Mzwandile (centre) and his parents at his graduation in 2007.

Swaziland: Growing up with a political activist

On 1 May 2014, opposition leader Mario Masuku (above, left) and student activist Maxwell Dlamini were arrested at a Workers’ Day rally in Swaziland and have been in prison ever since. Mario’s son, Mzwandile (above, centre), shares his story.

The first time I saw an assault rifle was on television in an American movie as a small child. I would then see one in real life shortly after at home, in the living room. These were days when the Royal Swaziland Police Force and the Army would raid our home.

We are not extraordinary. Just another family believing that a democratic Swaziland is possible, in our lifetime.

Mzwandile Masuku

During these raids we would all be confined to the living room under the barrel of some five assault rifles, while the senior officers went through every corner of our home. They would be there till the next morning. At some point these raids became so common that they no longer scared us. I remember that we would take a bath, have breakfast, get dressed and go watch cartoons in the living room until the raid was over. Later the raids stopped. But what followed was 24-hour surveillance – our phones were tapped and we all acquired human shadows.

Questioning our nationality

Participation has always been important in our family, from household chores to decision making. We learned these positive traits from our parents and, regardless0 of the hardships, I believe we turned out fairly well.

Over the years, our nationality has been questioned many times. My grandmother has been dragged to the Nhlangano Police Station and interrogated about where my father was born. For the record, this remains Hlathikhulu Government Hospital in Swaziland. We are Swazis, we love being Swazi and most things Swazi. We just hold a different view when it comes to governance and leadership.

We were confined to the living room under the barrel of some five assault rifles

Mzwandile Masuku

My father is now facing charges under the Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA) for chanting a slogan, “Viva PUDEMO, Viva!” (“Forward PUDEMO, Forward!”) during a 2014 Workers’ Day celebration. [PUDEMO is a long-standing political opposition movement. He and his co-accused have been charged with promoting a proscribed entity under the STA.]

Conditions in prison

My father is a diabetic. And he is not a young man. His continued incarceration aggravates his medical condition. We have struggled to keep him monitored and ensure that his doctor’s recommendations are adhered to. Sometimes, the prison doesn’t give him his medication because it is not in stock, but when we buy it and take it to the prison we are turned away.

There are so many restrictions and conditions in prison. I guess they are meant to break down the inmates but also to discourage our visits. When we visit my father we are made to wait, sometimes for up to an hour and a half, and then we are only allowed to see him for five minutes at most. But I have learnt to brace myself for these restrictions. It is disheartening to see prison visitors who arrive after me being allowed in while I wait my turn.

Mario Masuku and his wife, Thembi.
Mario Masuku and his wife, Thembi.

Regardless of our right to privacy of family communication, the visit is supervised by three correctional officers. One of the three takes minutes of our conversation word for word. Once, the senior officer requested that I speak slowly so the recording officer had time to take notes. I lost my cool and told him I would not do so. This angered the officer who then threatened to bar me from visiting the institution. That unfortunate argument also cut into my precious five minutes with my father.

I remind myself that I must constantly rise above this. We are not extraordinary. Just another family wanting and believing that a democratic Swaziland is possible, in our lifetime.
The prison authorities continue to deny Mario Masuku access to the specialised medical care that he needs. Mario and Maxwell Dlamini have twice been denied bail during the year since their arrest. The appeal against their denial of bail was due to be heard in the Swaziland Supreme Court on 5 May 2015, however as a result of a judicial crisis in the country, the sitting of the Supreme Court has been postponed indefinitely.