The last time a Swazi justice minister fell so far from royal grace was in 2010, when Ndumiso Mamba was caught in bed with King Mswati’s 12th wife, Queen Mswati Nothando Dube in the Royal Villas Hotel near the capital, Mbabane.
Pictures went viral on social media of an embarrassed Mamba being extricated by royal guards from the base of the bed in which he had tried to hide. It was an undignified exit, to say the least, from the cabinet to the political wilderness via the bed-base.
This week another justice minister, Sibusiso Shongwe, made an undignified exit, with an online photo showing him being arrested at police headquarters on Monday before being fired the next day.
Details of the allegations against Shongwe have not been released, but the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) had been probing deposits of two million lilangeni into one of his law firm’s bank accounts, which he refused to explain. Shongwe has taken quite a few top jurists and officials down with him. High Court Judges Mpendulo Simelane and Jacobus Annandale, and High Court Registrar Fikile Nhlabatsi, were also arrested this week. An arrest warrant was further issued for controversial Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi but, at last sighting, he was still holed up in his house, refusing to be taken in.
Ramodibedi seems to have been charged for defeating the ends of justice or abuse of power because, on 13 April, he had dismissed in the High Court arrest and search warrants sought by the ACC against Shongwe. He did so scince he said, ‘an arrest cannot be done against His Majesty’s sitting minister without proper clearance.’
And when the police and ACC went to Ramodibedi’s house on Saturday to arrest him, Simelane, Annandale and Nhlabatsi were there too, with a court order declaring the arrest warrant against Ramodibedi null and void on the same grounds; that no clearance had been sought with the relevant authorities.
‘It is not known who the authorities are, but Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Sibusiso Shongwe has previously publicly stated that the CJ [chief justice] is answerable to no one else except His Majesty,’ reported The Swazi Observer newspaper (which is owned by the king). The police and ACC were, however, unimpressed by this invocation of the royal prerogative and so Ramodibedi ‘then elected to lock himself in his house to evade arrest,’ the report said.
Some reports suggest the charges against Ramodibedi also relate to an older case brought against him by the revenue service, which he appointed Simelane to preside over. So what’s going on in Africa’s royal theme park? At a distance, this mass rolling of judicial heads might seem like a good thing. After all, Ramodibedi is the one who instituted contempt of court charges against newspaper editor Bheki Makhubu and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko. They had publicly criticised Ramodibedi for abusing his powers in taking action against a government inspector, who had reported another judge for using an official car for private purposes.
And it was his sidekick Judge Simelane, now arrested, who convicted and sentenced Maseko and Makhubu to a draconian two years imprisonment last year on these charges. Makhubu’s family was understandably at the police headquarters to cheer when Simelane was arrested this week, according to Swazi media reports. Shongwe, meanwhile, had supported Ramodibedi in his actions against Makhubu and Maseko.
When Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini announced on Tuesday that Shongwe had been replaced as justice minister, he said he hoped his successor, Edgar Hillary, ‘will be able to restore integrity in the courts, as that is part of what is expected of him. The courts need to be trusted again.’
The courts certainly do need to be trusted again. But will they be now? And, if so, by who? Swazi observers mostly seem doubtful, believing these arrests are nothing more than the final eruptions of a ferocious old palace feud that has been bubbling subterraneously between Shongwe and his arch-rival Dlamini. Shongwe reportedly alleges that Dlamini once threatened in cabinet to kill him.
Lucky Lukhele, spokesperson of the exiled Swaziland Solidarity Network, commented this week that: ‘It is clear that Ramodibedi has now served his intended purpose of performing the regime’s dirty work within the judiciary and … the time is now ripe for him to be discarded as he has long lost the public’s confidence, especially with his personal vendetta case against Maseko and Makhubu … that brought the country’s lack of respect for human rights into sharp focus.’
Shongwe’s time was also up, Lukhele said, but ‘the crisis will continue because the problem is not the people who sit in those two positions, but rather the policies of the government that appoints them. It is a despotic government which has no respect for the rule of law…’
It has nevertheless been intriguing to try to discern the invisible hand of King Mswati in these unfolding events. He studiously ignored the furore in a birthday speech this week. Shongwe and Ramodibedi clearly believed they enjoyed his protection and desperately invoked his authority – but in vain, as it turned out.
Even Lukhele seemed to believe, before Shongwe finally got the sack, that Dlamini might have overplayed his hand by gunning for him because he was coated with royal Teflon. Former University of Swaziland lecturer, Richard Rooney, one of the closest observers of events in the kingdom, remarked in his blog after Ramodibedi had dismissed the court application for Shongwe’s arrest on 13 April, that, ‘In Swaziland, King Mswati III rules as an absolute monarch and he hand-picks all government ministers. If the court had issued an arrest warrant it would have been seen as a criticism of the King’s ability to choose suitable people for ministerial office.’
Nevertheless, Mswati did eventually allow not only Shongwe, but also Ramodibedi and the rest of their entourage, to fall – despite how that might have reflected on the wisdom of his original appointments. Like God, the king may move in ways mysterious to mere mortals. But presumably he has a purpose. That is surely not to establish a truly independent judiciary. Perhaps, though, it is to create a less personally vindictive one.
This article was first published by the Institute for Security Studies, and is republished here with their permission.