Yesterday US soul singer Erykah Badu hit the news when it was revealed that she had performed at a private birthday party for Swaziland’s King Mswati III.
Human rights activists called on the singer to apologise for supporting “Africa’s last absolute monarch, a strongman who imprisons dissidents,” but Badu refused, saying “I can’t be held responsible for the situation in the kingdom because I signed up as an artist, not as a political activist.”
But as Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, said in an email to The Washington Post, “While Ms. Badu sang ’Happy Birthday’ to King Mswati, a human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and journalist Bheki Makhubu sat in prison, merely for questioning the independence of Swaziland’s severely compromised judicial system.”
Indeed, the continued and illegal incarceration of Maseko and Makhubu, editor of Swaziland’s The Nation magazine demonstrates the fact that the judiciary has now joined the executive in its abuse of human rights.
Despite the 2005 Constitution guaranteeing the freedom of expression, these two men are detained on the most frivolous charges – contempt of court – following articles they wrote in the February and March editions of the privately-owned socio-political magazine.
They are both currently on trial and a verdict is expected to be reached on 9 May.
Maseko and Makhubu criticised Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi for the manner in which he treated government chief vehicle inspector, Bhantshana Gwebu, when he ordered his arrest and detention in January.
Gwebu, as part of his job, had charged a High Court driver for taking a government vehicle to an unauthorised place.
Gwebu’s action infuriated Ramodibedi who ordered the arrest of the inspector for contempt of court and summarily detained him for seven days.
Following this incident, Makhubu commented in the February edition of his magazine column, Speaking My Mind, that Ramodibedi “massaged the law to suit his agenda.”
Maseko, on the other hand, described the manner in which Ramodibedi handled the arrest and detention of Gwebu as a “kangaroo process”.
As a result, Ramodibedi subjected the duo to the same treatment as Gwebu.
On 18 March, Ramodibedi ordered the detention of the duo without even giving their lawyers a chance to speak.
When the detainees applied for the removal of the arrest warrants on the basis that Ramodibedi had no power to order their detention, fellow High Court judge Justice Mumcy Dlamini sided with them.
She observed that only magistrates can issue warrants and that Ramodibedi should have dealt with the matter in an “open court.”
The pair were then released.
But in yet another turn of events, two days later they were once again arrested by police after Judge Mpendulo Simelane – who was also criticised in the article – ordered their detention for “contempt of court” on the basis that they did not attend their remand hearing.
As the court drama continues, it is clear that Swaziland has lost the only independent thing its citizens used to have – the judiciary.
An oppressive system
As Makhubu and Maseko remain behind bars, police quashed a mass demonstration by the banned Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) on 12 April: a sensitive date in Swazi history as marks the banning of political parties by King Mswati III’s father, the late King Sobhuza II, 41 years ago.
Leaders of TUCOSWA and other civil society organisations were detained and dumped in various remote areas to make it impossible for them to coordinate the march.
This is just one example of the way in which the government handles dissenters.
In Swaziland, political parties are banned. The right of workers to free assembly is violated. The media is muzzled. The list goes on.
Recently, King Mswati III renamed Swaziland’s unique political system as a “monarchical democracy” but it still has the same characteristics of the tinkhundla introduced more than four decades ago.
If anything, no matter how Africa’s last remaining absolute monarch describes his unique political system, it still remains oppressive to his subjects who are denied the right to question the way in which they are governed.
The recent arrests of Makhubu and Maseko not only expose a judiciary that has fallen on its knees.
It is also symptomatic of a political system that is well past its sell-by date.