One year ago, over 70 civilians were murdered by the armed forces of Swaziland. Swaziland has the last absolute monarchy in Africa; protestors were reacting to the monarch’s continued autocracy, as well as a national poverty rate of 63% and an unemployment rate of 41%. The protests began on 8 May, 2021, when University of Eswatini law student Thabani Nkomonye was killed by police. As protestors started the Kungahlwa Kwenile, a campaign to attack businesses owned by the monarchy, police and the army responded with live ammunition, killing even those as young as a 14-year-old in the town of Matsapha.
In the condemnations of these massacres by a repressive state, the world has largely ignored the role Israeli weaponry played in the state violence. The Swazi armed forces, known as the Umbutfo eSwatini Defense Force (UEDF), receive the IMI Galil automatic rifle and the Uzi submachine gun from Israeli sources. The Swaziland Solidarity Network announced in 2011 that Israel had sold the UEDF an arms cache with an “upgraded version of the R5 assault rifle”, and have shown that in 2018, when the Swazi government was arguing publicly that it was “broke”, it secretly purchased millions worth of weapons from Israel. Independent investigations by Zweli Martin Dlamini show that the Swazi government paid R12 million ($731k) to the Israel Weapons Industries (IWI) for arms. Dlamini reported that “the Ministry of Defence and Security entered into an agreement with Israel Weapons Industries for the supply of weapons... [the] government was allegedly equipping its security forces to deal with internal political conflicts”. Dlamini’s reporting reveals that Israeli bullets cut down the protestors demanding their rights one year ago. We must contextualize these killings in the long history of Israeli violence exported all over the Global South. Israel’s support for Apartheid South Africa is the most vicious instance in this
sordid history. Investigations have revealed that “from 1977, the year of the UN arms embargo, into the 1980s, South Africa was Israel’s biggest weapons customer. From 1973 to 1981, weapons sales to South Africa boomed from $70-million to $1-billion”. As Eitay Mack details, Israel was a strong supporter of the Brazilian dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. Brazil’s security forces used Israeli Uzi submachine guns, and intelligence agents received training in Israel. Ramona Wadi, calling Chile “a testing ground for Israeli weapons”, points to a declassified CIA document which shows that “from 1975 until 1988, Israel sold radar systems, air-to-air missiles, naval equipment, aircraft and anti-missile systems to the Chilean dictatorship” under Augusto Pinochet from 1973 to 1990. All over Latin America, Israel supplied to right wing regimes from Argentina to Guatemala, as is well documented in Bishara Bahbah’s text “Israel and Latin America: The Military Connection”, or in what Victor Perera called “Uzi Diplomacy”. The Philippines has become a major purchaser; former President Rodrigo Duterte, during his 2018 Israel visit, went so far as to order his military to purchase only from Israel. These weapons were directed by Duterte into a brutal campaign that massacred those even suspected of using or selling drugs. As Alvite Ningthoujam notes, purchasers “have openly made known their preference for Israeli-made weapons systems, particularly because of Israel’s “no-strings-attached” policy over its arms export activities”. Pinochet also chose Israel for the fact that “Tel Aviv attaches no political strings to its transfers.” The subtext to this was laid bare by Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1981: “We sell to everyone... that is, we don’t sell to our enemies or to the Soviet bloc”.
Those who fight for freedom in the Global South have learned that Israel is one of their greatest enemies. When Perera visited the town of Chichicastenango in Guatemala, where the
regime’s military had killed civilians using Uzis, he was told by a gravedigger that “even if we wanted to join the guerillas, where would we obtain arms? In the church they tell us that divine justice is on the side of the poor; but the fact of the matter is, it is the military who get the Israeli guns”. What has been available across the Global South is a deep commitment to Palestinian freedom because of Israeli support for repression. Colombian activists made note of the fact that their wave of strikes in 2021, in which over 40 people were killed and more than 500 “disappeared”, was “being abetted by the Israeli government” which, “outside of the United States... is the Colombian military and paramilitaries’ chief weapons supplier”. The assertion was made that “the Colombian police and army have been putting their Israeli training and weapons to use against their own domestic revolt”. Protestors began to make explicit connections to Palestine as the Israeli war on Gaza in 2021 coincided with their major uprising. On May 29th, Colombian protestors burned the Israeli flag during a protest.
In Colombia, the uprisings have played a major role in changing the political landscape, as Gustavo Petro, a left-wing former guerilla with a pro-Palestine history, was recently elected President. But in Swaziland, where elections and political parties are still illegal, the regime continues to suppress protests one year later. Firing live rounds at activists gathered for “Sunset Rallies” and raiding activists’ homes, the monarchy has declared anyone who opposes it a “terrorist”. Because of the Israeli presence, Swazi activists have committed to Palestinian freedom. The Swaziland Solidarity Network joined a protest on July 18, 2014, Mandela Day, alongside the Palestine Solidarity Alliance and BDS SA, at the Israeli Trade Embassy. The SSN noted the killings of 170 Palestinians in Gaza in the week prior to the protest. In 2020, the Communist Party of Swaziland publicly condemned the Israeli annexation plan, writing that it
“stands in complete solidarity with the people of Palestine in their rejection of attempts by Israel... to annex the land that Israel occupies illegally in the West Bank” and calling “for the severance of all diplomatic ties between Swaziland and the state of Israel”. In 2019, CPS International Organizer Njabulo “Njefire” Dlamini organized the first ever Israeli Apartheid week solidarity activity in Swaziland in solidarity with Palestine. The CPS summarized their view of solidarity succinctly: “when we look at the current state of imperialist aggression in very key sites [like] Palestine... We see that the interests at play are not dissimilar to... sites of interference we experience in our part of Africa. The struggle is one”.
Traveling in South Africa, I’ve been lucky to meet many of the organizers of Swazi activist groups in exile. As they brace for more conflict in the anniversary period, they note with contempt Israel’s support for the monarchy. Pius Vilakati, International Secretary and Spokesperson for CPS, summarized the view well, telling me that “the regime continues to be strengthened by international support, including support from Apartheid Israel. The Swazi regime... openly support Israel in the occupation of Palestinian land... The CPS stands on the side of the Palestinian people against the occupation of their country. The Palestinian people are fighting a just struggle for the freedom of all humanity. The freedom loving people of the world have the duty to provide international solidarity to the people of Palestine.”
By Joseph Mullen