‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,’ says Marcellus in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, famously. That story didn’t end so well, but at least someone knew there was a problem. Swaziland’s King Mswati III is not so self-aware – or perhaps he’s just masking the stench with the new leather in his fancy cars and private jet, and the designer fragrances worn by any of his 15 wives. – Simon Allison, Daily Maverick, 21 July 2014
Mbabane, Swaziland, January 18, 2014: Government vehicle inspector Vincent Bhantshana Gwebu was on his daily rounds, making sure that government vehicles weren’t being used by Swazi officials for unofficial purposes.
He happened to notice an empty government car parked outside of a school. After questioning its driver, Gwebu issued tickets on two charges: Using a government vehicle over the weekend and using that vehicle for non-official purposes without written authority.
Unfortunately for the civil servant, the driver happened to be in the employ of a certain high court judge who had used the car — and driver — to go to the school to purchase uniforms for her children. Before he knew it, Gwebu was summoned by police and jailed for contempt of court. His crime? Ticketing a government official who clearly enjoyed immunity from the law.
That’s when Bheki Makhubu and Thulani Maseko got involved. In February and in March, Makhubu, the editor of the Nation magazine, and Maseko, a human rights lawyer, published articles criticizing Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi for abusing his power.
In apparent retaliation, angry chief justice issued a warrant for their arrest in mid-March on charges of “scandalizing the judiciary” and “contempt of court.” The pair, deemed “a flight risk,” have been held in Mbabane’s Sidvwashini Prison ever since and have been repeatedly denied bail.
Last week, they were found guilty and will likely serve a three-year sentence and a fine.
In his ruling, High Court Judge Mpendulo Simelane issued a harsh warning to journalists, saying that judges may override Swaziland’s Constitution which provides guarantees of freedom of speech.
“No one has the right to attack a judge or the Courts under the disguise of the right of freedom of expression,” Simelane said, “because it is in the public interest that the authority and dignity of the Court is maintained.”
The United States this week expressed its deep concern over the convictions. Committee to Protect Journalists Africa Program Coordinator Sue Valentine called the conviction “an indictment of the thin-skinned Swazi judiciary that serves a monarch and denies citizens the basic right of freedom of expression.”
As for the unfortunate vehicle inspector, at the time of writing, his fate isn’t known.