shirt with the hammer and sickle insignia, and speaking with a banner of the banned party in his backdrop, he insisted, “As youth, it is our task to ensure we throw ourselves into the struggle… We must not spare ourselves… Let us organize ourselves in schools, colleges, universities, workplaces, the trade union movement, etc.”
But inside this defiant communist, risking his life, limbs, and liberty for the cause of a democratic Swaziland, there is also a 21-year-old student, deeply worried about the uncertain future of his education. “I had just completed my school. My results were out only last week. I was preparing to apply for universities and scholarships, but how can I do it now with the police after me?” he asked.
“I wanted to study civil engineering so that I could help build houses for my community members who don’t have houses to live in. But now I might have to forget about this dream,” he said, giving out a chuckle that was perceptibly hollow with sadness.
“But then again,” he countered himself after his voice had momentarily faded away into silent thought, “I might not have been able to study anyway, even without all this police trouble. Because the regime is taking away the scholarships. So for those of us without money, it is very difficult to get into a university. Even if we do, they have stopped paying allowances, so you need to have money to pay for food and stay. Most students don’t have enough money. They never make it through their course for four years.”
“So you see,” he reasoned, “I have no choice but to struggle against the monarchy. Because my dream as a student can only be fulfilled hand-in-hand with the dream of a better Swaziland where people hold the power and wealth, not the King.”
Pavan Kulkarni is a journalist with Peoples Dispatch who covers labour struggles and progressive social movements, mainly on the African continent, but also in India. He has also written articles on international trade and geopolitics, some of which have been republished in the ‘Monthly Review’. He is the author of a series of in-depth articles on the history of India’s Hindu far-right and its ideology, which have appeared in the ‘Wire’.
This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch