Next Sunday (14 November 2010) marks the 20th anniversary of Black Wednesday, the day when, according to the international media, ‘the Swazi government dispatched armed police and military units to the [University of Swaziland] campus to disperse boycotting students. It was a crackdown of unprecedented violence in the history of the university.’
The students were protesting peacefully when the troops moved in.
Students at the university mark Black Wednesday each year, but in recent years doubts have been raised about whether today’s students really understand what it is that is being remembered.
What follows is not a piece of journalism. It is a powerful first-hand eyewitness account of what happened that day. It was written by Michael Prosser, a professor from the United States who was working at the University of Swaziland and is posted on his website.
BLOODY WEDNESDAY IN SWAZILAND
November 14, 1990, ‘Bloody Wednesday’ in Swaziland still lingers as a most important moment in my life. It was the only day that I thought I surely might die. I was a Fulbright Professor at the University of Swaziland in south east Africa that year.
University students began boycotting classes on November 12 in protest of a lack of faculty lecturers, poor food conditions, and the suspension of a popular young sociology lecturer for promoting democracy in Swaziland.
Early on November 12, all 1 600 university students held a protest meeting and boycotted all classes. At noon, they dumped their plastic wrapped lunches at the administration office door.
The Swazi radio, and tv stations, Swaziland’s newspapers gave extensive coverage to the dumping of the lunches. Many Swazis were subsistence farmers who often went to bed hungry; thus this student decision reflected very badly on them. All students received a University notice demanding the end of their class boycott on November 13. They decided to continue it. The University Council demanded their return to classes on November 14, or be considered in defiance of the twenty-three year old King Mswati III.
Another student meeting on November 14 continued the boycott. About 500 students peacefully barricaded themselves in the two-storey university library. Several hundred students left campus or stayed in their student hostel area. At about 5pm, armed Swazi soldiers entered the high fenced campus.
A university official drove through the campus announcing the immediate campus closure. Five young women rushed to me and asked for emergency protection in my home. I took them there immediately.
A fifteen hour rain and thunderstorm had just begun. The young women were quite terrified.
The young soldiers broke into the library and the student hostels, dragging students out, beating both men and women with their night sticks on their arms and legs, and forcing them to run a gauntlet toward the front gate while the soldiers gave them sharp blows.
The soldiers taunted the students: ‘We’ll beat the English out of you.’ They were especially vicious toward the women. The soldiers had been stationed that day at the high school next door to the campus and drank lots of beer before they attacked the campus, making them even more violent than otherwise so likely.
A neighbor warned us that at 10pm, soldiers would search our houses and arrest any students found there or on campus. Two Canadian families and I, in a caravan of three autos, took 11 frightened Swazi students in the three cars to the front gate to take them to safety.
With a gun pointed the first driver’s cheek, he got permission from the guard to leave the campus with the students. In the swirling rain, lightening, and thunderstorm, we took the students to safe shelters. When we returned to campus late in the evening, two soldiers were posted all night in the back and in the front of our houses.
With some students, I drove to the nearby hospital where more than 120 students had received emergency treatment. We visited more than a dozen badly injured students. We learned that soldiers possibly had injured as many as 300-400 and had killed perhaps as many as two-four students.
The Swazi radio and tv stations gave no information about what had happened after the students had dumped their food. However, the two Swazi newspapers did give the event considerable coverage over several weeks. They also printed many letters to the editor decrying the incident and called for a national judicial enquiry. Reuters News Agency and the South African press gave it some coverage.
Amnesty International cited it in their 1991 Annual Review. The University remained closed for two months, reopening on January 14. A national judicial enquiry, more heavily critical of the student boycott than the hostile military response, began on March 14, 1991 and ended on May 14.The enquiry panel never released any details to the public.
The print media called the incident ‘Black Wednesday’ but my students and I attempted to have the newspapers rename it Bloody Wednesday since so much innocent student blood had been shed.
I always recall that day as my worst and best day in Swaziland when much evil occurred but many good people at the campus, the hospital, and nearby clinics generously helped the students. Do these former African students, now in their thirties, still remember that day? I assume so. I certainly always do.