Hey it’s Akwe Amosu here, of the Strength&Solidarity podcast. We’re doing something different today – sharing some audio that we recently recorded while in South Africa. Last month, Thulani Maseko was murdered in Swaziland. He was a remarkable, brilliant advocate for rights and democracy, a commitment that brought him into direct confrontation with his country’s absolute ruler, King Mswati III over decades. His family, friends and fellow citizens are grief-stricken and the international human rights and justice community is outraged.
News of Thulani’s death came as a shock. Only a few days later he would have come to South Africa to join our “Group 7”- the latest in a series of immersive conversations we convene for human rights leaders from around the world on how to build greater strength and deeper solidarity with those defending and advancing rights.
During our week together, we met to remember Thulani and celebrate his unceasing work to free his people. Deprose Muchena, a senior director in Amnesty International’s Senior Leadership Team, and formerly Amnesty’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa opened the proceedings. He was followed by Equatoguinean activist Tutu Alicante, director of EG Justice, and then by Noncedo Madubedube, general secretary of the South African social justice movement, Equal Education. To close, S’bu Zikode, president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, South Africa’s shack-dwellers’ movement reflected on the use of violence and assassination which has taken the lives of 24 Abahlali activists since 2009, four of them last year.
In sharing the audio of our commemoration held on 1, February 2022, we invite others to join us in mourning those whose lives have been taken, and to reject and challenge this impunity. What happened to Thulani in Swaziland is also happening in South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, the Philippines and multiple other countries across the world. Frontline defenders need our protection and solidarity. And we need accountability for whoever murdered and ordered the murder of Thulani Rudolf Maseko.
Akwe Amosu: Welcome comrades, friends, colleagues.. We are going to take the next hour to remember and honor our friend Thulani Rudolf Maseko, who was murdered on the 21st of January. He was a fearless critic of absolute monarch, King Mswati III, and remarkably and chillingly the king said publicly only hours before the killing that “people should not shed tears and complain about mercenaries killing them – those people started the violence first.” We’re going to take a little while just to hear from people who knew Thulani and then also a little bit about the use of this kind of violence that those who continue to struggle are overcoming. And we’ll start with you, Deprose Muchena, head of Amnesty International Southern Africa.* Deprose, you knew Thulani well.
Deprose Muchena: Yeah. In fact, the last, 20 minutes, I was talking to the independent doctor that attended, to the autopsy, on Thulani’s body in order to determine, what had happened. I was just double checking with him the facts, that it was, three bullets, that were fired at Thulani and they were fired, one to the head and two in the chest area. And there were also some tangential injuries on the arms which means that the bullet might have passed through arms as he probably was trying to cover his face. And that is what killed him. I spoke with Tanele ,Thulani’s wife, about 55 minutes after the shooting. I have known the family since 2014. I have known Thulani since 2004. Thulani is the reason why I visited Swaziland for the first time in my life on the 2nd of January 2005. And he had come to Harare to study the constitutional making process by civil society in Zimbabwe and had interviewed me. Immediately afterwards he said he wanted me to be guest speaker at their convention. I traveled to Swaziland and spoke at a gathering in Manzini. And from that time, Thulani became a friend of mine and we journeyed together in many human rights struggles too numerous to mention.
From that time until now, I described Thulani Maseko as one of the most restrained, non-violent, thoughtful persons, whom I have met, consistently talking about pro-democracy, consistently talking about peaceful means of resolving disputes and problems, consistently eye on the ball. In leadership, we really talk about what we call “beyond-you” leaders. “Beyond-you” leaders are people who think not of themselves, but about others, they leverage their role for the benefit of others. On numerous occasions, Thulani and I spoke and each time we spoke, he was talking about the plight of the other people in Swaziland, never about him. And it was actually other people who would call me to say, “look, Thulani is struggling, can you be helpful?” But at no time did Thulani ask me, or Arnold Tsunga, or any of the colleagues we worked with, for human rights protection. And when we look back, we just think that we also failed Thulani as a human rights community because the support, the defense that were being offered to others, were not offered to Thulani. He looked the larger-than-life person, the defender of other people. So his “beyond-you” leadership qualities are an undying feature of this man who loved humanity, the work that he did, and he dedicated himself to using the law as a mechanism fighting for justice.
AA: Can you tell us a little bit about the work that he did and his contribution?
DM: Well, as I said at the beginning when I met Thulani Maseko, he was concerned that the kingdom in Swaziland was isolated from censure internationally. So it had license to do as it pleased back then, that it would use instruments to deploy a narrative of doing something when they’re not doing anything. So they would say, ‘we are embarking on constitutional reform’ when it is a very royally-managed constitutional reform effort to consolidate power rather than reform it. And him being involved as a young person at that time in 2004, defined a path that he took. He was also very instrumental in the setting up and development and consolidation of Swaziland Lawyers for Human Rights, which is another area, again, where his advocacy for human rights work – the deployment and use of the law as an instrument of protection – was something that he really believed in. We know in Swaziland – and I never call it eSwatini – in Swaziland, the law and the judiciary is used as a site of political persecution in the name of prosecution. Judges pretend to take people through the courts only to pronounce the king’s preferences. That’s why Thulani and his colleagues decided to set up and support Lawyers for Human Rights to defend people, but also use people to demand the rule of law. Thulani also got very involved in IDEAL – the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. And at the time of his death, it was now so clear that in Swaziland to resolve the problem you needed, among other things, an internal political reform that can only come through dialogue. And he got elected to champion and become chair of the Multi Stakeholder Forum, which was the body driving civil society-led reforms so that we have a political system that is free, that energize people, that can protect people. He was among the people that constantly restrained the extreme voices in Swaziland, about what needs to be done. And without him in Swaziland, I’m not seeing anybody who actually can constrain others who think that we should take, different forms of engaging the king. So in taking him out, they really have taken a doyen of peace. And it’s very possible that Swaziland can get into another form of a failed state, a violent state, and a state where citizens have no more recourse except their chains that they must remove. So I see him as a major loss to Swaziland. I see him as a major loss to the region. And if I didn’t know him well, I now know that the African Commission for the first time ever spoke out against violence against an HRD. SADC [Southern African Development Community] spoke out, Antonio Guterres spoke out. We saw voices we have never seen before, reflecting the size and gigantic contribution Thulani he was making not only to Swaziland, but to Africa. And that work is unforgettable. It’s work that civil society are thinking now about how do we honor him going forward?
AA: He was jailed a few years ago, Deprose. Can you tell us about what happened there?
DM: Yes. He was jailed in 2014 because he had written an article criticizing the judiciary for a rather strange judgment that the court in Swaziland had made under the chief Justiceship of Michael Ramodibedi, who was a terrible chief justice, one of the worst in the region in terms of dispensing injustice, sitting on the court. So he wrote an article that appeared in The Nation, a journal, a magazine that was edited by Bheki Makhubu. And as a result of that, he was charged with treason, together with Bheki Makhubu and he went to jail in the Big Bend prison in Swaziland. At that time, I had left my work at Open Society. I had started to work at Amnesty to set up a regional office for Southern Africa and knew Thulani’s work before. So we campaigned for his release, Amnesty declared him a Prisoner of Conscience, which is to say we believed that he had been arrested, not because he committed a crime, but for his beliefs, for his conscience. Fourteen months later he was released from prison, but he had really, really served jail time. A lot of our colleagues, people like Arnold Tsunga, SALC [Southern African Litigation Centre], International Commission of Jurists, deployed trial observation to see the miscarriage of justice every time Thulani was appearing in court. That was the beginning of what I could call global solidarity on Swaziland. And as you know, global solidarity or solidarity itself is really for smaller people, for poorer people, for people not known in the world, the only currency that they have for protection. So the people who came to Swaziland spotlighted it globally. And that weakened the shackles of control that the regime had on his life, and he was released, and he was able to continue with his work. And he had also written, again in January this year, an article in which he was essentially carrying on with his theme – nonviolence, critical discourse with respect to rule of law. And I think that article, among many of his positions that he has taken in the past, just led him to his death.
AA: What do you think can be done to secure accountability for this murder?
DM: I personally have called for, and the various organizations that have pronounced themselves on this death have called for an international mechanism which is independent which is not controlled by the state of Swaziland which is thorough, effective, and fair, that that is the only mechanism that can guarantee proper examination of what happened. Why did Thulani find himself being murdered, assassinated in cold blood, for doing absolutely nothing but sitting with his family, with his wife and kid watching television, and shot from one and a half meters? We need to know what happened. We need to know why he was not protected by the state of Swaziland? And there has to be justice and accountability for those who carried out this dastardly act and those who authorized the act. And it has to go as high as the person who imagined the case in the first place. That is the only way that will restore confidence, in people respecting the rule of law.
AA: Thank you Deprose. In the meantime, what is needed for the family?
DM: I think we do very well as a human rights community when one of us has been taken away, but we do terribly days after. The person who has been assassinated is the breadwinner in the family. Everything that goes around his house was up to Thulani’s labor. He ran a law firm, with people who worked for him. And he has young children. He has a family that he takes care of. So part of what we have spoken about is a long-term support mechanism that will enable the family to continue with their lives. We have spoken about the importance, I think, of an education fund to look after children’s needs for education. In terms of remembering his life and contribution to human rights, to solidarity, to building resilience and strength, there are thoughts about the University of Pretoria Center for Human Rights will do an annual human rights Thulani Maseko Lecture. Uh, we are thinking of a foundation. We are thinking of ways and means of using his life and the work that he has done and his sad murder as an opportunity to spotlight that the struggle continues and that it is important that we come together as a global community of human rights defenders and continue with the work that is being done. So far from diminishing its demand for reforms in Swaziland, I think they have fueled even greater demand outside of Swaziland to work now with the people of Swaziland, and give them solidarity. I must tell you that, Akwe, at the funeral, you are looking at up to 3000 people that came, not only from Swaziland, but from the region. In terms of organizations I know you know, Abahlali baseMjondolo – they’re there in the room. You would have, from Abahlali baseMjondolo to judges, you had everyone who really believed in justice, ambassadors from different countries… Ambassador Makila James from the US who was around in the time of Thulani’s arrest in 2014, penned a powerful letter, a tribute to Thulani’s life. So did many others. So I think his memory lives and we have to retain it.
AA: Thank you so much Deprose and condolences. I know that this has been a big blow for you. Please stay with us while we hear from the others here. I want to invite Tutu – Tutu Alicante, director of EG Justice, who knew Thulani and wants to say a few words.
Tutu Alicante: Thank you so much. Akwe, and thank you Deprose. So I first heard about, Thulani in 2014. I met Tanele in Norway. We were attending the Oslo Freedom Forum. And Tanele is a woman that defies definition. because of her courage, her love, and her commitment to ensuring that her husband was freed. Tanele got up to the stage that day and with composure and grace, she read a letter from Thulani that she had snuck out of his prison cell. The letter was very touching. The letter was very powerful. What stayed with me was the ending of that letter -“Thulani Rudolf Maseko, prisoner, 531438, and now 579.” So later on during the conference I learned from Tanele that Thulani had previously been in prison in 2009. She convinced me that her husband was first and foremost a loving husband, a superb lawyer, and a relentless freedom fighter. And it was easy for me to see the similarities between our struggles. It was easy for me to see the similarities between King Mswati and the dictator in Equatorial Guinea. And it was easy for me to see that there was nothing we both wanted more than freedom and democracy for our people. So naturally I participated in a huge campaign with Amnesty and others to secure his release. In 2016, I returned to Oslo once he was freed because I wanted to meet this incredible human being. It was the first time I was meeting him and we embraced, we laughed, we joked about our dictators, as if we had known each other for a long time, right? Thulani, for me, meeting him that time, I could tell that this was a person that embodied integrity, grace, and sophistication wrapped around laughter and joy, and was a human being that wanted to live. And that day when we met, he took the stage and delivered the very powerful message of condemnation against the absolute monarch in Swaziland but his message was also full of hope. As he called on the international community to join his fight for democracy in Swaziland. And this is what I kept from his speech that day in 2016: “If you are persistent in what you want, if you insist in what you believe in, you are likely to get it, no matter how difficult it may be. And no matter how high the price to pay.” So Thulani, for me was an irresistible force, right? A relentless advocate for democracy, who never, ever stopped demanding to give democracy a try in his country. He understood that difficulties were part of the struggle. He understood that there was a price to be paid. This is a person that I only met once, the rest of our conversations after that were over email. For the last two weeks, those people that I have talked to about Thulani know that for me, this is not a loss just for Swaziland, or for South Africa or the Southern Africa. This is a loss for a whole continent. This indeed is a loss for the whole world. Thank you.
AA: Thank you, Tutu. I’m going to turn to ‘Cedo Madubedube, General Secretary of Equal Education.’ Cedo.
Noncedo Madubedbe: Thank you. It’s really good to be in a room where we’re spending dedicated time thinking about comrade Thulani. Uh, I live in South Africa and Thulani is part of the fabric of our civil society here. But I haven’t been in an environment like this where we are just taking stock and thinking about this tremendous loss. So I’m, I’m grateful. Um, I wanted to do two things, if you’ll allow. The one is that here there’s a letter that’s been written by South Africa Civil Society to our government. It’s a call to action. And I wanna be able to read, three paragraphs from it, if that’s okay. I did ask these comrades if it’s okay that I share from it, here today. So just to, to, to bring them all into this room as well. And then to talk a little bit about my times with Comrade Thulani, ne?
So first here, this is a group of about 43 [as of 1 February] organizations, institutions and individuals in South Africa that, that have written to our government making a call for justice. And they start off by saying: “The recent murder of human rights defender, Thulani Maseko eSwatini has sent shockwaves across the world. His death is a chilling reminder that human rights defenders are not free or safe to champion the cause that they seek to bring positive change in society. This also comes at a time when civil society in South Africa, continues to grapple with the assassinations of social justice activists Lindokuhle Mnguni, Ayanda Ngila and Nokuthula Mabaso only a few months prior.” It also goes on to say: “As we mourn the death of Thulani Maseko and many other activists who have been killed for daring to speak truth to power, we remember the incredible and brave man that he was. We honor his life and his legacy and stand fully in support of the call for democracy and broader social justice reforms in eSwatini, which he so reverently fought for.” The last bit I’ll read is the actual call: It says: “We therefore call upon the South African government to release a statement condemning the killing of Thulani Maseko and acknowledging the widespread threats to the lives of activists across Southern Africa. We further urge the South African government to call for an independent and transparent investigation into the death of Thulani Maseko. Finally, we call on the South African government to commit to coordinating with the relevant stakeholders, a sub-regional response to the attacks and killings of human rights defenders in the SADC region.” Now, the last bit of the statement is uncomfortable because, why do we need even need to make these kinds of calls, you know? And why does it take 43 organizations to press power to get this sort of justice addressed? But I also wanted to share it so people understand the context that we are struggling inside of as well. But S’bu will talk a little bit about that, I’m sure. So the first time I met uThulani, I think I met him 2016. And he spoke so slow on this panel and I thought, my goodness, these men, you know, <laugh> but he was also so suave, you know, in a little bit of a black suit. He absolutely believed in the right of law. And he talked so passionately – every time you listened to Thulani, you went home and thought, you know what, we are gonna have to run a mass campaign to “sort out” (in inverted commas) what was happening in Swaziland. So there was a lot of urgency, but also a lot of consciousness, in his addresses. So if you shared platforms with him, he was ready to talk to you about how constitutional democracy was the thing that Swaziland needed, and you’d be sitting on the other side of the same panel going, “constitutional democracy is a sham. It is not working! The people don’t resonate!” And , so, he’s like, “I really want to see young people with this kind of energy and consciousness in my own country, you know? Can, can we make those connections? The sad thing is that we’ll meet at places like this and we’ll plan all sorts of things, but it’s hard to follow through, but uThulani was very thorough so he would text as he could, he would email as he could, cause he was really keen on thinking about succession. He kept saying, like, he’s getting older, he has to think about who are the young people? Where are they that are going to carry forward and take the baton from his work? And so in that, I really did see a very warm black man. But I think Comrade Thulani, because he was excitable, he was warm, he was kind, and very careful about how he presented himself and his thoughts, the struggle of abantu base Swaziland [trans: the people of Swaziland], he, he felt very genuine, I suppose is the word that I’m looking for. So, so, so we’ve lost a comrade uqabane onjalo [trans: an activist who is like that].
The last thing that – it, it makes me sad, as well, Deprose, – is to think about, what next? And what happens, in Swaziland? So the last time I saw him, we were at a conference called – I want to read its proper title so I can talk a little bit about what we then discussed there. Uh, it was a lecture series on how the constitution can advance democratic practices and promote socio-economic progress. And he felt very deeply around this idea that “civil society” (in inverted commas again), legal practitioners, the judiciary, should be working really hard to be in conversation with the mass in Swaziland that still believed in the monarchy, to some extent. And he wanted to see how we could sort of translate some of the lessons learned in South Africa to build a unified voice inside his own country. But uThulani was a little older than me, right? But it touched me that he still very much felt like it was possible in his lifetime. And so I share the same sentiment of thinking about, has he succeeded in building those succession plans, those pipelines for younger comrades who can take up the struggle but will carry the same kind of soberness, and hope that the rule of law and democracy and constitutional law can in fact be a reality in Swaziland? And I do think and hope that the 43 organizations, institutions and individuals that have written this demand to government are feeling moved to think about how he often called for solidarity from South Africa and he wasn’t afraid to tell us, on live platforms that we were doing very little, but from a place of kindness, which was important. My last thing is that, every time I did see him, I think when I see you, S’bu, as well, I do chuckle, um, at how many times you guys have to go into hiding. He’s always coming in and out of some kind of trouble. Uh, and he’d just shrug his shoulders and go, “I mean, it’s in the work, you know?” So he really was what we’d call iSoja [trans: a soldier]. And, uh, I mean, he did die for his cause.
AA: Thank you, ‘Cedo. I’d like to call on S’bu Zikode president of Abahlali baseMjondolo to talk a little bit about what it’s like to live with this threat of physical violence against your movement, fighting a just cause, trying to advance rights, secure justice for people in the grassroots who have to live with this threat of violent killing. It will shock many of you to know that Abahlali has lost 24 people in this way. And as grim and catastrophic as that is, the one thing that we can say is that Abahlali is not defeated. And I wanted to end this celebration of Thulani with a reminder that they can’t stop this work that way. S’bu.
S’bu Zikode: Thank you, Akwe. Greetings to my fellow comrades here – the leadership of Equal Education, I see comrade Axolile here with so much respect, to you comrades that are here in the room, Comrade Deprose, where you are… Just in the name of Abahlali, we are deeply hurt, and the level of hate that we’ve been going through is unimaginable. It’s just too much to bear. I have not known Comrade Maseko personally, but because of the work that we do, he has worked closely with many comrades of Abahlali, not just at the leadership level, but also at the settlement level, at the branch, at the community level. So I would not say much, other than to say how he was described by Abahlali has also moved me. The day we received the message of his passing, we sent it to the leadership group of Abahlali and I was not expecting comrades to know him. So I just want to read just one of the responses from Abhlali. This comes from the General Secretary of Abahlali, Thapelo Mohabi. He says to us: “I spent a month with him in Gambia in the celebration of the 30 years of the existence of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. He was a good human rights lawyer. He was with the Swaziland Lawyers for Human Rights at the time. He was the one who assisted me with the statement to the Commission and gave me the status to speak at the Commission.” Now, Abahlali is a grassroot organization that has no status whatsoever. The power that we build from below does not necessarily translate into giving us status to speak at the regional platforms, or even international platforms. But it is through the humility of cadres such as Thulani that we were able to speak. Now it’s not just the General Secretary of Abahlali. When we are also discussing about, but how do we go to the funeral, when we are in the middle of discussion at the leadership level, there comes a branch of Abahlali in Ekhenana, and they said to us, siyaya, we are going there, whether the leadership gives us mandate or not, because we knew Thulani very well. Embarrassed we were as the leadership! And at that point they did not even ask for money to get to Swaziland. They just went to Swaziland and we saw them speaking on the big screens, demonstrating the level of commitment and the very humility, dignity that Thulani himself has shared with others.
Now, I want to move away from Thulani, but do want to say – his humility: I just want to repeat that. Because often when we are able to fly all over the world and be in such powerful platforms, we begin to be detached from the day-to-day thinking and reality of ordinary men and women. Now for Thulani as you may have heard, how many people have spoken at different levels, but one thing for sure, he remained grounded with the day-to-day lives and thinking of ordinary men and women, even in the shacks, in the informal settlements, where many of us may not want to be seen associated and be dealing with those communities. So that’s one thing I take from Thulani without having known him, but he knew what the shack dwellers were going through in the true spirit of solidarity and so on.
Just last year, within the space of five months, we have lost four comrades in Abahlali. This is not even one year – within the space of five months. These were not just members, leaders, cadres, but these were pillars of the movement. I was sharing with some folks yesterday in our little group discussion explaining them how devastating to live when you know exactly that you are only left with two weeks. I was sharing my personal experience, that I was once, approached by the reliable sources from the intelligence of this country telling me who was hired and paid to assassinate me. So if I have two weeks, that will be long enough so I should start packing. Now the difficulty with that, as courageous as we are, was to think about, what is it that I have not achieved in life at a personal level? Now having to think about my kids, my family but – what is it that I have not accomplished in life as now I know that I have two weeks to live? There were options. Running away from the country… But I, I had to think about that. Now, thinking was not really a problem, but the problem was keeping that in me. I mean, just in me. I wouldn’t have shared this with my wife, with my kids, not even with my comrades. I had to protect them by keeping this to myself. Now my turn has not come to die, but I knew I was prepared. But the devastating thing that has happened to me personally has been to bury my own comrades, has been to tell their family that we have lost Lindokuhle Mnguni. We have lost Nokuthula Mabaso. We have lost Ayanda Ngila. The list goes on. So we have lost 24 comrades since 2009. Not that we do not know who is killing us. We know, we are clear. In fact, we get told before we are murdered. Lindokuhle was aware that he was going to be murdered. How can this be normal? How can we not say anything about this? We know that the life of poor people, particularly black people, is cheap. We have been killed with impunity. There has never been this outcry. It has been accepted and it’s normal, at least in KwaZulu-Natal. What future do we have? So I’m just sharing this, comrades, so that we know what Comrade Thulani went through. Probably there’s so much that we do not know before his passing, because we have this element of wanting to protect you, our closer comrades, our families. The nightmares one would have, sleepless nights knowing that anything can happen at any time. It was clear that death was inevitable. So what do you do in your case? So South Africa has become a monster that we do not know – for those of you who still celebrate the freedom, the once rainbow-nation that Nelson Mandela was, you know, announcing and so on. So the organizing and the work that we do on daily basis is as threatening as ever. We have had a difficult conversation with our families telling us, “do you really think you should go on to death, now trying to do justice work is buying your own coffin?” This is what activism is like in South Africa. It is now normal. I’m giving you this figure – 24 lives have been lost. Who cares? Who’s worried about that? What is being done about that? Nothing. So we are very hurt about the passing of Comrade Thulani because there are maybe few or maybe there’s no more who will stand in the cause of justice. That is the only fear. When we are not protected for the little we do, we are not doing much. But all we do is to try to humanize the world. That’s all we do. Why should we be killed for that? And nobody says anything about that. So having to carry this burden on our shoulders has taught us to offer solidarity in every possible way.. It has taught the ordinary comrades, not just the leadership, the importance of solidarity, not only at the regional level, but in the true spirit of internationalism. Because we know if it’s not stopped in South Africa, it is in Swaziland, it is in Zimbabwe. It is in Kenya, it is in the UK. So I will urge you to act before it’s too late. We are not just called to bring about justice, but also to make sure that we humanize the world in other ways. And some of those ways would really have to take grassroots struggles very seriously. We need one another. We need real solidarity. We need living solidarity. May the soul of comrade Thulani Maseko rest in power. He’s joining many comrades who are watching at us, who feels that sometimes we are betraying them because we have not done enough. So in Abahlali, we were just celebrating yesterday, comrades who have been released from prison, they have spent as much as six months for crimes they have not committed. Comrades are going through a lot of trauma. May the spirit of Comrade Maseko and many others, rest in peace. Thank you.
AA: Thank you, S’bu and solidarity with you and your comrades. Solidarity with Thulani’s family. Could we have a moment’s silence for Thulani?
AA: Thank you, Cedo. Thank you, Tutu. Thank you S’bu. Thank you, Deprose and thanks to all of you for being here.
- Deprose Muchena’s correct current title is Senior Director and member of the Senior Leadership Team, Amnesty International.