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Thursday, 19 November 2015

WHEN SWAZILAND ARMY INVADED UNISWA

Students and prodemocracy activists this week have marked the anniversary of the time the Swazi Army invaded the University of Swaziland (UNISWA) in what one international newspaper called, ‘a crackdown of unprecedented violence in the history of the university.’

 
The invasion which came to be known as ‘Black Wednesday’ happened on 14 November 1990. 

The Times Higher Education Supplement newspaper in the UK reported, ‘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 event is still commemorated at UNISWA, but over time it is thought that many of today’s students do not know much about  what happened that day at the university’s Kwaluseni campus.

The news agency Inter Press Service (IPS) called the student unrest in 1990 a ‘rebellion’ that ‘became a seminal event that signalled a new generation’s political consciousness’. It was, IPS said, ‘a dawning political awareness born from a confluence of historical forces then sweeping the world and the Southern African region’.

The IPS report which was a retrospective nine years after the event (2 December 1999) said ‘armed soldiers pushed police aside and forced students out of the library where they had barricaded themselves’.

The day began as a ‘disorganised demonstration’ against campus issues such as poor food ‘but soon turned into demands for democratic reforms in Swaziland's government’.

The IPS report quoted Manzini lawyer Lindiwe Khumalo-Matse, a university student at the time, saying, ‘The reason why soldiers were called in was because government saw our protest as a political uprising.’

Khumalo-Matse was further quoted by IPS, ‘This was because of the involvement of Sabelo Dlamini, who was a member of the People's United Democratic movement (PUDEMO). Sabelo was prominent in the Students Representative Council,’ hesaid.

In 1990, one of its most draconian measures, a 60-Day Detention Law, was still in force, permitting authorities to lock up anyone they saw as a threat to public order. All political protestors were designated as such threats.

The violence that ensued after soldiers swept through campus has been a sensitive subject with government ever since. A commission of enquiry had its report secreted away for years, with a bowdlerized version finally released to the public in 1997.Two students who were seriously injured sued government for damages, and their cases were settled out of court.

IPS reported that not only was the traditional leadership’s fear of democracy revealed on ‘Black Wednesday’, but also a proletariat attitude of resentment, displayed by the soldiers, was shown against the educated student ‘elite.’ The military's code name for the university invasion was ‘Operation Tinfundiswa (educated ones).’

‘It was a time of wild rumors,’ recalled Khumalo-Matse. ‘We heard that government feared we would burn down the library, which belied common sense because we were inside and would have incinerated ourselves.’

The army officials in charge gave students a five-minute warning, and then unleashed what one onlooker later told an investigating committee was a ‘military riot against civilians’.

Students were beaten as they emerged from the library to escape teargas canisters hurled through windows, and had to run a gauntlet of soldiers. Other soldiers chased students until they cornered them along fences. As they beat students with batons, the soldiers informed them they were being ‘punished’.

People in Swaziland were shocked by the brutality. Particularly offensive was one newspaper photo depicting a young woman carried out of the library between soldiers ‘like a slaughtered pig’, according to a letter writer to the Times of Swaziland.


After the invasion, Michael Prosser, a professor from the United States who was working at the University of Swaziland, posted an account of what he saw on his personal website. A version of this later appeared in a book he co-edited called Civic Discourse: Intercultural, International, and Global Media.’

This is his account from his website that is no longer available online.

‘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.’

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