Insecure land rights may spark a revolution eSwatini

King Mswati iii

Insecure land rights may spark a revolution eSwatini

By Nimrod Mabuza

King Mswati III is by default probably the biggest land owner in eSwatini. As iNgwenyama, he holds vast land on behalf of emaSwati and now he wants to lease out the land at a fee to potential investors.

However, it’s not all smooth sailing as the lease of the land has claimed some casualties. Those set to be affected by the lease of lands have accused the king of handling the land as his private property, warning of serious repercussions.

The king’s company, Silulu Royal Holdings, is tasked with the job of leasing out to another royal company, Temaswati Farms, which in turn leases farms out to individual investors.  

Chairperson of Senabelo Farmers Association, a farmers’ organisation at Zikhotheni area in the Shiselweni Region is grappling to retain ownership or use of a farm already leased out to a company. Bernard Nxumalo says that the iNgwenyama (king) treats the land as if it is “part and parcel of his private and personal estate.”

He has challenged the lease of the farm in court. Nxumalo warned that the king may be instigating a revolt in the manner he handles the land issue. This, he adds, is likely to unprecedentedly turn the king into a dictator.

The question of whether land or property held by the iNgwenyama in trust for emaSwati belongs to the king and can use it as he wishes, not for the benefit of emaSwati, has risen again.

In 2018, Amnesty International in its special report on forced evictions in eSwatini raised the issue of land held by the iNgwenyama, stating that a judge of the High Court interviewed could not give an answer on the ownership and rights to use the land held as such a matter has never been dealt with by courts.

Historian and statesman, Dr James Shadrack Mkhulunyelwa Matsebula, writes in his book “A History of Swaziland” that land or property held by the king in trust of emaSwati is never personal or private property of the king. The property always belongs to emaSwati and can only be used for their benefit.

However, former principal secretary in the ministry of agriculture, Bongani Masuku, now retired, believes the land the king or iNgwenyama holds in trust for emaSwati is his personal property and can use it whatever way he so wishes.

Says Masuku in court papers; “The property is clearly registered in the name of the iNgwenyama… Even if the so-called royal command does exist, the iNgwenyama has authority to do as he pleases with his farm.”

The disputed land is known as Paradys Farm and the community of Zikhotheni whose homes, not by choice, are situated on rocky ground not suitable for farming have been using the farm for cultivation of their crops for many years after the farm was bought for their use. That it was bought for them is disputed by Masuku.

Nxumalo maintains in court papers that King Mswati had commanded the ministry of agriculture to buy the farm for the community.

Throughout his papers, Masuku referred the farm as government property but at some stage, he deviated and claimed the land belongs to the king. Paradys Farm although under the ministry of agriculture is part of 23 farms mostly held by the king and iNdlovukati in trust for emaSwati given to Silulu Royal Holdings to lease out to another royal company, Temaswati Farms. 

The farms are situated mainly in the Lubombo and Shiselweni region.

Nxumalo, in papers in court, claims that a royal command was issued giving the people of Zikhotheni the right to farm on Paradys Farm. King Mswati reportedly instructed the ministry of agriculture to buy the farm for the people of Zikhotheni.

A letter dated December 13, 2006, from the ministry of agriculture to Swaziland Development and Savings Banks (Swazi Bank) seems to confirm the existence of a king’s command for the purchase of the farm for the community of Zikhotheni. 

It reads; “As you are aware that the ministry has it in command from His Majesty the King to buy this farm for exclusive use by the Zikhotheni community, we are obliged to keep updating interested parties on the progress of the purchase process.” 

The letter is signed by Dumisani Mngomezulu, an employee of the ministry of agriculture.

In the letter, Mngomezulu says; “…We are of the view that once the bank wins the case in court the ministry will be given first preference to purchase the farm and comply with HMK command. Of late our attention has been drawn by farm dwellers to the constant visit to the farm by individuals purporting to be prospective buyers. Now they are getting concerned on the status of farm purchase.

The ministry therefore humbly requests for an update progress on the court case as well as the status of the farm…”

Then Swazi Bank was involved in a dispute over the farm and the matter was being dealt with by the courts. Inhlase has seen a deed of transfer showing that the farm was transferred to iNgwenyama.

Nxumalo maintains that eventually the ministry bought the farm. As a thank you, the community annually presented to the king part of their harvest.

In trying to stop the lease, Nxumalo got more than he bargained for. Masuku, arrogantly, questioned Nxumalo’s status and rights on the issue of the farm. 

Masuku hit back at Nxumalo for questioning and rushing to court trying to stop the lease; “…The question is; Does it concern the respondent who the investor was or is? Where does he derive the right to question the farm owner’s transactions with other parties? Is it even an issue which is the rightful investor the farm owner leased the property to? The respondent has gone too far and he should know his line…this is none of the respondent’s business…”

Masuku is defending an application by Nxumalo who is trying to stop the lease of the farm. There seems to be confusion over the ownership of Paradys Farm. Nxumalo submitted that the farm is held by the king.

Says Nxumalo about Masuku’s submissions on the ownership of the farm; “…Repeatedly he (Masuku) alleges the farm in question is the property of the government, the official documents reflect that Paradys Farm is registered in the name of the iNgwenyama in trust of the Swazi nation.”

A list of over 100 farms seen by Inhlase under Silulu Royal Holdings shows that Paradys Farm is held by the ministry of agriculture. But on the list of 23 farms the king set aside for lease and gave special power of attorney to then minister of agriculture, Jabulani Mabuza, Paradys Farm is held by the iNgwenyama in trust.

The over 100 farms, some owned by the king in trust of emaSwati, by Tibiyo and its sister company Tisuka Taka Ngwane and others by the King’s Office have been placed under Silulu Royal Holdings, a company owned by the king, in a bid to turn the land productive.

Silulu Royal Holdings leased out the farms at an annual fee of E1 to another royal company, Temaswati Farms which then leased out the farms at commercial rates and the money is deposited at a bank account under the control of the king.

Of the 23 farms lined up for lease, Temaswati Farms have leased out seven for 99 years to investors at an amount between E100 000 and E150 000 per annum for farming purposes.

Nxumalo lost the case at the High Court and appealed the decision of Justice Ticheme Dlamini. The matter is pending at the Supreme Court.

In his appeal, Nxumalo first gave background of the farms now held by the king and iNdlovukati in trust for emaSwati. He says these farms were given to settlers as concessions by past Swazi kings. 

Nxumalo says; “…The history of concessions and its menace to the Swazi social structure resulting in massive land shortage still revives sad memories of the injustices of the colonial past.

“Thus the Swazis were for all practical purposes pushed into unproductive mountain areas and other patches of land in various parts of the country while two thirds – the most fertile part – became concessions.”

He criticises the decision of the High Court to award judgment for the king to continue with the lease of the farm, depriving the people of Zikhotheni land for farming.

He says the “interpretation of judge on the land issue has the effect of alienating the iNgwenyama from his own people as it effectively turns him into a dictator. There is nothing in recorded history or Swazi law and custom to suggest that Swazi monarchs were ever dictators and thus it would be happening for the first time.”

He warns that depriving emaSwati the land which for so long was under colonial settlers has the potential of forcing the people to revolt against the king. Much more if the people are deprived protection of the law.

“If aggrieved individual Swazis do not have protection of the law, surely that could prompts some aggrieved and frustrated Swazis to revolt against the monarchy as an institution. The only way to avoid all this is to keep the office of the iNgwenyama out of the extremely volatile issue such as those relating to land management…” he says adding that the Land Management Board should be responsible for such issues.

Says Nxumalo; “It cannot be gainsaid that vesting of such land in the iNgwenyama in trust for the Swazi nation places the iNgwenyama in a fiduciary relationship with the members of the Swazi nation. It is not his personal property which he privately owns. By its very nature a fiduciary relationship presupposes that the trustee has a duty to take good care of trust property in the interests of the beneficiaries and to account to such beneficiaries from time to time.”

He says it is hard to fathom that land of such magnitude can be “beyond the reach of its true owners for some 99 years, which effectively translates to three successive generations. Viewed against the painful background of the colonial past, this act is probably the worst form of ill treatment ever meted out by the monarchy towards its own people. It is totally inconsistent with all known or imagined principles of humanity.”

He adds that if there is any provision in terms of Swazi customary law that allows the iNgwenyama to treat emaSwati in this manner in relation to their property, such custom is unconstitutional.

He is highly critical of the E1 a year Temaswati Farms pays out to Silulu Royal Holding as rent for each farm.

“This is morally reprehensible if one considers that generations will be deprived of their only source of livelihood for such a ridiculous rental which effectively translates to eight cents per month,” he says.

The physical address of all the role players, iNgwenyama in trust for emaSwati, Silulu Royal Holdings and Temaswati Farms is the same;  King’s Office at Lozitha.

“All pointers indicate that these projects are for the benefit of the institution of the monarchy, since Silulu is said to have been incorporated by the iNgwenyama in trust. Silulu sublets the properties to Temaswati and Silulu has shares in Temaswati,” says Nxumalo.

The contract signed by Silulu and Temaswati provides that in the event of a dispute between the two, it would be discussed and resolved privately.

This investigation was done with the support from the Henry Nxumalo Foundation for Investigative Journalism

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