It was billed as a peaceful, prodemocracy prayer, organised by the Swaziland United Democracy Front and the Swaziland Democracy Campaign. It was to take place on Saturday morning, 16 February 2013 at a Catholic Church in Manzini, the commercial capital of Swaziland, a small kingdom wedged between South Africa and Mozambique in sub-Saharan Africa.
The first paragraph of invitation to the event, under the title, 'The Call for a National Prayer Towards a People's Government', reads:
"The Leadership of the Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF), together with the Detachment of activists under the auspices of the Swaziland Democracy Campaign (SDC), is humbled to invite every Swazi to a "National Prayer For A People's Government" [sic]."
The letter continues: "As the year is still dawning, we deemed it fit to make a call to the God of the poor, down trodden and marginalized masses of our motherland to help us realize a government that will be owned and run by ourselves as a people and a nation."
The invitation goes on to describe the prayer as the launch of a campaign to usher in democracy to Swaziland. There was no mention of inciting violence in the letter. It is signed, 'Yours in the struggle for a democratic Swaziland', above the names Wandile Dludlu [PUDEMO member and SUDF coordinator] and Mary Da Silva [SUDF coordinator].
According to reports in the Times of Swaziland Sunday, a privately owned but heavily censored weekend tabloid, the meeting was a nonstarter as police arrived on the scene during formalities, just after 9 am, saying attendees had seven minutes to disperse.
The Swazi chapter of Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Swaziland), a media watchdog, arrived at the Sir John Bosco centre at 10.30 am, an hour after proceedings were meant to start, only to find an empty hall guarded by 40 police officers, many out of uniform.
A group of police was seen sitting on a log under a small tree on top of a nearby hill, in the shade of the morning heat, guns perched on their laps, chatting and smiling.
On the mountainous drive into Manzini, 35 kilometers southeast of the capital Mbabane, police were casually patrolling the outskirts, armed with guns and batons, dressed in the navy blue of the Royal Swaziland Police Force. Many looked uncomfortable holding their weapons. Many looked unable to chase a thief is the need arose.
"They don't have the authority to meet", came the response from a plain-clothed policeman guarding the Bosco centre when MISA-Swaziland asked why no meeting was taking place.
The prodemocracy gatherers had been told to go home. It wasn't made clear which law the police had invoked to disperse the crowd, and any law that was invoked would seem to clash with Section 25 (1) of the Swazi Constitution: "A person has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association."
One of the headlines in the Times Sunday on 17 February read, 'Cops stop prayer for peace'. On the front page of the Swazi Observer (a propaganda daily effectively owned by the king, ruler since 1986) on February 18 2013 reads, 'Prayer was to plan election sabotage'.
In possible explanation of the police clampdown, several of the organisers of the prodemocracy meeting are part of the Peoples United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), a banned political party.
PUDEMO members were accused of a spate of bomb attacks several years ago, and this led to recent official fear of their meetings. In the past police have invoked the Public Order Act 1963 to break up meetings and spy on meetings involving PUDEMO members and other people involved in opposition politics.
And in 2008 the Suppression of Terrorism Act was introduced, giving further power to police and politicians who wish to disallow public meetings and free association.
Amnesty International released a report in 2009, An Atmosphere of Intimidation: Counter-terrorism legislation used to silence dissent in Swaziland. The report found that the Suppression of Terrorism Act "has been successful in creating a climate of fear. All those who were vocal are quieter now because of the Act".
In attendance at the meeting last Saturday was Bishop Paul Verryn, from Johannesburg, South Africa. According to reports in the Times Sunday, Bishop Verryn was at the prodemocracy prayer representing the South African Council of Churches.
"We have been profoundly disrespected by the police that in the middle of a prayer they came in and stopped us," Times Sunday reported the Bishop as saying. "If the authorities are afraid of a simple prayer hosted by citizens of the country, then we cannot say Swaziland is a free country." Verryn said he would report the story of police intimidation back to South Africa's church leaders.
Also among the attendees was PUDEMO president Mario Masuku. PUDEMO released a statement after the police lock down, labeling the actions of authorities as "satanic". The statement, according to local media reports, describes PUDEMO's version of events, and details how police continued to harass the pro-democracy activists at Manzini's Catholic Cathedral, where the activists sought shelter after they were told to leave the Bosco centre.
"PUDEMO condemns the devilish and satanic behaviour of the Swaziland Police of invading the Manzini Roman Catholic Church (The Cathedral) in pursuit of innocent and unarmed citizens who had gathered to pray for justice, peace and democratic change in the country...
The Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF) had organised the prayer gathering at St John Bosco Hall, a facility belonging to the [Catholic Church] but we the people were refused entry and were forcefully removed from the place...
After this forceful eviction, the people found shelter at The Cathedral, hiding from the pursuing police who were dressed for war. The fully armed police entered the church premises and disturbed those gathering in prayer while refusing other to gain entry to the church."
As the Catholic Church continues its search for a new pope, it might hazard a glance in the direction of a small kingdom in southern Africa, choking under the weight of state-condoned suppression and official neglect.
The new pope might spare a few seconds to learn how HIV has wiped out generations and towns in this landlocked nation of good-humored and resilient people. The new pope might also learn how Swazi life expectancy has dropped from 60 in the 1900s to 32 in 2007. Censorship in the media is getting worse and uncertainty among Swazis grows by the day.
The Swaziland chapter of Media Institute of Southern Africa is a media watchdog that promotes freedom of speech.