A flood of shocked, sometimes angry, sometimes despairing, often challenging, responses has followed the murder of Eswatini human rights lawyer, Thulani Maseko, last weekend. From embassies to human rights defenders in remote parts of the continent, all have paid tribute to this extraordinary man and his dedication to the task of ensuring justice and democracy for the people of his home country.
The law society of Namibia (LSN) may have encapsulated the outrage of the democratic community in Southern Africa when it angrily described the killers of Eswatini human rights lawyer, Thulani Maseko, as ‘demented enemies of justice’.
The LSN was reacting to the assassination-style murder of Maseko on the evening of 21 January. He was shot through the window of his home outside the capital of Eswatini.
Since the news broke, reaction has flooded in, from lawyers, human rights organisations, community bodies and others, all shocked and horrified that a man who stood for principled, rational argument and debate, should have been gunned down in this ‘demented’ and ‘barbaric’ way.
One of the common threads in the reaction to his killing has been a call to establish who murdered him and why, via a swift, transparent investigation. But on its own, that call is unlikely to bear fruit: elements of the government, along with the military, the police and the formal and informal security system in Eswatini, are all suspected of being complicit in some way, at least in the eyes of Maseko’s wide network of friends and allies.
That’s why organisations such as the Africa Judges and Jurists Forum (AJJF) are calling for an ‘independent’ inquiry.
AJJF noted that his killing came amid reports of growing violence against pro-democracy activists and those critical of the government in Eswatini. The AJJF said they were particularly concerned that Maseko’s murder comes in the wake of reports that the government of Eswatini had hired mercenaries to help the police and military suppress and eliminate pro-democracy activists. This concern was fuelled by Maseko’s leadership position among pro-democracy activists.
The investigation that AJJF urged would be independent, it said, based on resolutions by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights dealing with the protection of human rights defenders in Africa, and which call on States Parties to the African Charter ‘to take all necessary measures to initiate independent investigations on cases of violations of the rights of human rights defenders, so as to bring the perpetrators to account.’
In the view of AJJF, it would be in the best interests of Maseko’s family, the people of Eswatini, and even of the government, that an investigation into Maseko’s brutal killing was carried out ‘by a body and through a process that is considered to be independent of political and other influences.’
There have also been calls for more overt political action, challenging regional and continental leadership bodies to step up. For example, the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) said Maseko’s death came at a time when he, like many others in Eswatini, were dealing with ‘an oppressive and brutal political system.’
SALC went on to urge that the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) should immediately intervene to address the targeting and assault of pro-democracy activists in Eswatini and that human rights organisations, worldwide, should press their governments to ‘call out the brutality of the Eswatini regime’.
On Maseko’s philosophy and approach to the political problems of Eswatini, the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights, where Maseko had been registered as a doctoral student, recalled some telling comments.
These were made by Maseko from the dock in 2014, after he and journalist Bheki Makhubu were convicted for contempt of court and jailed for two years, an extraordinary and vindictive sentence. (The two had had the courage to criticise the then Chief Justice – who would later be removed from office in disgrace – and the judicial system in Eswatini.)
In that statement from the dock, Maseko commented on the broader question of the struggle for a constitutional monarchy in his home country. He said, ‘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.’
Then, while in prison, he wrote, ‘We have to pursue these ideals until the end of our days. In the words of the Rev Martin Luther King 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.’