Twala’s Library: How a Small One-Room Lending Library Became a Symbol of Political Resistance in Eswatini

Joel Cabrita. Photo by L.A. Cicero / Stanford News Service. Book image courtesy of Ohio University Press.
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On a busy thoroughfare in Kwaluseni – a town on the outskirt’s of Manzini, Eswatini’s business capital – stands a ruined one-room structure. The roof is collapsed in and bricks are strewn across its concrete floor. Faded red letters on the side of the room read “Prince Mfanyana Memorial Library”. Traffic and pedestrians pass by constantly – this is one of the busiest roads in the area – but none take note of this building and certain no one knows its fraught history. Who founded this one-room library? Who was Prince Mfanyana? And why is this library now a desolate ruin, standing vacant and ignored?

My biography of Regina Gelana Twala – Written Out: The Silencing of Regina Gelana Twala (Ohio and Wits University Presses, 2023) sets out to answer these and other mysteries. I discovered that the library had been founded in 1960, by a woman called Regina Gelana Twala.  Twala was one of the most significant African women of the twentieth century. She was a prominent political activist in both apartheid-era South Africa as well as colonial Eswatini, co-founding Eswatini’s first political party in 1960. She was also a social worker, scholar, and literary icon. She authored as many as five different book manuscripts and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles.

Yet Twala’s name today is totally unknown, a fate reflected in the ruined library she founded nearly sixty-five years ago. Other than her immediate family, people in both South Africa and Eswatini have never heard of Twala. My biography of Twala argues that her erasure is neither accidental nor can be attributed to the natural attrition of memory over time. Rather, the forgetting of a woman like Regina Twala – and the neglect of the library that she founded – was a deliberate, active process. Her erasure was created and sustained by figures in power whose views and politics she opposed. Conservative politicians in South Africa and Eswatini, literary and academic gatekeepers, and men who disliked her progressive views on gender – all conspired to block Twala during her lifetime and subsequently ensured that her name would be forgotten after her death.

In the late 1950s, Twala had begun fundraising to build a library in Kwaluseni, her own hometown and an area where many of the politically active intelligentsia of the country lived. At this point, Eswatini had not a single dedicated library for Black readers. Twala was committed to improving the lives of her fellow community members and she saw founding a library as an important way to achieve that goal. Moreover, as part of her lifelong commitment to Black independence, Twala believed in the emancipatory power of literacy and reading. She held that an educated Swati population would be better placed to free themselves from British colonial rule.

Perhaps most importantly, Twala was also well connected. Twala was a close personal friend of Eswatini’s hereditary traditional ruler, Paramount Chief Sobhuza II. She was one of Eswatini’s most educated figures (Twala had been only the second Black woman to graduate from the prestigious University of the Witwatersrand) as well as a renowned writer and a trained anthropologist. Sobhuza took a particular interest in the accomplished and talented Twala, part of his broader strategy of co-opting the country’s educated middle classes in his ongoing fight against British rule.

Support from Sobhuza and the Swazi National Council that made up his circle of advisors (combined with a fundraising campaign aimed at the general public) meant that by 1960 Twala had raised enough money to launch a small one-room library. Twala was given a structure that had formerly been a post office, and she named the new library “Prince Mfanyana Memorial Library” (celebrating Abner Mfanyana Dlamini, a member of the Swati royal family and an educated teacher who had recently passed away). She stocked the library with books particularly aimed at female readers (books on embroidery, cooking, knitting, mothercraft were all included) and also planned to use the venue as a night school for those who had been unable to complete their formal education. Initially, the public warmly applauded her initiative, with Eswatini’s two newspapers respectively labelling her work “valiant” and “important”.

Yet within just a few years, Twala’s library was shuttered and out of use. By 1966, it had fallen into such disrepair that The Times of Swaziland disdainfully called it a “slum” and angry letters to the newspaper blamed Twala for disrespecting the memory of Prince Mfanyana in letting the library named in his memory fall into this terrible state. Yet the reason for the library’s decline lay not with Twala, but with the monarchy and with Sobhuza himself. Claiming there was no money to support the library further, Sobhuza had withdrawn all financial support for the project. Shortly afterwards, Twala would be diagnosed with cancer, and in 1968 – only one month before Eswatini gained independence from Britain – she would die, at the tragically early age of 60.

To understand Sobhuza’s change of heart, we need to consider that the library was not the only institution Twala founded in 1960. In this same year she had partnered with a number of leading political figures in Eswatini (the journalist John J. Nquku and the lawyer Ambrose Zwane, amongst others) to found the country’s first political party, the Swaziland Progressive Party (SPP). The SPP sought independence for Eswatini from Britain. But it also aimed to limit the powers of the traditional monarchy after independence. SPP figures argued that Sobhuza’s role should be akin to that of a constitutional monarch rather than an absolute dictator.

Sobhuza emphatically denounced the SPP, arguing that Western-style democracy was “un-Swazi”. Undeterred, Twala ran against Sobhuza’s party in the country’s elections of 1964, and she used her journalistic work to boldly call out the excesses of the traditionalist monarchy. Metamorphosing from trusted ally to outspoken opponent, Twala was now persona non grata in royalist circles. Twala’s goal of uplifting the Swati people via education was read as deeply subversive; education for all could also be interpreted as a not-so-subtle threat to the monarchy’s total ownership of the political process. Sobhuza and the Swazi National Council now viewed her small Kwaluseni library as a symbol of defiance, and correspondingly decided to withdraw funding from the project.

Over the last sixty years, the Swati monarchy’s hegemonic control has become – if anything – even more absolute. Political parties like the SPP have been banned by the monarchy since 1973.  Sobhuza’s heir and the current monarch, Mswati III, has ruthlessly crushed all political opposition, most recently authorizing the army to violent repress popular protests in 2021. Just a month or so ago, a leading human rights lawyer and critic of the government was assassinated in his own home, as he watched TV with his children.

Armed with the rich and multi-layered history of Twala’s one-room library, we can approach the ruined structure with new eyes. Its peeling paint, dilapidated roof, and crumbling walls now tell us a new story: they testify to the bravery of a woman who tried to withstand the absolute power of a traditionalist monarch, and they bear witness to her defeat by these all-too powerful forces. Yet the fact that this building still stands is a small sign of hope. Twala’s library may yet one day be rebuilt – and its promise of uplifting ordinary emaSwati via education might still be realized.

Joel Cabrita (@JoelMCabrita) is Associate Professor of African History at Stanford University as well as a Senior Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg.

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