Who was the man at the centre of eSwatini's alleged police brutality case?

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Colani Khulekani Maseko leads the Swaziland National Students' Union in protest.
Colani Khulekani Maseko leads the Swaziland National Students' Union in protest.
Colani Khulekani Maseko/Swaziland National Student
  • Thabani Nkomonye's death has caused uproar among students in eSwatini.
  • Police action over his death has drawn criticism, after the family had to search for his body.
  • Authorities have appealed for calm as the country awaits the outcome of an inquest.  

Over the past two weeks, Thabani Nkomonye's image has appeared on banners and posters during tense protests in eSwatini. To protesting students, the 25-year-old has become the symbol of police brutality in the country. Activists have invoked his name as they call for democracy in Africa's last monarchy.

Nkomonye, though, was no activist. He loved soccer, hip-hop and the law, say his family.

"He's always loved law," said Thabile Nkomenye, sister of the slain student.

Nkomonye was in the final year of his law degree at the University of eSwatini. His degree did not offer practical training, so he shadowed his older brother, who runs his own law firm, Thabile Nkomonye told News24.

Students protest the alleged killing of a young student by police.
Supplied Colani Khulekani Maseko
Students protest the alleged killing of a young student by police.
Supplied Colani Khulekani Maseko

He'd hoped to open his own law firm one day, and create opportunities for the country's youth.

It was unlike him to go out without returning or telling his mother and sister where he was. When he failed to come home on the weekend of 7 May, his family began to panic.

Confusing encounters with police

They filed a missing person's report with police, which set off a series of confusing statements from the police department. Police told them Nkomonye's car had crossed the border into South Africa; then they said that was a typo.

"The funny thing is that they told us the car crossed the border, yet they had the car all along," said Thabile Nkomonye. "They helped us file a missing person's report and helped us look for a car, which was in their possession."

PICS | eSwatini student's death sparks protests over alleged police brutality

After their own investigation, the family got a lead that Nkomonye's Mazda sedan had been involved in an accident. The family went with police to search the accident scene - the same scene the police said they searched a few days earlier.

"When we got there, the police literally didn't do anything, they just stood there. We don't know how, or why. Us as a family started looking for him and in less than five minutes we found him."

Thabani Nkomonye
Thabani Nkomonye.

In a video statement posted on Facebook, the Royal eSwatini Police Service spokesperson Superintendent Phindile Vilikati said citizens had arrived on the accident scene and tried to help police, causing more confusion. Vilikati declined to answer questions from media outside of eSwatini.

Nkomonye's death is the subject of an state-appointed inquest led by Senior Magistrate Nonhlanhla Dlamini. The Swaziland National Union of Students have dismissed the inquest as toothless.

In the meantime, authorities in eSwatini have called for calm among student activists, after demonstrations at his memorial on 21 May turned violent. Students also marched to parliament last week, as well as the campus of the University of Limkokwing on Friday.

No time to heal

"We don't have the time to heal because everywhere we go, there's his picture," said Thabile Nkomonye. "On the papers, there's Thabani, on streets, on social media. As a family, in as much as it's support because they're trying to help us get justice, but having to relive the memories each and every day, there's no time to heal. It has not been easy."

On social media in eSwatini, the hashtag #JusticeForThabani trended, while local artists have banded together to produce a single in his honour. Nkomonye, who was also an aspiring rapper, may have welcomed the tribute.

"In one of his songs he said he wanted to raise the Swazi flag high. So I'm very sure that not only did he want to raise the flag high through his music, but through his work and his love for law," said his sister.

The News 24 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 Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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