Royal Silulu’s land hoarding costing farmers

Royal Silulu’s land hoarding costing farmers

By Vuyisile Hlatshwayo                                                              

Widely touted as the genuine removal of barriers to accessing agricultural land in eSwatini, King Mswati III’s 2017 move to lease out 23 underutilised farms measuring 12 803,0145ha for agricultural activities has, however, proven not beneficial to emaSwati citizens in need of land for survival.

According to the Bertelsmann Stiftung Transformation Index entitled BTI Eswatini Country Report 2022, Swazi Nation Land (SNL), which represents 63% of the territory, is held by the king in trust for the nation. Yet, the total eSwatini land size is 1736235,2301 hectares.

Through Ingwenyama in Trust for EmaSwati held land in trust for all emaSwati, the reigning monarch has set up his own private property company called Silulu Royal Holdings (Pty) Limited to derive economic benefits from the leased properties. Registered under Certificate of Incorporation No. 2524 of 2017 on 4 October 2017, it was established for the purpose of leasing out the 23 farms for commercial agricultural activities.

Another royal sub-letting subsidiary company called Temaswati Farms (Pty) Limited was also established. It was registered under Certificate of Incorporation No. 703 of 2020 on 19 May 2020. In all the Notarial Deeds, the Ingwenyama in Trust for EmaSwati appeared as the parent company.

According to information that Inhlase Centre for Investigative Journalism (ICJI) has gleaned from the Notarial Deeds signed before Mbabane-based attorney and conveyancer, Mandla J. Manzini, the lessor, who is King Mswati himself, through his land holding company, Silulu Royal Holdings, the sub-lessor, will hold shares in the sub-lessee, Temaswati Farms (Pty) Limited and derive economic benefits for its holding. As per the lease agreement, the leased properties have been leased for a period of 99 years by the lessor to Temaswati Farms (Pty) Limited.

“The sub-lessee shall have the right, while this sub-lease remains in force, to use the land for agri-activities including, without limitation, cultivation, planting, harvesting and processing of trees, crops and pastures on the sub-let property,” reads the Notarial Deed of Sub-Lease between Silulu Royal Holdings (Pty) Ltd and Temaswati Farms (Pty) Ltd, adding: “The sub-lessee shall not sub-let or permit occupation by any third party of the sub-let property or any portion thereof without the prior written consent of the sub-lessor. The sub-lessee will be obliged to permit such third parties to continue to exercise the rights under such servitudes, provided that they comply with their respective obligations.”

When King Mswati made the vast tracts of land available for increased land use, this created an urge among indigenous farmers and investors to look for opportunities to invest more in agriculture. Given the opportunity to overcome land access challenges, many wanted to lease Silulu farms to grow their agribusinesses. The Ministry of Agriculture also never missed an opportunity to encourage local farmers and investors to take advantage of the Silulu farms which were disguised as government farms. They flocked to the ministry to make enquiries or submit farm lease applications.    

Much to their disappointment, the indigenous farmers and investors would always hit a brick wall at the ministry. As a bid to protect their jobs, the ministry officials, who feared reprisals of the superiors, sent them from pillar to post without revealing a closely guarded secret of the king’s takeover of the government farms from the ministry through Silulu Royal Holdings. This secret land takeover by Silulu Royal Holdings was to be later exposed by Inhlase in May 2021.

Inhlase has tracked down a small group of award-winning women farmers who had approached the Minister of Agriculture, Jabulani Mabuza and then Principal Secretary in the Ministry, Bongani Masuku, about leasing one of the underutilised Silulu farms in 2019. One of them, who insisted on anonymity, revealed that the reluctance of the senior public servants to grant them an audience raised lots of suspicion. It also proved a real struggle to get an appointment to present their farm lease proposal.

“As award-winning farmers of the Woman Farmer Competition organised annually by the Woman Farmer Foundation (WFF), we decided to approach Minister of Agriculture and then Principal Secretary about renting one of the idle government farms. We’d planned to divide it into plots among our top 10 winners since the competition inception. We’re in crop farming, vegetable farming, dairy farming, poultry farming and feedlotting,” she vividly recalled, adding: “Surprisingly, they turned our request down without giving us any valid reason. This wasn’t easy to accept because the minister had been encouraging us to organise ourselves and lease one government farm to grow our business.”

His about-turn on the women’s land access put paid to government’s  commitment to women’s economic advancement in a country where smallholder agriculture remains the backbone of rural livelihoods. According to the World Food Programme’s WFP Eswatini Country Brief, March 2022, over 70 percent of the country’s total population, with 60 percent of whom are women, rely on subsistence farming.  Eswatini ranked 73 out of 121 in the 2022 Global Hunger Index, which is a deterioration when compared to 69 out of 116 in 2021, with the level of hunger classified as moderate. As women are key enablers of economic independence, land is a critical resource to build people’s livelihoods. Securing land plays an integral role in empowering women in agriculture and reducing poverty.  

Several attempts by Inhlase to get comments from Minister Mabuza, who sits in the four-man Silulu Royal Holdings board as the lawful king’s agent, proved futile. Current Principal Secretary, Sydney Simelane revealed that the Ministry of Agriculture received farm lease applications and passed them on to Silulu Royal Holdings Board chair, Neal Herman Rijkenberg, the current Finance Minister responsible for processing them.  

With many youths unemployed due to the sluggish economy, agriculture has potential for job creation. About half of the country’s young people are not finding employment opportunities in the economy. The Labour Force Survey (2016) found that only 29% of the youth participate in agriculture amidst a high youth unemployment rate of 47.4%. Youth participation in agriculture can provide employment in agribusiness and help the country achieve food security through crop and livestock farming.

Interviewed young farmers singled out lack of land access as the biggest challenges faced by the youth in the agriculture sector. This is despite the fact that the king set aside 23 farms for commercial agricultural activities. All the interviewed young farmers, who preferred to remain anonymous in fear of victimisation, told Inhlase that they had approached the Ministry of Agriculture for leasing these farms thinking that government was serious about youth empowerment and unemployment reduction through agriculture. Unfortunately, they returned empty handed because government’s words do not match actions.

“Most of us are UNESWA  agriculture graduates equipped with entrepreneurship and farming skills to run farming businesses.  But our big challenge is lack of land access to start or grow our farming businesses. Our parents always try to assist by allocating us 1.5 hectares of family land which proves inadequate,” complained one young agripreneur, adding: “Imagine you’re straight from varsity; you’re then expected to afford an exorbitant farm rental. Not to mention procuring the expensive farm inputs and implements. Worst still, the unspoken political Silulu farms’ rules and beyond reach farm rentals are indeed a major stumbling block.”

When sought for comment, the two leaders of  the farmers’ apex bodies, Eswatini Federation of Cooperative Union (ESWAFCU) and Eswatini National Agricultural Union (ESNAU) chose to steer clear of what they termed politics surrounding the leasing of the Silulu farms. In fear of reprisals, they neither denied nor confirm many challenges faced by their members interested in Silulu farms.

To further his private agribusiness interests, King Mswati appointed the agriculture minister to act as his lawful agent in leasing out the 23 Silulu farms. He delegated him to consult the communities living on the 23 farms about the takeover or eviction to allow Temswati to occupy the property unhindered. Many of the affected farm occupants are adversely impacted due to loss of arable land they have been tilling for many years since the reign of King Sobhuza II.

One such example is the Shewula and Lomahasha residents utilising Nkalashane Farm R/716 in the drought-prone Lubombo region. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, this farm, measuring1567ha of which 660 hectares is arable land, is currently cultivated by the surrounding community members. However, it had been earmarked for a larger farming project brought by Temaswati Farms (Pty) Ltd. In 2019, Minister Mabuza brought the royal directive to the community stopping them from farming it to make way for Temaswati’s investor.  

With the homes scattered in the rocky place, the poverty-stricken Nkalashane community, who is now deprived of the farm arable land, face the ravages of hunger and poverty. In times of crises like the drought caused by climate change, WFP provided cash and food transfers to targeted food-insecure households to enable them to meet their basic food requirements.

One of the over 50 Nkalashane community members making use of the 660 hectares, is Nomsa Mngomezulu, the reigning woman farmer who scooped the coveted prize in the 2022 Woman Farmer of the Year Award. Undeterred by the threat of eviction hanging over her head, she has continued farming while others rolled-up their fences and abandoned the land when told to move out. Her top honours, however, have not yet swayed the minister of agriculture to convince the king to let them continue using Nkalashane Farm R/716.

The other victims of the takeover of the farms, the Ezikhotheni community members led by Bernard Nxumalo, have not taken it lying down. They have been stopped from farming on Paradys Farm consisting of 12 farms measuring a total of 2566 hectares. This one is located east of Mhlosheni in the Shiselweni region, ranked as the worst poverty-stricken region in eSwatini. Nxumalo has instituted legal action against Agriculture Minister Mabuza to stop the takeover by Temaswati Farms Ltd and investor Triomf Eswatini, a subsidiary of Triomf South Africa.

Interviewed Nxumalo described the takeover as a major setback because farming is the community’s only source of livelihood. He said they have formed Sebanelo Paradise Farmers’ Association which grows maize and other crops to feed the families, community members and sell to buyers to generate income and alleviate poverty. He added that they have invested a lot of money in a feasibility study to turn their agribusiness into a much more profitable business venture. He questioned the minister’s favouritism of foreign investors over local investors on the ground that the former is better skilled than the latter.           

In 2018, Silulu Royal Holdings clinched an agricultural investment deal with TWK Investments Ltd, a South Africa-based company. In his Managing Director’s report, André Myburgh reported that TWK was doing business with Silulu Royal Holdings in the timber and grain segments. The Silulu Royal Forestry Project, a collaboration agreement between Shiselweni Forestry Company and Royal Silulu Holdings, was developing approximately 25 000 hectares of new plantations and other agricultural farming activities in the Shiselweni region of eSwatini.

“The project will secure sustainable timber provision and will unlock further value adding opportunities for TWK. The production of maize meal and animal feed at the same site increases productivity and restricts costs,” reads Myburgh’s report on the timber and grain segments.

The takeover of the 23 farms remains cause for concern to emaSwati farmers because some of them were utilised for cattle fattening, breeding as well as research and training centres. A good example is Manyonyane Breeding Ranch Farm R/513 and Big Bend Ranch Farm 1080 in the Lubombo region. Manyonyane Breeding Ranch was utilised as a cattle breeding ranch and training centre while Big Bend Ranch was utilised for research in potato seeds, cotton, citrus and fruit tree seedlings.

Inhlase has discovered that, so far, the land grab by Silulu Royal Holdings has not made a dent in the agriculture sector. Eswatini still remains a net importer of agricultural products from neighbouring South Africa. It is still losing millions of emalangeni to South Africa as a net importer of agricultural products such as maize, fruits, vegetables, dairy and poultry.  

National Maize Corporation (NMC) chief executive officer, Mavela Vilane said eSwatini is still failing to meet its requirement of 140 000MT of its staple food, white maize, to feed the nation annually. But the local farmers are only able to produce about 127 000MT. He said the country spends close to E300m in importing maize from South Africa. He added that it also imports beans valued at about E200m.

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

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