Married to a jailed activist – one woman’s fight for justice in Swaziland

A little over a year ago, human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was jailed for two years after questioning the fairness of Swaziland’s judicial system. As his wife Tanele fights to clear his name, she describes what it’s like to be married to a jailed activist.

At times I can’t even sleep, to think of my husband sleeping on the floor, with no pyjamas, cold, hungry and frustrated. It calls for one to be strong. At times you try but sometimes it gets to you. The fact that you can’t cook for him, you can’t talk to him as and when you want. It’s difficult and frustrating, but it’s the price you have to pay for freedom.

It was just a normal day

When they arrested him, it was just a normal day. Then I got a text message: “They have taken me in for questioning”. I became confused. Later he called to say: “Please don’t worry, I’m at the police station but I think this is going to take a long time. Please tell my mother that I’m away – I’m hoping it won’t take more than a month.”

Thulani Maseko in 2011, with the Vera Chirwa Prize, recognising his contribution to protecting human rights in Africa. Credit: Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria
Thulani Maseko in 2011, with the Vera Chirwa Prize, recognising his contribution to protecting human rights in Africa. Credit: Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria

I couldn’t sleep, obviously. I just needed to see this man to find out exactly what was happening. At the police station, we entered a room but it had a stinking smell, it was dirty. Then Thulani came. He was smiling! “What’s wrong?” he asked me. “Everything is wrong,” I answered. “What are you doing here?” He laughed and said: “This is the struggle”.

He was calm. We spoke about the way forward for the family and his law firm. “I am not going to apply for bail,” he told me. “I am not giving in because this is my right.” He was very stubborn. I felt that he was being selfish but then I realised that this was bigger than Thulani and myself.

Treated like a first class criminal

It was difficult seeing my husband being treated like a first class criminal. The first time that I saw him in those iron chains, I got really emotional and lost it. But you can’t just let the officers enjoy what they’re doing. I contained myself, but it was very difficult. Now a year has passed and we are still alive and well and surviving.

The first time I saw him in iron chains, I lost it.

Tanele Maseko

My life has actually come to a standstill because I have to support Thulani’s cause. That is what you do if you’re married and you love someone. Obviously he didn’t bring this upon himself. He is just an honest and concerned citizen trying to do what is right. Unfortunately this society that we live in now doesn’t allow people to speak the truth.

Everything to everyone

Thulani is everything to everyone. Even besides ourselves, he helps out with his family, the extended family, and he even finances a small football club. He goes around the community teaching people about their fundamental rights and the constitution. He does a lot of work for different Swazis around Swaziland. He’s such an amazing man.

Tanele Maseko, March 2015.
Tanele Maseko, March 2015.

We have been married for seven years now – seven years and going strong. Before he was arrested, we had a number of plans. His law firm was growing well and he was also trying to build up Lawyers for Human Rights, Swaziland, an institution that he co-founded. Thulani was a human rights activist, but I didn’t mind that because I knew he was doing that for all Swazis and sacrificing his family time to help others as well.

Angels from humanity

I greatly appreciate the support of the international community. The fact that I know that there are people who are working on my husband’s case around the clock is really amazing. Thulani calls all these people “angels from humanity”. He keeps on saying to me, “I don’t care what this system will do, I know I have angels who are supporting me. I know that God has sent these angels to work on my case.” It is an honour – it really humbles us to know that the world is watching, that the world is supporting in any way whatsoever.

On 25 July 2014, Thulani Maseko, a human rights lawyer, and Bheki Makhubu, editor of Swaziland’s monthly news magazine The Nation, were sentenced to two years in prison on contempt of court charges. The charges related to two articles published in The Nation magazine in which the convicted men had raised concerns about judicial independence and integrity in Swaziland. The day after this interview was concluded, Thulani Maseko was placed in solitary confinement for three weeks as punishment for writing a letter from prison that was published.

Keep the pressure on to release Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu
Please write to the King of Swaziland to express your concern at the conviction of Thulani Maseko and Bhekithemba Makhubu on contempt of court charges after an unfair trial, and at the disproportionate sentence imposed. Call for their immediate and unconditional release as Amnesty International considers them to be prisoners of conscience.

Address: His Majesty King Mswati III, Office of the King, Lozitha Palace, PO Box 1, Kwaluseni, Swaziland