Swazi police and security forces not only harassed pro-democracy activists, trade unionists, and foreigners during last week’s civil protests for human rights, but also local journalists.
He tells how he was covering a meeting last Monday (6 September 2010) convened to plan for protest marches due to take place later in the week. Police raided the meeting and demanded that Nxumalo hand over the camera he was using to photograph their actions.
When he refused, he was told by police they ‘would beat the hell out of me’. He was detained ‘interrogated and threatened with torture’.
Here is his full account of what happened that day.
MY EXPERIENCE WITH SWAZI POLICE
BY MANQOBA NXUMALO (Times of Swaziland Journalist)
On Monday September 6, 2010, like all normal days, I was instructed to cover the Swaziland Democracy Campaign lecture at the Tums George hotel. I was told that the meeting was to prepare civil society organisations as well as international solidarity partners who are attended today’s protest action march about the socio-political situation in Swaziland.
Later on, I had been told, there would be a dinner organised by Africa Contact, a Danish organisation, to give PUDEMO President Mario Masuku his democracy award that he won several months back.
I discussed this assignment with, Jabulisa Dlamini, my colleague , and we agreed that she will be responsible with taking notes while I take pictures.
My instincts had told me that mayhem was inevitable going to break out , particularly because some of the people that were in attendance belonged to so called proscribed organisations and its common knowledge that His Majesty’s government criminalised any political activity involving PUDEMO, SWAYOCO, SSN and Umbane. We drove to Tums George hotel just before the event started and we were welcomed by the organisers of the event and given the permission to take pictures and record all that was taking place.
As usual with all other assignment, we immediately started our work, focusing specifically on the COSATU members who had been able to dodge all the road blocks that have been manned by a combined security force of the country.
A few minutes after the event started, I saw three senior police officers forcefully push the conference door open before demanding to speak to the organisers of the public lecture. When I went outside to see what was going to happen, I noted that police officers had swamped the place and the entire hotel had briefly turned into a mini combat zone.
The operation was led by Manzini Regional Commander one Mbhamali supported by Manzini Station Commander as well as Mafutsenbi Station Commander backed by hordes of other plain clothed police officers and uniformed officers.
Swaziland Federation of Labour (SFL) Secretary General Vincent Ncongwane, together with organisers of the march went outside to consult with the police officers and briefly halted the meeting while they tried to drum sense to the police officers. During this intense discussion, police made it clear that they wanted all foreign nationals attending the meeting out of Swaziland.
As the discussion intensified, the union went to consult with their comrades on the way forward and it became clear that other delegates were steadfastly not going to release the names of their solidarity partners to the cops. In fact that argued that the only thing that the police could do was close the meeting because that anyways was their ultimate objective.
I went to consult with my obviously shocked and shaking colleague, Jabu, and we agreed that even though the environment had become threatening and scary we were not going to run away from a breaking story.
After what appeared like forever, the police then called Ncongwane aside and told him, in a threatening tone might I add, that they were going to stop the meeting. As I was preparing to take pictures of the police officers, who had by this time had surrounded Ncongwane aggressively, this infamous and notorious cop Sonnyboy cop charged at me like a lion and told me to stop taking pictures.
I meekly brushed the instruction to stop taking pictures aside and continued with my job because after all he was doing his job and had to respect the fact that I was doing mine as well.
As I prepared to take my last but one picture this Mthembu cop came to me charging and before I knew it, all the police officers had surrounded me demanding to take my camera. As any self respecting journalist would tell you, the first rule of journalism is to protect your working tools, even if it means with your life. I was adamant I was not going to allow the police to delete the pictures I had taken or worse still take the camera.
He poked my forehead with his finger and told me he would beat the hell out of me because they did not want their pictures taken. By this time this group of police officers had already grabbed my camera but I was also refusing to let go.
Frightened by the ensuing tussle, those who know me as a journalist screamed to the cops to let go because I was doing my job. In a chorus, they all shouted back ‘journalist journalist wani, usishuthelan? (why are you taking our pictures)’. I knew right then that this was a ‘war’ situation, sanity would have to take a back seat. I fought back to protect my camera and just as I was gasping for air, having managed to escape their deadly claws, an order was issued that I be detained because ‘ngiyedzelela angiwati emaphiyisa (I am defiant and police would teach me a lesson)’.
Before I knew it, I was forcefully grabbed by the arm by one overzealous police officer who, despite the fact that I was not resisting arrest, seemed hell bent in creating a scene by walking with me as if I was some recently caught serial killer. I was taken to a police van together with NUMSA Deputy President Christinia Oliver, Public Service International’s Ntokozo Mbhele, South African Municipal Workers Union’s Steve Faukner, COSATU’s Deputy International Relations Secretary Zanele Mathebula and COSATU’s head of campaigns George Mahlangu. Immediately I got into the van I realised I needed to call my boss, in case, as the case with Sipho Jele ‘ I am found hanging in the cells’.
As I was still trying to come to terms with the entire situation I saw a group of police officers bundle OSISA’s Muzi Masuku into our van in a typical Mugabe’s police style. Those who had gathered around to witness this drama stood there transfixed, wondering what had just happened. For a moment all the people in the hotel peeped through the windows while passers by stood watching as police paraded their power against innocent civilians. I called my friend Thulane Ace Lushaba to check if he was safe and he told me he was under detention as well. I again called Jabulisa who told me she was hiding in a female toilet. I suggested to her to make sure that she does not get caught because in the end someone had to write the story. Even though I could not count the number of police cars which transcended to the hotel, from the police van window I could count at least 15 police cars, including a truck that was used to bundle everyone who had attended the lecture.
We were then driven to the Manzini regional headquarters where we were made to explain in detail our nationalities. I tried to protest that I was a mere journalist doing my job and the police officers could hear none of it and specifically took my wallet and went through everything. After finishing with the search one pot bellied police officer then demanded to see my pay slip.
Now that was enough, I could hear none of it.
My law lecturer had taught me my rights and I was about to defend them. I immediately took the pay slip from the officer and told him this was private and he had no right to search it. This seemed to agitate the police officers who threatened to beat the hell out of me. I was told that ‘ngiyadzelela’ and needed some good lessons. I was taken out from the rest to a secluded place where I was briefly interrogated and threatened with torture. I again repeated what I had told them earlier and I am sure they were surprised by my bold assertions and retreated into wanting to know who I am without teaching me the lesson they had promised earlier. Seeing that I was not relenting they released me under the condition that I would be called side later. A few minutes later, Manzini Regional Station Commander came to apologise and released me after having discussions with my Managing Editor.
I learned later that my boss had spoken to the top brass of the police to release me and only then did they find it proper to let me go. However, it was not before I got some threats from some police officers who claimed they knew where and how they would get me.
As I recall my experience now, I can’t hep but ask myself: has this set the stage for what the King’s brother and also advisor Prince Mahlaba said during the Smart Partnership Dialogue that journalists who write bad things about the country would be hunted down and killed? My fears were again confirmed when Swazi Observer journalist Sibusiso Ngozo was manhandled and almost beaten by police during the recent Global Day of Action for Democracy march in Mbabane. How again are we journalists expected to work freely in a country where even up to this day no government official or least of all police bosses have come out to renounce the treatment I was subjected to?
But again, this treatment to trade unionists, democracy activists and even ordinary citizens has come to characterise contemporary politics in Swaziland just that we never imagined that so soon it could come for us in the media. To this end I am reminded of the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) who said: “They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.”