1 year ago, in June and July, a massive uprising led by Communists in Swaziland threatened to overthrow the last absolute monarchy in Africa. With the help of its imperialist allies, the Swazi monarchy brutally repressed this uprising, but they have only temporarily delayed the inevitable. One year later, we can reflect on the conditions that caused the revolution, its successes and failures, the role of imperialism in tipping the scales to a comprador bourgeoisie, and changes in the year since. Studying the revolution in the making in Swaziland, and the role of the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS) as the representative of the proletariat, provides us critical insight into the nature of anti-imperialism and communism in the Global South today; it also shows the incredible similarities between Russia in 1917 and Swaziland today, as both fought an autocratic monarchy backed by foreign capital. The contest between the revolutionary party and the feudal-capitalist regime, as well as the contradictions within the opposition movement, show how 1917 is still being played out today across the Global South. Here, I will provide a brief introduction to the events of 2021 and what they mean a year later as the Swazi Revolution continues. Indeed, the past is prologue; last year’s events can be understood as the prologue to a new history being written. Swaziland’s revolutionaries seek to write a new history precisely because the world has condemned them to their fate. Swaziland’s history is one of collaboration by the elite feudal monarchy with settler colonialism, capitalism, imperialism and Apartheid. The monarchy’s desire to retain all the vestiges of feudal inequality and domination was supported by settler capitalists in South Africa and imperialists from the West, who understood that they could exploit labor more easily with a sympathetic comprador class. Swaziland is a classic case of neocolonialism. Its mineral and agricultural wealth has been divided between the massive privileges of the monarchy and for the extraction of the West. As a result, the Swazi people are condemned to some of the worst conditions in the world. They suffer from a national poverty rate of 63 per cent and an unemployment rate of 41 per cent; they’re subjected to wages as low as $79 (1,100 Emalangeni) a month. Meanwhile, the royal family receives a 25% cut of all the mining deals as a comprador class, and as of 2016 has a budget of $69.8 million. The King, Mswati, has a net worth of $200 million and he controls a trust worth $10 billion. Swaziland’s GINI coefficient as of 2016 was 54.6 consistently ranking in the top 5 most unequal countries in the world; in 2021 it was fourth.
Amidst these conditions, it is no wonder the people of Swaziland revolted. All they needed was a match to ignite the fire. That came on 8 May of 2021, when a University of Eswatini law student, Thabani Nkomonye, was killed by police. “Justice for Thabani” became a slogan against the monarchy. The Swazi National Union of Students (SNUS) also marched; the largest came on May 17, when 3,000 students marched from the university to the Sigodvweni police station; police reacted with tear gas. Security forces disrupted Nkomonye’s funeral, arresting student leaders, and then announced a ban on all demonstrations. Revolutionary unrest was clear, and the Communist Party of Swaziland, founded only recently in 2011, began to mobilize with the masses, leading marches on the offices of Parliament members alongside thousands of protesters. By June 20th, the uprising seemed to be in the making. Youth in Manzini Region blocked roads and set tires on fire. Police fired live bullets, leading to protesters retaliating by throwing rocks. Soon, the slogan transformed to “Mswati must fall!” The tactics of the revolutionaries developed to produce a shutdown of economic life in the country, hoping to fatally strike the monarchy. By June 25th, in Msunduza township, near Mbabane, demonstrators clashed with police and stores were burned. A full revolution seemed to be underway; reports even began to emerge that the King had fled the country. Major cities in the country came to a halt as many main roads and highways were blocked with burning tires. Monarchy-owned businesses such as the Swaziland Beverages were torched in at least two towns on the night of June 28 to further weaken the monarchy’s stability. In Mbabane (the capital city) and Manzini city (the economic hub of the country) most shops and businesses were shut down. 30,000 garment workers were turned away by protesters on June 29 from the industrial area in Manzini city. All this became part of the Kungahlwa Kwenile, a campaign to attack properties and businesses to bleed the monarchy financially, which began on June 28. In total, 3 billion Emalangeni’s worth was destroyed. The revolution seemed to have been won. It appeared “that the anger of the people can no longer be suppressed by crushing protests with brute force; so [the king] seems to have fled,” said Mcolisi Ngcamphalala, the deputy general secretary of the CPS and a leader of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT).
Amidst these successes, the CPS called for a National Democracy Conference of all anti-monarchist forces. This would seek a common minimum program for the transitional period after the monarchy had been toppled. In this moment where anything seemed possible, the anti-monarchy forces were themselves deeply divided. While the CPS represented the radical force pushing for the abolition of the monarchy and the prosecution of the King, some opposition forces expressed willingness to settle for a constitutional monarchy with an elected government as a compromise. In the process, they afforded too much power to bourgeois forces, who sought simply to reform the monarchy. These forces were angling for their own power and preservation and often had little connection with the masses. With these disagreements, the CPS, desiring a united front, could only watch as the reformist forces tore themselves apart and confused the people. This significantly weakened the revolutionary potential of the moment, as a united front for abolition could have achieved a victory. Pius Vilakati, the CPS International Secretary and Spokesperson, was prescient in his foresight about the shifting momentum of the revolution when he said “even during the uprising in April 2011, the king had disappeared from public view until his security forces managed to crush the revolt”. On June 29 and 30, as the bourgeois forces bickered and the CPS and its radical allies desperately tried to push the focus back to the masses and their actions, the monarchy struck. First, on the 29th, the government shut the internet down and imposed a 6pm-5am curfew. Then, the King gave the order for the army to take over from the police in responding to the protests and unleash violence on the protestors. At least 24 people were killed during this brutal crackdown by the army. On the 30th, in the small town of Simunye in Swaziland’s eastern region, around a thousand residents from Simunye and neighboring villages held a demonstration that was fired on by security forces. The police also opened fire on children and killed a 14-year-old in the town of Matsapha. By the 6th of July, around 70 had been killed by the army’s crackdown. These killings disrupted the confidence of the people, and the army began to take back control of the areas it had lost, except in rural areas where it spread too thin and the CPS was able to keep some unrest simmering. Just how close Swaziland came to a full-fledged revolution cannot be understated. Some soldiers sympathetic to the protest movement asserted that the fuel and ammunition reserve of the army would have been exhausted within weeks if a nation-wide uprising was sustained. But instead, a variety of factors allowed the King to temporarily restore control.
Here, I wish to briefly highlight the role of imperialism and the foreign support for the Monarchy. As a comprador bourgeoisie, the monarchy has always been supported by foreign capital and other imperialist states. Among those providing arms to the regime for example, were Belgium, Israel, France, the United Kingdom, India, and the United States. France provided 3 Aérospatiale Alouette III helicopters. We can also highlight the role of Taiwan, itself a base against China for the American empire, and its role supplying two Bell UH-1H helicopters, formally handed over to the Umbutfo eSwatini Defense Force (UEDF) Air Wing on 21 February, 2020, by Vice Minister of National Defense Chang Guan Chung, received by King Mswati himself. These helicopters would play a prominent role in suppressing the uprising as they were used to fire on protestors from the air. Taiwan also helped to train Mswati’s army and the State intelligence unit. Meanwhile, the American military participates in a range of activities to support the monarchy, such as a security assistance program bringing six members of Eswatini’s security forces to the United States each year for education and training purposes, and training for emaSwati law enforcement entities in regionally based training and capacity building programs, such as at the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in Gaborone, Botswana, which hosts 15 emaSwati officers each year for training on specialized skills such as investigating public corruption and combatting human trafficking. Beyond the military, the regime receives support financially from the imperialist world. On May 6th, 2022, the World Bank approved a $75 million loan to the regime to help keep it afloat. In 2013, the Taiwan International Cooperation Development Fund (ICDF) gave a loan of E100 million ($10 million). In 2011, even South Africa, which should be aligned against the regime due to its collaboration with Apartheid in the past, conducted a 2.4bn rand ($355m) bailout of the regime in 2011. South Africa’s position on the matter has come under condemnation, as it has largely deferred from acting against the monarchy and instead enable it. On July 4 2021, a South African Development Community (SADC) delegation met the government on its visit to Swaziland, ignoring the opposition. Two days earlier, on July 2, the SADC had issued a statement saying that only one protester was killed by the security forces. The SADC went so far as to condemn the protestors, saying that “disturbances have resulted in widespread destruction of property, [and] injuries to people”. The CPS reacted to this understatement by saying that the “SADC has shown a total disregard for the democratic aspirations of the people of Swaziland”.
With this material and rhetorical support from imperialist, neocolonial, and neoliberal actors, the monarchy was emboldened to continue its brutal campaign of suppression. On September 5 2021, in the southern town of Nhlangano, where protests had continued even after the July repression, police shot and killed a cannabis farmer. This immediately triggered a resurgence in anger and unrest. At the same time, the King had launched a reconstruction fund of 1 million Emalangeni to repair businesses attacked in June and July. The government announced that the fund had received a “contribution from Taiwan worth E330 million”. To strike against this, Kungahlwa Kwenile resumed; an outlet of a hardware company owned by pro-monarchy Minister Jabulani Mabuza was torched, and trucks of the Southern Star company linked to the King were torched. Protestors had already identified that anti-imperialist solidarity is needed against a regime backed by the imperialist world. In September, they argued that the international community must isolate and sanction King Mswati, and staged a protest at the UN headquarters in Swaziland. Meanwhile, students began to renew their agitation with a boycott of exams by second semester students of William Pitcher college in Manzini on September 23. The students were attacked by the police and army. Police once again fired tear gas into the campus of William Pitcher college on the night of October 9. Students from well over 50 schools participated in a boycott and protest on October 11. But on October 13, a student of Nzongomane high school near Nhlangano town was shot dead by police. This, and the killing of Nhlanhla Kunene on October 9 by police, supposedly for a curfew violation, renewed the flames of revolutionary uprising, and brought intense reaction by the security forces. On October 15, four were killed when the police and army attacked protestors. In the town of Siphofaneni even paramedics attempting to attend to a wounded protester were targeted by soldiers. In Nhlangano protesters blocked roads with burning tires, and police reportedly fired live rounds and tear gas, including into homes of people. On October 20, nurses in Mbabane Government Hospital would march, and face an attack by security forces. On November 4, they again bravely boycotted work, under the leadership of the Swaziland Democratic Nurses Unions (SWADNU). SWADNU called for all nurses to refuse to treat patients who are members of the security forces. By this point, an estimated 100 people had been killed since June.
Since this occurred, repression has persisted, with brutality and terror meeting activists in the country. This has targeted the Communist Party specifically; on March 21, 2022, 40 soldiers kidnapped two children of a National Organizer of the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS), Ayanda Ndwandwe, invading his home in the rural area of Lubulini in the Lubombo Region. This was likely a reprisal for March 19 rallies in Manzini, Mbabane, Limpopo and in Lubombo. In Lubulini, security forces, attacked the small rally being led by Ndwandwe. Then, Bongi Nkambule, also with the CPS, was abducted by police from Mbabane on March 23. On April 11, students were evicted from the Kwaluseni campus of the University of Swaziland by heavily armed soldiers, as they continued to protest fees and unpaid allowances. In April, Mbongwa Dlamini, the President of the Swazi National Association of Teachers (SNAT) had his residence sprayed with a hail of bullets by a brutal unit of the police called the Operation Support Service Unit (OSSU). All this contributed to the renewal of protests on April 12, as “Defiance actions’’ were organized by the Communist Party of Swaziland (CPS) across Swaziland to mark 49 years since King Sobhuza II, Mswati’s father, seized absolute power in 1973. As the nation braced for tensions in June and July with the year anniversary, tensions escalated. Police shot live bullets at CPS activists who were protesting on 25 June, about 4 kilometers outside the capital city, Mbabane. On June 28, over 100 armed police stormed houses rented by CPS members who are students in the University of Swaziland in Mbikwakhe, Matsapa. These houses hosted some of the Central Committee members of the CPS, the National Organiser Cde Simphiwe Dlamini, Bakhe Sacolo, Gabie Ndukuya, Mancoba Motsa, and Mhlonishwa Mtsetfwa. The police were supported by drones, likely supplied by Taiwan. As tensions escalate, the CPS alerted the world that soldiers are being deployed to areas of unrest, and that the “soldiers’ task is to monitor the communities and brutalize those whom they suspect to be democracy activists, the same way they did during the 2021 June massacre and throughout the year”. Meanwhile, on June 29, 2022, the government readied force, with Prime Minister Cleopas Sipho Dlamini saying that “the Government will not sit back and watch as terrorists intimidate emaSwati” and that the Government “will not hesitate to respond with the necessary force to protect our National security as a sovereign state.”
As these tensions continue to escalate, it is clear what is needed above all from the international community of anti-imperialist and communist allies of the CPS. We must stand in solidarity with the CPS in its struggle for revolution as it prepares for increased action in the next year. Already, many groups across South Africa and the world are making their solidarity known for the struggle. Over the last two decades, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has held many border blockades in support of the pro-democracy forces in Swaziland. The Southern Africa Trade Union Coordination Council (SATUCC), 22 major federations with a total membership of over 6 million people from 14 of the 16 SADC countries, has declared “collective solidarity and support” to people of Swaziland in their campaign for “Democracy Now!”. The shack dwellers movement of South Africa, Abahlali baseMjondolo, released a statement on June 30, 2021 expressing “undying solidarity with the people of Swaziland who are currently facing the repression of the absolute monarchy head on.” They condemned the army deployment as “protect[ing] the power and business interests of the king,” and criticized their own government for its ties to the government of Swaziland. “The comrades on the streets in Swaziland have our full solidarity and we are ready to support them in whatever way is deemed necessary. It is time to end the dictatorship of Mswati III,” they stated, echoing the sentiments of those mobilized on the streets of Swaziland. The South African Communist Party (SACP) also announced that it “stands in solidarity with and supports the people of Swaziland struggling for democracy, human rights, and inclusive development”. International solidarity groups like the Friends of Swazi Freedom (FSF) have made their solidarity practicable, with donation drives to build a clinic and book drives taking place to help the CPS from abroad. The FSF puts its mission in clear terms of anti-imperialism by “calling on all progressives, revolutionaries, anti-colonialists, and anti-imperialists to join us in pursuing the following commitments: Uplift and amplify the voices of the Swazi revolution, including the CPS, SNUS, and their allies in the national-democratic movement; Participate in a campaign to politically and economically isolate the king’s regime, including directed boycotts and statements of solidarity; Support political prisoners held by the regime; Stand with the Swazi people until true democracy and people’s rights are recognized through a democratic transition and multi-party elections”.
Truly, the only way forward will be through anti-imperialist global action to end the support coming to the monarchy from imperialist and reactionary countries like Taiwan and the United States. Struggle in South Africa is also particularly important, as many comrades of the CPS are in exile there and in need of rights and protections, as well as the fact of the outsized role that the South African government and activists can play in influencing developments in Swaziland. On this basis, we must continue the mission of organizing transnational solidarity with the CPS specifically, as the party most linked to the masses, and the entire democratic anti-monarchy struggle more broadly. This must be approached with a global view in mind as we sever the international props holding the monarchy up. As Simphiwe Dlamini, an activist with CPS, put it, “sabotage of the economy is a part and parcel of the struggle for democracy”. Destroying the bailout money the monarchy can receive from reactionary allies will cripple the regime. The central problem facing the comrades inside Swaziland continues to be a repressive state apparatus of security forces armed and trained by imperialist actors. But this army is stretched extremely thin, and the CPS knows this. As Dlamini notes, the CPS believes that protests should be held in multiple locations across the country, especially in the rural areas, which in the past had strong pro-monarchist sentiment which is rapidly changing as repression is experienced. Dlamini argued that this will exhaust the security forces and not allow them to concentrate power at one venue. This is the central task; attrition of the security forces will weaken the regime’s ability to cling to control. The CPS’s desire to create locally organized self-defense units with cadres developed for protecting themselves and their comrades from repression must also be pursued if the revolutionary spirit is to survive. Too many comrades are being forced into exile in South Africa, but the work on the ground in Swaziland is imperative. “It is high time we take serious measures to protect our people from the increasing violence by the King’s security forces,” Dlamini noted. The last question to note will be the relationship to the bourgeois forces in the democratic front. Critical examination of their flaws must be made to see why they have failed to galvanize the masses, but at present a united front against the monarchy is needed to create a broad front to destroy the enemy.
Though the monarchy may believe that it won the confrontation in 2021, its repression has only increased the commitment of the revolutionaries. I attended the rally led by the CPS and its allies on June 30th, 2022, when Swazi activists rallied at the eSwatini High Commission in Pretoria, South Africa. There, General Secretary Kenneth Kunene spoke, asserting that the people of Swaziland face a great enemy in Taiwan’s “colonization” of Swaziland and affirming that the revolution will not be misguided by bourgeois opportunists. South African allies like Mzwandile Makwayiba, President of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) and National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU), who decried the neocolonial post-Apartheid state for its lack of commitment to the Swazi freedom struggle. Above all, I could sense that the CPS has a revolutionary zeal and support among ordinary Swazi people and workers that attended. Its focus on imperialism and neocolonialism as the central problems of Swaziland show an understanding that the Swazi freedom struggle takes place in a global context. The CPS as the revolutionary party must continue to keep the masses at heart. There will be questions of transition and further contests with the bourgeois and right factions of the opposition. The CPS cannot give in to reformist pressures that will lose the faith of the people, and must always lead the united front in the final quest for socialism. A close study of the Russian Revolution, the position of the Bolsheviks, as well as the conditions of the end of Apartheid and the interactions of the various groups contesting for power (won out by a neoliberal faction of the ANC) must be conducted by all cadres. As the struggle continues, the CPS has been organizing “Sunset Rallies” around Swaziland. These are practical to avoid authority, but they also have a poignant meaning. They affirm that the reign of King Mswati is now in its evening, nearing its end. The revolutionary push is around the corner; the monarchy’s autocratic, capitalist rule will not live to see 50!
By Joseph Mullen