Slain Eswatini human rights defender Thulani Maseko was a 'lone beacon of light'

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Thulani Maseko, pictured in 2018.
Thulani Maseko, pictured in 2018.
  • The eSwatini government says it "disassociates" its officials from the murder of human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko.
  • Civil society activists believe it was an assassination.
  • Uganda's Bobi Wine says Maseko was an incredible icon.

Messages of condolences have poured in from across southern Africa for the murdered human rights lawyer Thulani Rudolf Maseko, while the Eswatini government "disassociates" its officials from the killing.

Maseko was shot and killed by unknown assailants outside his home in Mbabane, Eswatini's capital, on Saturday. 

A firebrand critic of King Mswati III, Maseko was killed two weeks after the Human Rights Watch (HRW) launched its 2023 report, which highlighted Eswatini's failure to address the ongoing human rights crisis and government's crackdown on the opposition.

Many in civil society and opposition spaces believe Maseko was assassinated.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, fearing persecution, numerous sources in Eswatini told News24 that they suspected that it was a political hit.

"It was not a robbery. Everything points to silencing a harsh critic of the regime," said a civic society activist.

Maseko was head of the Swaziland Multi Stakeholder Forum, a grouping of civil society and opposition parties that met and adopted the eBundu Declaration in December last year in Mbombela, South Africa.

The declaration was to push for international isolation of the king and reaffirmed the spirit of those who died in 2022 during mass riots while calling for a boycott of this year's Tinkhundla elections.

Maseko, whom colleagues called "battle hardened", was referred to by Amnesty International (AI) as a "prisoner of conscience" for his 2014-15 jail stint for contempt of court after criticising Eswatini's judicial system.

READ | Protesting Zimbabwe health workers could face jail after new law passed

A man of many outstanding feats of bravery in Eswatini, in 2018 Maseko filed a court challenge against the king for changing the country's name from Swaziland to Eswatini.

In an interview with News24, his friend Jeffrey Smith, the founder of Vanguard Africa, a democracy thought leadership platform, said he remembered Maseko as a bible-reading family man and admirer of Nelson Mandela.

"He was a genuine son of the soil, equally proficient on the farm with his family, as he was in the courtroom where he bravely challenged the Swazi monarchy and its overreach. 

"He was a fierce proponent of democratic rights in a country in which such activities were criminalised. He could cite lengthy passages from the Bible and Nelson Mandela’s biography alike, often rooting his activism on the wisdom contained in those pages. He was a friend and a fighter, and I will miss him dearly," he said.

Zimbabwe's main opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, from the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), said Maseko was killed by cowards who had no place in Africa.

"Africa cannot be a breeding ground for murders and violence. Cowards and rogues cannot stand good men," he said.

While calling for a thorough investigation, the United States Embassy in Eswatini said: "Eswatini and the world have lost a powerful voice for non-violence and human rights."

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Maseko spent a year between 2010-11 in the US as a fellow at the Washington College of Law.

Ugandan opposition stalwart Bobi Wine called Maseko "an incredible icon".

United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of association Clément Nyaletsossi Voule said: "I strongly condemn this act. I call on government to ensure a prompt, independent and thorough investigation into his murder  and provide justice to his family."

Freedom Under Law (FUL) said Maseko "all too often was a lone beacon of light".

As a sign of honour, FUL challenged the Law Society of Eswatini to mark his date of death, 21 January, as a remembrance and rededication to the rule of law.

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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