Wednesday 31 July 2019
- Michael Schmidt, South Africa
Mandla Khoza was a tall, charming, self-deprecating man who nevertheless remained a tough and committed anarchist-communist militant – despite numerous perils – right up until his death on 26 July 2019 last week at the age of 45 in the Sthobelweni Hospital in rural Swaziland.
It was a warm autumn day with clouds flecking the sky on Wednesday 22 May 1974 when Mandla was born at Kagucuka. The landlocked hilly kingdom of Eswatini (Swaziland), shaped like a full-mouthed bite out of the eastern flank of South Africa, was at the time somnolent under the rod of a man who would turn out to be the world’s longest-ruling monarch, King Sobhuza II.
Sobhuza’s father, Dlamini IV, on ascending the throne at only 16 in 1895 had inherited a rural, deeply traditional kingdom that had just become a protectorate of the Boer’s Transvaal Republic; by 1974, Swaziland, though it had become a British protectorate following the defeat of the Boers in 1902 until independence in 1968, had fallen back under the tutelage of its more powerful, white supremacist neighbour.
The monarchy has always self-servingly believed that its “Tinkundla” system of rule via clan chiefs was preferable to modern democracy, and a hide-bound, conservative Manzini suited the war-chiefs in Pretoria: the Royal Swazi Police often collaborated with apartheid death-squads and raiders in combating ANC guerrillas using the country as an exile springboard for operations into Zululand or the Eastern Transvaal.
It was into this comprador sugarcane-growing state with its proxy actions on behalf of apartheid that Mandla was born, growing up to become a looming, raw-boned man with a ready smile deeply carving his cheeks – and a burning desire to set his people free from Africa’s last absolute monarchy, that of Sobhuza’s son, Mswati III.
By late 1996 / early 1997, the struggle for democracy in Swaziland had attracted the attention of the first serious anarchist organisation to operate in South Africa since anarchists built the first trade unions for people of colour 80 years previously, the anarcho-syndicalist Workers’ Solidarity Federation (WSF).
As a WSF activist, I travelled through the country for its journal Workers’ Solidarity, being deeply impressed by a pro-democracy general strike by 200,000 workers lead by the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), and its youth wing the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO).
There, I also met Simon Noge, the Swazi revolutionary who had been involved with the democratic-Marxist Movement for a Democracy of Content (MDC) in South Africa in the 1950s, a living link to our forgotten libertarian communist past – which the WSF was reviving – who had just been released from a Swazi prison.
Founded in 2003, the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation (ZACF) was the direct descendant of the WSF, and very soon made stronger and more direct and consistent links with PUDEMO and SWAYOCO’s exile structures in Johannesburg – the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN) – and its underground in Swaziland. There was a strong sense within the SSN that now that it was in government, the ANC (though not its COSATU union allies) had abandoned its earlier dedication to seeing in the dawn of democracy in Swaziland.
We had also encountered and befriended, via one of the ZACF’s two Soweto branches, Mandla Khoza, who for security reasons we rapidly dubbed “MK” (with tongue in cheek as it is the acronym for the ANC’s former armed wing), and his shorter, muscular sidekick, “MD”. The two friends formed the nucleus of a ZACF branch near the St Phillip’s Mission, south of Manzini in central Swaziland, making the Federation a transnational organisation.
By 2005, MD was writing for the ZACF journal Zabalaza (Struggle) on developments in Swaziland, and MK followed the next year, writing about a rather futile, small-scale hand-grenade attack campaign by a SWAYOCO that was increasingly frustrated by the deadlock between royal and democratic forces; it was a risky exercise, as those charged with the “bombings” faced the death penalty for treason.
The two Swazi friends loved the succinct, clear polemics of pint-sized Italian motor mechanic and world-traveling revolutionary anarchist Errico Malatesta, in particular his text Fra Contadini (Between Peasants), a dialogue in which a young firebrand returning from the city explains to an older peasant why anarchism makes sense, and surreptitiously distributed this and other anarchist pamphlets, journals and books throughout the benighted kingdom.
The challenges the little ZACF cell faced started, primarily, with poverty and the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has devastated Swaziland; they were continually trying to develop self-help schemes that would feed themselves and the neighbours in their community – along the lines of what the ZACF’s Phambili Motsoaledi Community Project had done in Soweto.
Mandla lived an uncomplaining Spartan life, in a corrugated iron shack with a compacted dirt floor, and vacant windows through which the wind blew across the spindly wires marking out his tiny plot; it was unforgivingly hot in summer and icy in the winter; he was trying to raise funds for a drum that could store rain-water and irrigate a little vegetable patch.
But his little cell also faced the deadly attentions of the Royal Swazi Police. In a country as small as Swaziland, it was impossible for the militants to remain unknown to the political police and intelligence agents. In October 2005, for example, ZACF member “PN” was arrested at the Swazi border on a visit to Mandla’s cell, and had to be bailed out.
By November 2006, things were building towards a head in Swaziland: PUDEMO had produced a new strategic document, the Road Map Towards a New and Democratic Swaziland, that referred to the guerrilla wars fought in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Chile, and which called for “a new and organised force for liberation that captures the imagination of the oppressed masses and inspires them to action.”
That force seemed to have emerged clandestinely in the shape of Swaziland Liberation, a nascent guerrilla formation drawn from the ranks of SWAYOCO militants, secretly trained and armed in South Africa allegedly by Young Communist League cadre (and weirdly, former RENAMO guerrillas from Mozambique), and inculcated with an iron discipline aimed at “Rush Hour,” the overthrow of the Mswati III monarchy.
The ZACF took a stance against Swaziland Liberation both because its actions were premature, adventurist, and would likely split the liberation movement at the very point it needed to be united, and because its authoritarianism saw it holding members at gunpoint against their will; this ethical stance, however, drove a wedge between the ZACF and the SSN; but in the event, Swaziland Liberation failed to achieve “Rush Hour.”
In December 2007, the ZACF, having experienced internal problems of its own because of inconsistent levels of dedication and political-tactical understanding in its members, changed from a federation of semi-autonomous collectives into a more tightly-knit unitary organisation called the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (also ZACF).
Because of the pragmatic difficulties of co-ordinating between the parent organisation in Johannesburg and the cell in St Phillips, it was decided to allow the latter to go its own way as an autonomous Swazi entity. They were not isolated in this: the Swazis had developed their own international contacts, for example, guiding visiting German anarchists through Swaziland, and had a long-standing relationship with anarcho-syndicalists of the Solidarity Federation (SolFed) in Britain.
Yet in retrospect, I feel that the move towards autonomy – which I had endorsed – amounted to somewhat of an abandonment of support by the ZACF for St Phillips. In 2009, however, the writings of MK and MD contributed towards a ZACF pamphlet, A Bitter Taste to the Sugar-cane: 10 Years of African Anarchist Writings on the Pro-Democracy Struggle in Swaziland (1996-2006), which showed how the anarchist approach to Swazi liberation had evolved and become more sophisticated with time.
Meanwhile, Mandla Khoza tended to shuttle between the Atteridgeville township outside Pretoria and the Manzini district of Swaziland, living by his wits and the aid of friends. His uncomplicated charm and firmness of character had often attracted women, but he found relationships to be a distraction from the struggle for democracy, so he stoically avoided them.
Mandla made a habit over the past decade or so since his cell’s autonomy of visiting me in Johannesburg at least once a year, and I also met less frequently with MD. They told me how that apart from themselves, the entire militant network they had built up around St Phillips had been implacably and slowly destroyed, the police cunningly opting to poison militants one by one so that they simply died of “mysterious illnesses” that could not be traced back to the authorities.
Mandla Khoza himself was increasingly subject to bouts of recurring illness; whether this meant he too had been poisoned by the police is unknown. At times he would be full of towering dynamism; months later, he would be huddled into a blanket, his chest sunken, his voice a whisper, his smile a rictus, battling to eat a thin diet of porridge supplemented by milk and vitamins.
On these occasions he spoke to me about dying and pronounced that he was totally unafraid of death, being satisfied with his life. I believed him as he was always deeply resolute in his commitment to anarchism and his struggle for his country’s liberation. He leaves a sister, Nthombenhlope – and a trans-national pro-democracy movement celebrating his life. Hamba Kahle (Go Well), Comrade MK!