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A heart that never dies: Swaziland’s democratic struggle

Africa
Swaziland
13.07.15-Bheki-Swaziland-2-590x393.jpg

Bheki Dlamini, activist and member of Swaziland’s largest banned political party, the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO). by A Heart That Never Dies

‘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,’ says Bheki Dlamini, looking at the camera, close to tears.

The scene is from a new documentary, ‘Swaziland – Africa’s last absolute monarchy’, made by award-winning Danish investigative journalist Tom Heinemann.

The film describes the fight for democracy and socio-economic justice in the tiny sub-Saharan country, located in the continent’s southeast, 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).

Never misbehaved

Bheki never misbehaved as a child, his father says. He always did his chores at home. He got up at 5 in the morning and walked 10 kilometres to school from his home in the rural town of Mpofu in northern Swaziland. He studied hard to fulfil his academic promise.

In fact, it was at university, while studying Sociology and Public Administration, that Bheki really started questioning the doctrines and cultural codes of Swazi society. The different views of students and lecturers had an impact. ‘University changed my perception and how I looked on society,’ he says.

Wearing a t-shirt is terrorism

Bheki chose to act on his new-found beliefs by, amongst other actions, helping organize 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 – but he also makes sure that meetings he deems ‘political’ are disrupted by police, who harass and beat up activists like Bheki. Many of them are subsequently charged 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 committing 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 4 years. He was kept in a filthy cell, no larger than 5 by 12 metres, 24 hours a day and with up to 40 other inmates.

When the trial finally began, all charges against Bheki were quickly dropped and he was released. But as 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, when the police tried to arrest him after 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.’

Bheki has chosen and stood by his response, even though it means he has had to flee Swaziland to live at a secret location in exile, away from his family. 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.’

The documentary A Heart that Never Dies 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.

Tom Heinemann has won the Danish Outstanding Investigative Journalist of the Year award twice, and has been runner-up for Journalist of the Year in Denmark 3 times. In 2007 he won the Prix Italia in the current affairs selection.

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