By Nimrod Mabuza
For the people of Sikhuphe, who were moved from their land in the early 2000s to make way for a new international airport, life has become a horrible nightmare. After being promised improved lives under a new settlement scheme, many of the residents now regret that they did not negotiate better deals for themselves.
In early 2000s, when 70 homeowners in the area of Sikhuphe, in the Lubombo Region, were told that they had to move and that the area where they had built their homes would have to make way for the construction of a new international airport, they were happy in the belief that the new infrastructure would improve their standards of living.
They were promised, and they believed, that they would be built new modern homes to settle in when they moved.
Eighteen years later, their lives are a living nightmare. They are worse off than they were before their resettlement.
This is the story of the lives of the families affected by the project.
The King Mswati III International Airport, fast proving to be one magnificent white elephant, is haunted by the cries of the broken hearts of homeowners displaced at the commencement of the project 18 years ago, it can be revealed.
The multibillion Emalangeni project, built over a period of 10 years, left the affected homeowners in a worse-off position than they were.
Their resettlement left them with far less land for livestock grazing and farming. Each family was allocated 2 hectares for farming despite some of them having had more land before the settlement.
The substandard three-bedroom houses built for each family are now falling apart. The resettled homeowners were never given any financial compensation for the inconvenience of moving.
There never was any valuation of the homes set for destruction.
The decision not to give the families any financial compensation, according to an inside source, was on the orders of the country’s leadership.
It was then argued, it was disclosed, that family heads tend to squander the monetary compensation and leave the rest of family members destitute once they get the money.
Instead, the source said, it was ordered that each family should be built a house, all of the same design and size, irrespective of what they owned before.
In the same cold-hearted manner that over 100 of homeowners were displaced by the sugarcane project at Hlane in 1978 to be dumped at Mafucula and other areas, the homeowners at Sikhuphe were ousted from their land without compensation, all in the name of the king.
All they had were promises of a good and improved life in the promised land.
Eighteen years later, the homeowners feel they were duped as the promised land of milk and honey has turned out to be a living nightmare.
Since their relocation to the new village, they have been pushing for monetary compensation in addition to the substandard houses. Their lives have not improved an inch. For some, they are in a worse off situation.
“If I had known of what was to come, I would have resisted moving out of my father’s house without getting compensation. This house is nothing compared to the house that my father had built in our previous home.
“Initially, based on the promises, we were envied by others nearby who wished they were affected by the project. We were promised heaven and earth. All came to no fruition.
“We have turned into one big laughing stock,” says Frank Sibiya, who leads the Sikhuphe Village Association pursuing the community’s grievances with government, including monetary compensation.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former businesswoman whose business collapsed allegedly because of the resettlement said: “My life has been made worse. At my home, I had four dairy cows which had shelter and a milking shed. I was selling milk and emasi to the community. I had layers and raised broilers.
“I had a car which I used to run my businesses. I lost everything. The dairy cows died, one after the other during the 2015/16 drought. I could not afford to provide them with hay and water.
“One died after swallowing plastic papers because of the lack of grazing space. Cages previously used for my layers are lying idle and the shed for my broilers that government started to build at the new home was left incomplete. I am not the only one. I know of one family that lost an entire piggery project,”
Construction of the multi-billion emalangeni airport, considered widely as a vanity project, began in the 2002/03 financial year.
Homeowners around Sikhuphe had been informed in the early 2000s about the airport and that they had to give way for the project.
They were ordered not to till their land that year because of the pending resettlement and food rations were provided.
The news of an airport around the impoverished Sikhuphe area where most residents earned a living through subsistence and livestock farming was initially welcomed as a step in the right direction.
The community viewed the project as a way to improve their living standards. But little did the affected families know their lives would not improve an inch.
The airport, which opened for business in 2014, is one of three projects which were the brainchild of King Mswati III in marking the end of one millennium and the beginning of another in the year 1999/2 000.
The first one was the Mavuso Trade Centre in Manzini, followed by the airport at Sikhuphe in the Lubombo region built at a cost of about E3 billion and the International Convention Centre and Five Star Hotel that has so far swallowed up to E7 billion of taxpayers’ money and is still not complete.
The bill for the ICC&FSH is still going up. So is that of the airport.
In November last year, The Bridge, an online weekly publication reported structural defects on the ICC&DSH. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
The House of Assembly has not taken the matter lightly and has demanded a report from government.
To overseer the projects, the Millennium Project Office was created under the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development.
In its 2003 report, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) following a mission to eSwatini between September and October 2003, warned government that the millennium projects would impose a heavy burden on budget resources and prevent the country from meeting urgent social needs.
Reported the IMF; “…The government’s participation in some of the Millennium Projects – such as the new airport, international trade fair, and sports complex – threaten to crowd out budgetary resources for meeting the country’s urgent social needs and to weaken sentiment among donors.
“The authorities are urged to abide by their original intention to devolve upfront most Millennium Projects to the private sector and to ensure the economic viability of the few projects where government participation may be warranted.”
The IMF’s concerns have come true. Government has been struggling to meet some of its financial obligations.
The University of Eswatini is crumbling because of inadequate funding. In May 2022, the Auditor General, Timothy Matsebula reported that the institution was technically insolvent.
Other tertiary institutions such as William Pitcher College, Eswatini College of Technology and Ngwane College are also in the same predicament. Roads are falling apart because there are no funds to rehabilitate them.
The public health sector is crumbling because of a shortage of drugs. These are just a few examples of how government is failing to meet its obligations largely because huge chunks of money are channeled towards funding the millennium projects.
The name of King Mswati III was extensively used to convince the homeowners at Sikhuphe to give way to the project and, among the community members, the airport project was popularly referred to as “umsebenti wenkhosi – the king’s project.”
Out of respect for the king, the homeowners and their families complied with the directive to move to a new location for construction to start.
At an identified spot next to Hlane Royal Game Park, construction of 75 houses at what has been named “Sikhuphe Village” started.
Initially, 75 homes were affected by the airport, but the number increased by 28 as the families expanded and older members, mainly sons could not be accommodated in the family three-bedroom house.
The extra 28 homes are popularly referred to as “emalawini” which in siSwati refers to houses occupied by unmarried males.
The houses were a telltale sign that lives of the affected homeowners were not about to be improved and made better than what they were in their previous homes as international financiers would require.
The houses were of the same pattern and looked cheaper than the ordinary church built from congregants’ contributions.
The project was funded from local finances as international financiers would not give out money for it. Its viability had always been in doubt.
Simon Ndlovu was one of the homeowners affected by the project. When informed that he was one of those to be displaced by the project, he had hopes that his life would improve on the relocation to a new home.
He moved to Sikhuphe Village in 2009. In monetary terms, he only received a paltry E7 500. This was for the relocating of the cattle kraal.
He, like all the affected families, took possession of a three-bedroom house that looks more like an ordinary church than a residential home.
The E7 500 pay-out was made last year after protracted talks between the Millennium Office and a committee representing the affected homeowners.
To make life comfortable in the new home, the Millennium Office provided his home and all the homes with new water tanks to store and harvest water during the rainy season.
Sikhuphe is one of the areas prone to drought. As such, water is scarce and community members have to hire mobile water tankers to supply them with water. The stationery water tanks become handy.
The businesswoman who is an executive member of the Sikhuphe Village Association said her move to the village has made her life worse than what it was in her original home.
She too received a pay out of E7 500. That was drop in the ocean as she owes E10 000 to Inhlanyelo Fund established by industrial magnate, Natie Kirsh to assist financially rural people grow their businesses.
“As regards the compensation, accusations have been flying around, mainly directed at executive members of the committee representing homeowners.
“The accusations are fuelled by unfounded rumours that some members of the executive have been paid more than the rest or that the executive got the money for themselves. Sesisolana sodvwa – trust has been eroded,” she said.
She admits the affected homeowners were too soft on government officials handling the project. The name of the king may have done the trick.
Families in the same area whose homes were damaged during blasting at a nearby quarry mine opened to provide crushed stones for construction of the airport were not so compromising.
Early April, they spent about a week camping at the doorstep of the millennium project offices in Mbabane demanding compensation. Efforts by their chief to convince them to move back to their homes failed.
Government hastily paid out the compensation.
“In our case, we did not want to be seen as obstructing the king’s project. We trusted everything and look at what that trust landed us,” said Sibiya.
The families look with envy at homeowners displaced by the construction of the Maguga Dam in the early 90s.
The way the movement of the families affected by the dam was done attracted attention of other countries in the region and elsewhere, according to coordinator, the late Bishop Jameson Mncina in an earlier interview during his lifetime.
Their lives improved in a remarkable way.
Sibiya said what captured them as a community was the alleged involvement of the king in the project and the pile of promises.
“The name of the king was enough to persuade us to move without any problems. At the onset of the project, we were promised a tour of Maguga.
“We were told that ours would be far better than those of families displaced by the Maguga Dam. This was, we were told, because the airport was a project belonging to the king. These people (government officials) were so convincing, and we had no reason to doubt anything,” he said.
Sibiya said his family was amongst the first six families to move out of their homes and land in 2004 to be housed in containers.
“We were told our homes were in the way of the 1st phase of the project. As a temporary measure, we were housed in containers and temporary structures with promises that once construction of our houses was complete, we would be allocated ours.
“We stayed there until about 2009 when a big windy storm blew away the temporary structures. That is when we started questioning the resettlement process. They moved quickly to allocate us these houses at the new village,” said Sibiya.
The rest moved to the new houses in 2009. Initially, said Sibiya, it was one house for the family irrespective of the family size.
“We complained that we cannot share a house with our daughters, sons and daughters’ in-laws. It was awkward. Government responded to our grievances and built an outer house which was small in size.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former senior officer of the Ministry of economic planning confirmed that the families were not given monetary compensation but it was ordered that each family be built a three-bedroom house.
“The community did not object. If you look at it now, there is a lot that went wrong in the implementation of that project. There is need of a forensic audit to establish what went wrong,” said the former officer.
Since the projects began, the Auditor General has not conducted an audit of the projects, alleging lack of expertise in projects such as the airport.
Several attempts to get comment from the millennium projects office have not been successful.