“I could have died at any moment”
“One police officer came with a plastic bag and put it over my mouth and nose, and pressed very hard so that I couldn’t breathe. I could have died at any moment,” Bheki Dlamini says, looking at the camera, close to tears.
The scene is from a new documentary, Swaziland – Africa’s last absolute monarchy, made by the award-winning Danish investigative journalist Tom Heinemann.
The film describes the fight for democracy and socio-economic justice in the tiny sub-Saharan country through the eyes of Bheki Dlamini, a young activist and leading member of Swaziland’s largest banned political party, the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO).
Bheki never misbehaved as a child, his father says. He always did his chores at home. He got up at 5am, walked the 10 kilometres to school from his home in the rural town of Mpofu in northern Swaziland and studied hard to fulfil his academic promise.
In fact it was at university, while studying sociology and public administration, that Bheki, who is the President of the Swaziland Youth Congress, the youth wing of PUDEMO, really started questioning the doctrines and cultural codes of Swazi society. “University changed my perception and how I looked at society through the different and diverse views from other students and lecturers who have been out in the world,” he says.
Wearing T-shirt is terrorism
Bheki chose to act on his new-found beliefs by, among other things, helping to organise civic education for poor and illiterate people in Swaziland’s rural areas.
But Swaziland’s absolute monarch, King Mswati III, not only demands total loyalty from his citizens, most of whom survive on less than a dollar a day from handouts from the UN. He also makes sure that meetings deemed “political” are disrupted by police. They harass and beat up activists such as Bheki, many of whom are subsequently tried with terrorism for trivial “offences” such as shouting “viva PUDEMO” or wearing a PUDEMO T-shirt.
After having had his home ransacked and been detained on several occasions, Bheki was arrested in 2010, tortured, and charged with terrorism for allegedly having committed arson against an MP and a police officer, crimes that he and his colleagues said he could not have committed.
Into the bigger prison
Bheki was in prison for nearly four years. He was kept in a filthy cell, no larger than 5 by 12 metres, 24 hours a day with up to 40 other inmates. The Swazi police’s torture of the youth activist by way of “severe beatings and suffocation torture” was mentioned in Amnesty International’s 2011 Annual Report.
When the trial finally began, all charges against Bheki were quickly dropped and he was released. Bheki told the large crowd that had gathered outside the courthouse to greet him upon his release: “I am moving out of the small prison into the bigger prison.”
A few months later he was forced to flee Swaziland after the police tried to arrest him when he had given a speech on May Day.
Make or break
“In life we face challenges,” Bheki’s father says in the film. “But it is how we respond to these challenges that will either make us or break us.”
And Bheki has chosen and stood by his response, even though it has meant fleeing Swaziland to live at a secret location in exile, away from his family. Or that he will almost certainly be arrested, tortured and charged with treason if he returns home.
“No matter what they do to me, the fight continues,” he says, unflinching and looking straight into the camera. “The state is afraid, so if we can push much harder it is going to succumb to our pressure.”
Swaziland – Africa’s last absolute monarchy premièred on 20 May in Copenhagen. The documentary will be screened on Danish national television channel DR2 on 2 August. It has been submitted to several film festivals, including the Al Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival and Movies That Matter.