Activist's Funeral Postponed As Police 'Suppress Terrorism'
NCABANENI, Swaziland, May 17 (IPS) - The Swazi government is determined that neither in life nor death will Sipho Jele's political colours be flown publicly.
The 34-year-old died in custody sometime after his arrest on May 1; and his body was returned to the morgue on May 16 after 300 police officers invaded his funeral at the family’s homestead at Ncabaneni at about 5:30 a.m., seizing banners of the proscribed Peoples United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), to which Jele belonged.
"There is only one flag in Swaziland," an unidentified police officer was overheard saying. Police also destroyed photos of Jele displayed in the tent where the night vigil and funeral service were held.
PUDEMO and its youth league, the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO), were banned in 2008 under the terms of the controversial Suppression of Terrorism Act. The government accuses the group of being behind a spate of bombings going back as far as 2005.
Jele himself was out on bail, one of 16 PUDEMO members arrested in 2006 and accused of involvement in a series of bombings of government offices, police accommodation, and a house belonging to the press secretary to the government at the time, Percy Simelane.
Jele and his fellow detainees say they were tortured by police. Then-Prime Minister Themba Dlamini set up a commission of enquiry to establish the facts, but the commission’s report was never made public.
Jele had been out on bail since his release four years ago with the state showing little inclination to bring the accused to trial swiftly.
Though Swaziland's 2006 constitution allows for freedom of expression and association, Jele was arrested on May Day for wearing a t-shirt bearing PUDEMO's name during workers day celebrations in Swaziland’s commercial hub of Manzini
He was never to answer charges in this case either. Police claim a fellow inmate found his body hanging in the prison toilet at Sidvwashini Correctional Services.
Suicide claim challenged
His family and civil society organisations say he was killed by police during interrogation.
"When I heard about Sipho’s arrest on Saturday (May 1), I went to the police station and I was told to come back the next day," recalled Diana Jele, Sipho's aunt. This went on until on May 4 she was told he had committed suicide.
"I suspect he was killed on the very same Saturday he was arrested," she said. "It’s just that police were buying time trying to figure out what they would say was the cause of death."
The family is pinning its hopes of discovering the truth on the findings of an independent pathologist from South Africa who did a post-mortem on Jele’s body on May 14.
An inquest into Jele's death has been set up, and will begin its work on May 18. Progressive movements have already rejected it on the basis that it has been set up by government and will be chaired by a magistrate who is a former cop.
Labour organisations, including the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), Swaziland Federation of Labour (SFL) and SFTU have challenged the police version of events in a petition they sent on May 14 to the Prime Minister, Dr Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini.
"We call for an inquest chaired by a credible senior judge - preferably with assistance from the International Labour Organisation," said Dlamini.
The harassment faced by his family and friends as they seek to bury him undermines confidence that the government will permit a full and complete inquiry into the activist's death.
Tension was high at a memorial service held on May 15m as security forces outnumbered mourners. Three political activists, Wandile Dludlu, Patrick Mamba and Pius Vilakati were tipped off that police planned to arrest them, and had to hide in the hearse ferrying Jele’s body to avoid capture.
And police determination to suppress any political overtones to his funeral went beyond removing PUDEMO's flag from his coffin when they invaded his wake.
"Police demanded that workers (labour organisations) should not participate at this funeral," said SFTU’s Dlamini. "They said only Sipho’s relatives should take part."
Dlamini rejected these conditions, saying that Sipho Jele was a worker who died after his arrest on Workers' Day.
Local and international human rights organisations have condemned Jele’s detention and his subsequent death.
Freedoms under threat?
Father Pius Magagula, the project manager for the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace noted that the problem has its roots in 2008 when King Mswati III issued an inflammatory statement calling for the "throttling" of those opposed to his rule.
"It’s very common for a regime to be more militant when it realises that its rule is nearing an end," said Magagula, who accompanied labour organisations to the delivery of the petition at the cabinet offices.
Jele's death may serve to highlight the gap between the Swazi government's actions and its commitment to the principles of the Southern African Development Community which include freedom of association and equal opportunity for all political parties.
At the time of writing, the labour movement was preparing to go to court to restrain security forces from attending Jele’s funeral on a new date, yet to be announced.
In death as in life, Sipho Jele seems destined to test Swaziland's adherence to Article 5 of the SADC treaty, which calls for "the promotion of common political values, systems and other shared values which are transmitted through institutions which are democratic, legitimate and effective."