Mbabane – Working as a human rights lawyer is not for the faint of heart in Eswatini, Africa’s last absolute monarchy.
If Sibusiso Nhlabatsi is now one of the leading rights lawyers in the small southern African nation, it is in part because his friend and mentor was murdered.
Thulani Maseko was shot dead in front of his family earlier this year and no one has been arrested for the murder.
So now Nhlabatsi, 38, has taken over his mantle.
“Each day we are living in fear because you don’t know what is going to happen next,” he said.
Maseko, 52, was a political activist and fierce critic of the authorities in the landlocked kingdom, where shows of dissent are as rare as they are dangerous.
He was gunned down through the window of his home in January, after a life spent fighting state repression and representing opposition activists in court.
“He was my brother, he was my mentor,” said Nhlabatsi.
Tall and impeccably dressed in a light suit and ironed white shirt, Nhlabatsi preferred to talk away from his office and prying ears.
So, during election week in Eswatini, he met with AFP outside the capital, Mbabane, in a field strewn with cow dung.
The night Maseko was killed, Nhlabatsi was feeling tired and craving some rest.
It took several unanswered calls for him to finally pick up the phone.
“Maseko’s wife wants to contact you, it’s urgent,” he recalled the voice at the other end as saying.
He jumped in his car and drove to Maseko’s house, expecting to find him wounded but alive. Instead, he found lots of police officers.
“He was just lying there. He was no more,” he said slowly, close to tears.
Maseko had been watching football with his two sons while his wife cooked dinner when he was shot dead.
“She saw a shadow and when she looked, she realised there was a gun pointing and aiming at her husband,” he said.
“Two shots just went in and that was it.”
The killer did not run away: he walked, Nhlabatsi added.
Just hours before his murder, King Mswati III, who has ruled the country since 1986, had warned activists who defied him not to “shed tears” about “mercenaries killing them”.
Local detectives have yet to announce any breakthrough in the case.
The United Nations has called for an independent investigation.
‘Not so lucky’
At the time of his death, Maseko led a broad coalition of political and civic rights and religious groups created to foster dialogue with the king.
In 2021 Eswatini was shaken by pro-democracy protests, and dozens of people were killed in the subsequent crackdown by the security forces, triggering a political crisis.
As a senior member of a banned opposition party, Maseko also had a pending court battle with King Mswati over the monarch’s decision to rename the country, previously known as Swaziland.
“He’s a man who never called for war,” Nhlabatsi said of his friend’s pro-reform efforts.
Although Eswatini held legislative elections on Friday, they are unlikely to change the political landscape: the parliament only has an advisory role. It is the king who rules.
Monarch, who is constitutionally above the law, appoints the prime minister and the cabinet, and commands police and the army.
Two opposition lawmakers elected in the last vote in 2018 are now in jail. A third is in exile.
For those, like Nhlabatsi, who have stayed behind, it is a precarious existence.
“You just live for each day to end… so you can live the following,” he said.
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