EmaSwati’s own country but not own land

King Mswati -2023

EmaSwati’s own country but not own land

By Vuyisile Hlatshwayo

The more King Mswati III deprives the ordinary citizens of the important natural resource – land, the more the eSwatini monarchy betrays the trust that iNgwenyama or iNdlovukazi (King or Queen Mother) holds the land in trust for the benefit of all emaSwati. Eswatini is one country where the land rights are vested in the monarchy rather than a democratically elected government.

The eSwatini Constitution of 2005 formally recognizes a dual land tenure system, consisting of Swazi Nation Land (SNL), held by the king in trust for the Swazi nation, and the Title-Deed Land (TDL) in the private hands. The SNL covers 997348,1496ha including communal and concession land. What makes the land tenure more complex is that even land owned by Tibiyo Taka Ngwane and Tisuka Taka Ngwane, two royal rent-seeking companies, is categorised as SNL. The remainder is the 720230,4332ha TDL and 8656,6473ha Crown Land. The total eSwatini land size is 1736235,2301ha.  

However, Amnesty International (AI) established more confusion over the division of SNL and TDL in its 2018 report entitled “They don’t see us as people” Security of tenure and forced evictions in Eswatini. The country’s authorities gave AI different figures of the division of SNL and TDL. On the one hand, the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development told AI in 2017 that 75 percent was SNL and 25 percent was TDL. On the other hand, in 2018 the Surveyor General Office told AI that 57 percent was SNL, while 42 per cent was TDL and 1 percent Crown Land. According to BTI Eswatini Country Report 2022, the SNL, which represents 63% of the territory, is held by the king in trust for the nation and is allocated by chiefs to emaSwati.

In what finds echo in the eSwatini land dispossession of the colonial times, the reigning king, through Silulu Royal Holdings, his opaque landholding company, has taken away 12803,0145 hectares of land for private use in a country still occupied by up to three generations of landless people.   

Inhlase has seen the Notarial Deed of Lease between the iNgwenyama in Trust for Emaswati, which is the lessor, and Silulu Royal Holdings (Pty) Limited, the sub-lessor. There is also a Notarial Deed of Sub-Lease between Silulu Royal Holdings (Pty) Limited and Temaswati Farms (Pty) Limited signed on 20 May 2020 confirming the land seizure by the eSwatini monarchy. Out of the listed 23 farms, one of them was held by iNdlovukazi in trust for emaSwati. The legal papers were signed before attorney and conveyancer Mandla Jacob Manzini. 

The iNgwenyama in Trust for Emaswati was represented by S.V. Mhlanga. Silulu Royal Holdings was represented by its Chairman, Neal Herman Rijkenberg, who is currently Minister of Finance. Chief Mgwagwa Gamedze, who is Chief Officer at the King’s Office, represented Temaswati Farms (Pty) Limited. 

As per the lease agreement, the leased properties have been leased to the sub-lessee for a period of 99 years. It states that Silulu Royal Holdings holds shares in the Temaswati Farms (Pty) Ltd and will derive economic benefits from its holding. It also states that the properties will be used to conduct agricultural activities including but not limited to the production of maize and cattle. 

An insider disclosed that Silulu Royal Holdings rakes in about E100 000 or more in rental annually from each of the seven farms already leased to the investors. It revealed that the money is deposited to the bank account controlled by the king. Silulu Royal Holdings favoured the South African farmers because of their farming expertise over local farmers whose farming skills are said to be not up to scratch. This is the message the Minister of Agriculture, Jabulani Mabuza, the appointed king’s agent, relays to the dispossessed communities.      

Well-known liSwati historian, Prof. Hamilton Simelane attributes the plight of the landless people to the land tenure system which presents the king as the holder of the SNL in trust for the Swazi nation. He complains that this trust is a black box with no checks and balances to protect the interests of the poor. He notes that more people have been evicted from good land and in favour of private industry without compensating the poor indigenous communities. 

“Even the value derived from leasing Swazi nation land to private capital is not being shared with the dispossessed communities. This situation is compounding the conditions of poverty in the country. The land is the essential ingredient in wealth creation and capital accumulation. It follows that the evictions of poor communities from good land can only contribute to poverty and loss of livelihoods in rural communities,” he says.

The Centre for Socio-Economic Rights and Development (CSERD), a non-profit organisation representing the interests of farm dwellers and land evictees, echoes Prof Simelane’s words. It complains about the upsurge in the land rights violations in eSwatini. Its 2022 baseline study report titled Documenting Evictions of Persons on Farmlands in Eswatini states that farm evictions have adverse effects on housing, health, security, livelihoods and dignity. It also notes that land is an important resource and central to livelihood and subsistence. 

“EmaSwati use land for grazing, cultivating crops, depend on it for water, and for building materials, firewood, edible and medicinal fruits and plants, wild animals (hunting), tourism and recreational activities. The land also has deep spiritual and religious meaning; it is far more than a place of living….it is a symbol of social maturity and social dignity. African people routinely practise rituals on the land that serve as a conduit for the perpetuation of relations of interlinkage and mutual dependence between the living and the dead,” reads the report.

CSERD leader, Gavin Khumalo reveals that some of the evicted people from Nokwane in 2014 at the behest of the king now live in makeshift shacks built next to Matsapha Dumpsite in the industrial town of Matsapha. Deprived of land to grow their own food, scavenging from the dumpsite has become their source of livelihood. Although the Lutheran Church and its partners had secured land in Mphini and Endlinilembi chiefdoms for them to build their homes, they could not afford the building material. 

One of the Nokwane Farm evictees, Moi Moi Dlamini, corroborates Khumalo’s account of land evictions infringing on human rights. He recalls how a bulldozer under the watchful eye of armed police and ICT Ministry officials reduced 19 homesteads to a rubble. The families, who lost most of their belongings, were bundled into the back of a government truck which dumped them in an open space in Bethany where they slept outside in the cold and rain. 

“Life has been difficult for us after evicted from the land we had occupied for many years. I’ve lost all my sisters due to stress-related illnesses as they could not cope with landlessness and homelessness. They rented rooms in Matsapha and Mbikwakhe after the Lobamba Lomdzala chief disowned us because our eviction was in the name of the king. We had formalised our stay on the farm by paying our allegiance to the chief in line with cultural practice,” he says. 

Dlamini frowns on the exhumation and reburial of their deceased relatives in small coffins like those of children without following the proper cultural practices. They were buried in an unmarked grave at Ngwane Park Cemetery without dignity. It was the first time for them to experience burial of three to five people in one grave. Worse still, they were not called to witness the reburial of their relatives but only the police were present. 

“It’s traumatic to learn that the exhumed remains of our mother, grandfather and grandmother were to be reburied in one grave. They refused us to give them a dignified burial. Instead, they treated them like dogs as they buried them on top of each other in one grave without us,” he complains bitterly. 

The CSERD report states that people with disability also suffered the brunt of the land evictions. Four children with disabilities did not have access to the disability grant. And an adult male with disability was still struggling to find a suitable alternative accommodation. Some of his movable household items left with neighbours had since been destroyed or lost.  

Evangelical Lutheran Church Bishop Zwanini Shabalala, whose church provided assistance to the Nokwane evictees, views the land evictions as the root cause of humanitarian crisis. According to him, the land evictions have a domino-effect as it disturbs the education of children of the evicted families.

“Some school-going children end up dropping out of school. The children who want to go to school discover that the schools are far away. It also happens at a time when other students are in critical classes and they shouldn’t be disturbed. These are the challenges that the evicted children and families find themselves grappling with without a solution in sight,” he observes.

The bishop points out that land disputes exacerbate the problem of landlessness and homelessness. He observes that the evicted people often find themselves at the sharp of end of land disputes. The communities have a tendency to claim that the evictees are wrongly allocated their own ancestral land. They often encounter the problem of land evictions in the chiefdoms. They are used as political weapons to fight either boundary disputes or chieftaincy disputes in a country where succession of the deceased chiefs takes ages. 

“As a result, many end up not building their homes because of the land disputes. Others do not have the building material because they were forcibly evicted and they don’t have anything because they are poor. These land disputes create endless fear of what if we are evicted again and endure the same harrowing experience,” he says.

Bishop Shabalala says this shows the magnitude of the unresolved land problem in the country. He appeals to the lawmakers and decision-makers to speed up the process of enacting a land law to improve the land governance system in the country.

The thorny land issue has been at the heart of the eSwatini struggle for democracy since the colonial era. When King Sobhuza II reclaimed land from the colonisers under the guise that it would benefit all emaSwati, the British government and a few opposition parties led by Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC) were concerned that it was not going to be the case with the future kings, regents and their heirs. Interestingly, the suspicion at the pre-independence conference has proved grimly prophetic. Fifty-five years later, there are still hundreds of ordinary emaSwati citizens landless in the country. Sobhuza’s heir has confirmed the fears that the future kings, regents and heirs are bound to interpret differently the contentious tradition that the land is held in trust by the king for the benefit of all emSwati.

As a result, the unresolved land issue is a rallying point for the agitated democracy campaigners in eSwatini. Executive Director of the Coordinated Assembly for Non-Governmental Organisations (Cango) Thembinkosi Dlamini says the establishment of the Silulu Royal Trust has made life a living hell for emaSwati farm dwellers. He reveals that a greater part of the country was converted to individual TDL known as concession lands following the 1907 Land Proclamation without the knowledge or consent of the then lawful occupiers. 

“The actions of the overzealous Silulu Royal Trust suggests that these pacts of goodwill between the citizens and past kings are null and void and where a customary law rite of the king holding land loosely in trust for citizens is now interpreted in terms of Roman Dutch Law to suggest ownership. This is disingenuous by those who advise the King and carry out his instructions. That the King has instructed that land should be converted to commercial use for the benefit of emaSwati as a trustee of the land does not extinguish the land rights of emaSwati as established by international law and Section 19 of the 2005 constitution,” he points out, adding: “What is happening is a violation of land rights of the citizens, unfortunately the lack of independence in the judiciary means that Section 19(2)(b) (ii) a right of access to a court of law by any person who has an interest in or right over the property; of the Constitution cannot be fulfilled.”

Dlamini said the land issue is a hangover from the colonial times that cannot be solved piecemeal until the power is firmly in the hands of the Swazi people in a new democratic dispensation. He stresses the great need for a constitutional and democratically elected government to preside over matters of state policy.

President of the oldest opposition party, the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC), Sibongile Mazibuko said the land is a national asset and heritage. She slammed the absolute authority for the takeover this national asset. Land should belong to the people through a new constitutional order where its ownership should be guaranteed by the state not one person. She criticised the king for becoming a businessman competing with his subjects and using this asset as a collateral for all his personal ambitious business interests or though subsidiary companies such as Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, Tisuka Taka Ngwane and Silulu Royal Holdings and many more.
She said: “The NNLC campaign is all land back to the people which means that land should be owned by the nation through the central government. The Crown Land and Swazi National Land should never be privatised but should be used for the social and economic empowerment of the people. Private land especially farms belonging to the state-owned entities will remain so while all land obtained through nefarious means will be investigated and repossessed if found to have been illegally obtained.”

According to the NNLC leader, the restoration of the land to Swazis cannot happen under the current political system. But it can only be achieved under a new democratic order not under the dictatorship of a monarchy. Hence, the NNLC continues to struggle for the liberation and democracy to restore the citizenship, self-worth and dignity of the people through all non-violent means. 

“The NNLC is not a group of liberators but the people are. They have lost everything and have reached a stage where they have nothing more to lose. They are oppressed and exploited. They live for each day as they are landless in their own country and country of their forefathers this is enough motivation; hence they cannot fold their arms,” said President Mazibuko.

Deputy Secretary of People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), Maxwell Dlamini shared the same sentiment. He said Pudemo has always held a view that the poisonous chalice to the many problems the Swazi nation today is the curse of the King holding the land in trust of the nation. He says land is the collective heritage of the Swazi people and only the elected government should be the primary custodian of this precious national asset. In its struggle to restore the land right to the people, it has continued to mobilised emaSwati to effectively protest against land evictions.

“We have directly and/or through our auxiliary structures helped them litigate against both private and state evictions, and last but not least we have and continue to educate our people on the true Swazi land history and their legitimate claim to land. The Vuvulane issue is just but one case in point,” he points out, adding: “PUDEMO has also taken the issue of land dispossession and illegal evictions in Swaziland to international bodies that have put pressure on the Swazi state to implement certain reforms as far as land tenure is concerned. We are proud of the role we played in formation and strengthening of organisation such as “Atibuye emasisweni” which championed advocacy on land issues.”

Pudemo has conscientised the people that at the heart of the liberation struggle is the struggle for the return of the land to the native Swazi. Through our ongoing political education programmes, he says, the party continues to educate the people that the Swazi ruling elite is there to advance their interests. 

This investigation was done with the support from the Henry Nxumalo Foundation 

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