Bheki Mashile's Letter from Umjindi

Living in Barberton. The bigger picture

From a very young age I came to admire the notions of “for God and country” and of course John F Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”.

It is these two calls to patriotism that make me feel guilty whenever someone brings up the subject of my being a Swazi. You see, I am the offspring of a Swazi father, one who served as a diplomat for the kingdom, both at the United Nations and at the Embassy in Washington DC. My mother was a South African Sotho from Barberton, where my parents met and where I was born. This combination of nationalities has turned out to be both a blessing and a dilemma: I am often left feeling wracked with guilt.

You see, while the rest of my family returned to Swaziland after my father’s 10-year diplomatic posting, I remained in the States to attend varsity and subsequently work there. However, upon my return in 1996 due to my father’s death, it was not Swaziland I would return to but Barberton. As a result, over time I have faced accusations of not only abandoning Swaziland per se, but the country that gave me the opportunity to grow up and be educated in the “great” United States of America. Worse still, my American twang and assortment of general mannerisms were a clear indication that I had forgotten my roots, turned my back on my heritage.

When I wasn’t finding these comments annoying – I was asking myself the same questions! And more often than not these comments closed with, “You are a Dlamini, a Swazi, and don’t you forget that”.

Sadly, unbeknownst to my critics I never lost sight of, or appreciation of, my Swazi heritage, despite being only eight years old when I arrived in the US.

 King Mswati (left) and friend

There, we were almost always in the company of other Swazis visiting the US for business or pleasure. And my mother did everything in her power to ensure my brother and I did not become too Americanised or, better said, did not forget where we came from. She made sure that pap was not overtaken by pizza and spaghetti etc. On occasion, she went a bit too far by dressing us in shorts on our first day of school – a mistake that gave our new schoolmates the opportunity to introduce us to snowballs in a particularly painful way.

There were also the mandatory trips home every three or four years aimed at giving the foreign affairs contingent the opportunity to personally brief the king on their work and progress. However, at some stage my father pointed out that the trips were more than just holidays or required briefing sessions, they were insisted upon by then His Majesty King Sobhuza II to ensure that the family, more especially the children, did not lose touch with their Swazi heritage.

So, I have not turned my back on my Swazi heritage by choosing to settle just across the border in Barberton. Most people here – and across Mpumalanga – are Swazi, and all that comes with it: language, culture and traditions.

My having chosen to stay in Barberton on my return in 1996 had more to do with the desire to be in a bigger environment. Even had I opted to settle in the Kingdom, I most probably would eventually have followed on the heels of many fellow Swazis who’ve migrated to South Africa in search of greener pastures. And they range from professionals to illegal miners who remain fiercely loyal  not only to their motherland but to the monarchy as well, despite the notorious excesses of the current monarch, King Mswati.

This is why I refer to my being born in South Africa as a blessing. My fellow Swazis who are in South Africa without work permits must make the trek back to the Kingdom at the end of every month, due to the 30-day entry limitation by South African Immigration. Needless to say I am glad I am spared this chore.

So, heritage aside, what about my feelings on the “motherland”? Well, as a professor at varsity said, “How you feel and what role you play in the society you live in must be determined by the understanding of its social, economic and political realities”. In this context, under this monarch, the kingdom’s economic reality, especially, does not inspire much patriotism. A reality shared by the many fellow Swazis I have met who take pride in our royal heritage but feel let down by the current monarch.

When my father’s diplomatic stint ended in 1983 he was appointed Principal Secretary of Foreign Affairs. In that position, he had regular interactions with King Mswati. As he got to know the king better he would one day comment to my mom: “Under this boy, Swaziland is in trouble. All he seems to care about are the benefits of being king.” Sadly, his  observation was spot on.

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