The United Nations, human rights defenders, trade unionists, law societies and media associations have condemned the killing of Swazi human rights lawyer, public intellectual and democracy advocate Thulani Maseko. African Union and SADC have been called on to hold the continent’s last absolute monarch King Mswati III’s government for the “targeted killing” of the committed defender of Swazi people’s rights.
Maseko was shot in his home on Saturday, January 21. No arrest has been made for the murder, committed by unidentified gunmen who shot through the window while Maseko was in the company of his family. The climate of repression in Eswatini has given rise to concerns that Maseko was politically assassinated.
The embattled authoritarian, King Mswati III, has threatened “demonic elements” causing disharmony in the kingdom with elimination. Eswatini police has also marshalled a regime of extra-judicial incarceration and assassination of citizens calling for electoral reforms to democratically limit the powers of the monarch.
Maseko was at the forefront of the ongoing democratisation campaign. He was in prison between 13 March 2014 to 30 June 2015, convicted of contempt of court along with journalist Bheki Makhubu. The two had reportedly criticised the judiciary’s lack of independence. They were released after Supreme Court revoked High Court’s two year sentence as having been based on a wrongful conviction. In 2018, Maseko sued King Mswati III for changing the country’s name from Swaziland to Eswatini.
Human rights defenders in East and Southern Africa have added their voices to the growing condemnation of Maseko’s assassination. “We stand in solidarity with his family, human rights lawyers, citizens of Eswatini and the whole Southern Africa region that grieves the loss of an impeccable human being that transcended the self to offer his knowledge and experience in amplifying the distraught situation in his country, which is why, as fellow Human Rights Defenders, we must now speak for him and demand justice and accountability for his death,” human rights groups in East Africa said in a statement.
The statement was signed by Social Justice Centers and HRD Network Uganda, Women Human Rights Defenders Hub -The Hub, Africans Rising, Defenders Coalition, The African Agenda Forum, Tribeless Youth, Red Vests Movement, Protection, International Africa, Coalition For Grassroots Human Rights Defenders-Kenya, PUSSY POWER MOVEMENT, Freedom Movement Uganda, HAKI Africa, Mzalendo Halisi Foundation, Kongamano La Mapinduzi, Feminist for peace rights and justice centre, Bunge Mashinani Initiative, Grassroot Defenders Focus- Uganda, Mathare Social Justice Center, Law Society of Kenya and Social Justice Centers Working Group.
Maseko was, himself, a human rights alumnus of East Africa, havings split time between Makerere University, Uganda, and University of Pretoria, South Africa, for his LLM in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa (HRDA) in 2005 and 2006.
The East African human rights groups have called on the African Union to lead by example and hold Eswatini accountable for the killing. They are also calling Eswatini’s police commissioner to be immediately dismissed as police officers are assassinating citizens under his command. The human rights defenders have further called on African citizens and human rights defenders everywhere demand justice for Maseko through every possible legal channel.
In South Africa, the Centre for Human Rights has expressed shock at the “targeted killing.” Maseko attended the centre at the Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria for his human rights LLM, jointly with Makerere University in 2005 and 2006. The centre is one of many voices in the sub-region, including the South African Federation of Trade Unions, the Law Society of South Africa and the Media Institute of Southern Africa, demanding justice for Maseko.
“He was deeply dedicated to human rights, the rule of law, and democracy in Eswatini. He slept, breathed, ate and walked human rights. He was also a spirited and committed public intellectual, not shying away from the risk of taking public positions at odds with that of the powerful monarchy,” said the Centre for Human Rights in a statement.
“It appears that his unwavering commitment to these principles, and his leading role in the current pro-democracy protests, have cost him his life. Thulani’s shooting came as the government is embarking on intensified efforts to silence pro-democracy and human rights advocates in Eswatini. It also followed just after Majesty King Mswati III declared unreservedly that the ‘demonic elements’ perpetrating disharmony and disrespect in Eswatini will be eliminated in 2023,” the centre added.
During Maseko’s trial for contempt of court, he argued, “We deny that the call for a constitutional monarchy is a call to overthrow the monarch in Swaziland. We are calling for a system of government where democratic governance can and will co-exist with a monarchy whose powers are properly limited by law … so that nobody is above the law, but the law, is the ruler.”
Born at Luhleko, near Bhunya in Manzini, Swaziland, on 1 March 1970, Maseko distinguished himself as an organiser and intellectual. He was a founding member and respectively served as executive director and trustee of Lawyers for Human Rights (Swaziland). He was also a consultant with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).
Maseko graduated with a Bachelor of Art in Law (1994) and a Bachelor of Laws in (1997) from the University of Swaziland, a Master of Laws in Human Rights and Democracratisation in Africa (2005) from the University of Pretoria and an Master in International Legal Studies (2011) from the American University Washington College of Law. He was working on his doctoral thesis on the civic space under the Swazi monarchy at the time of his untimely death.
We have to pursue these ideals until the end of our days
Writing letters and columns from solitary confinement during his prison sentence for contempt of court, Maseko wrote, “We have to pursue these ideals until the end of our days. In the words of the Reverend Martin Luther Jr., one has to believe in something, believe in it until the end of the days.
“Not only that, we have to be a reflection of the change we want to see in the world. So, I do believe that the dignity and humanity of the people of Swaziland, across Africa and the world can only be restored with the full enjoyment of all human rights, fundamental freedoms, and civil liberties without distinction. We have to stand up for ‘Dignity and Justice for All’.
“Africa must rise up from the darkness of repression and walk forthrightly to the bright sunshine of human rights,” Maseko said. The martyred democrat was committed to the ongoing struggle until he was targeted for murder most foul. A hero of our time, his courage will continue to inspire millions of young Africans living under tyranny. It is also a reminder to SADC and AU to be decisive against unaccountable state actors at war with African citizens.