BY BRONWEN DACHS
THE PRESIDENT of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference has asked South African President Jacob Zuma to intervene in a political crisis in Swaziland, where an antimonarchy activist has died in police custody.
Archbishop Buti Tlhagale of Johannesburg, president of the conference that includes the bishops of South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland, said he “was shocked to hear of the death in detention” of Sipho Jele, who was arrested for wearing a T-shirt for Pudemo, the People’s United Democratic Movement, during the May Day celebration in Manzini.
The archbishop said that authorities in Swaziland, southern Africa’s only absolute monarchy, “are claiming that he committed suicide” in custody, but that his family and civil society organisations dispute this.
Pudemo was banned as a terrorist group in Swaziland in 2008.
Archbishop Tlhagale said said “state repression in Swaziland has increased” since the constitution that became law in 2006 “maintained and strengthened the status quo and disregarded any input that came from civil society organisations”.
No opposition to King Mswati III is allowed in Swaziland, where two-thirds of the population of about one million people live in chronic poverty, according to the United Nations.
“There has been an influx of activists from Swaziland seeking refuge in South Africa this year,” Archbishop Tlhagale said.
“I have written to President Zuma to ask the South African government to take part in normalising the situation before it resembles what happened in Zimbabwe,” he said.
Zimbabwe was in political and economic crisis under Robert Mugabe, who allowed no opposition and has not yet recovered under its unity government, formed early in 2009.
“I have asked President Zuma to consider a mediating role to facilitate a climate of dialogue among all stakeholders in Swaziland,” the Archbishop said, noting that the bishops of southern Africa “support the call by our brother, Bishop Louis Ncamiso Ndlovu of Manzini, Swaziland, for the creation of a climate of dialogue between all parties concerned, including the Swazi government”.
“We also support and endorse his [Bishop Ndlovu’s] call for an independent body to be put in place to hold the inquest into the cause of death of Sipho Jele,” he said.
Amnesty International said there was “independent medical corroboration” that Jele had been tortured in 2005.