Bheki Makhubu raises freedom flag in Swaziland

After high school, Bhekitemba Makhubu’s father wanted him to study for a law degree. He refused, insisting on following in his father’s footsteps as a journalist. Now, aged 43, he doesn’t regret his choice, but besides his job as editor of the privately owned monthly magazine, The Nation, he is also studying for a law degree. On April 17, the Swaziland high court sentenced Bheki Makhubu, to two years imprisonment or a fine of US$20,000 for comments published in The Nation about the head of the country’s supreme court. On a recent visit to Cape Town he spoke to CPJ about Swaziland’s media environment, what motivates him, and the upcoming election. The interview has been edited for length.

Sue Valentine: You’ve appealed your sentence, what do you think is going to happen with your case?

Bheki Makhubu: It depends, if it goes on appeal before the end of the year, it’s not a good sign. If it goes on appeal next year around this time, it’s still not a good sign–it would mean they want to deal with me quickly and swiftly. If it goes on appeal any time after that, there’s hope. Appeals in Swaziland can take three to five years before they’re heard, so why would mine be so quick, except if there’s an intention to make a point?

SV: It’s said that your publication, The Nation, is the only place where “real journalism” is happening in Swaziland. Can you describe the media landscape?

BM: Over the last 20 years, with South Africa having democratized and the rest of the world democratizing, there’s been a lot of pressure on the Swazi government and the monarchy to change and be in step with modern ways of thinking and the media has been critical in that way. Ninety percent of journalists in Swaziland are young people who’ve embraced modern ways of thinking. But government has decided to preserve the monarchy without changing it to be in step with modern society, and so there’s been a lot of pressure on the media to take a more conservative line. What has happened is that there’s been a lot of victimization of journalists. In 1999 I was fired from my newspaper (Times of Swaziland).

There’s a TV station that is government run, there’s a radio station which is government run, there’s the Observer newspaper which is run by a trust that is controlled by the king [Mswati] directly. And then you have the Times, which is an independent newspaper, but unfortunately the Times, in the last 10 years has found it safe for business reasons to be more cooperative with government. And the reason is that back in the mid-90s the government simply pulled all advertising from the Times – about 60% of operational revenue came from government. That gave the owners a re-think on their independence.

I, on the other hand, was a journalist who was out of a job in 1999, and I was approached by guys who’d started a magazine that wasn’t taking off and they said I must help them because I had time on my hands, and I did. Which is where I’m at now.

SV: What’s the circulation of The Nation and what is its impact?

BM: Nothing much, about 25,000 copies a month [total population of Swaziland is 1.4 million], but what humbles me is how the magazine has grown with the goals I set. The impact has changed significantly. We’re not dismissed. Now people will say, “There’s an issue that’s broken in the papers, but we know they’re not telling it properly, let’s wait for the monthly magazine to tell us the real deal,” and that’s a good thing.

When I started out in the media in Swaziland, ordinary people would walk into a newsroom and say, “I’ve got a problem and I need the paper to help me.” But then, because of the [media’s] shift from ordinary people to protecting the interests of the powerful, people have stopped doing that. I thought that was sad. I’ve positioned the paper to say, if you’ve got an issue and you want it discussed because it’s unfair, or you feel powerless, or the structures of government are blocking you, I’m your man, so long as you’ve got a good story to tell. And that’s happening.

These days there’s a question I keep asking myself which will reflect in my journalism as I go along, if I don’t get into more trouble. When I hear, for instance, that the prime minister in Swaziland spent about 15 years of his life, probably more, in the United States, and when King Mswati keeps saying we should take this country to first world status–which is not surprising for someone who likes the finer things in life… My question to the prime minister and to the leadership is: If you guys went to university at some of the best universities in the world, enjoyed these freedoms that are available, why are you denying them to us? Why only you? You come back and you shut the door on us. Why? What have we done wrong?  

SV: Swaziland is due to have an election later this year, do you think it will herald any change?

BM: Someone once asked me when did I last vote and I said at high school, by a show of hands for the captain type thing. It’s a sham. If voting is an expression of opinion about where you want to take a country, then ours is not that.  If you’re a politician, every five years comes along, you need a new mandate. But if you’re a politician in Swaziland, you don’t have to fear that.

There will be a free and fair election. To what end, that’s another matter. We’re not going to see violence like you see in Kenya, because we’re not voting for leadership and control of the country.

As a country, it’s going to be a very long time before any real change happens. I’m not sure it will happen in my lifetime–the trade unions and the pressure groups have lost their sting. They’ve decided it’s better to cooperate.

SV: What sustains you? 

BM: I like being a journalist. I thoroughly enjoy it. I respect that Swazis are educated. I don’t underestimate them. I like the idea I can talk to them about issues, there’s nothing [in my newspaper] like propaganda. It gives me a sense of satisfaction.

I find myself thinking about issues of legacy. I don’t believe King Mswati is going to change; we don’t have an option to vote him out, so we’ll have to wait for him to run his course, however many years it takes. But at least, I always tell myself whenever I write, when the generation that will be there 100 years from now, when I’m not there and Mswati’s not there, and just about everybody’s not there, at least they can read what we did now and say, these guys tried. They tried to raise a flag, but it was hard. We can see it was hard. They must not say we were a bunch of ignorant fools who allowed things to happen. To me that’s become important.