By Nimrod Mabuza
Reigning women farmer of the year (2022/23), Nomsa Mngomezulu is from the impoverished drought-prone Nkalashane area under the Lomahasha chiefdom in the Lubombo region.
What is not known to many emaSwati is that the latest winner of the competition, Mngomezulu neither has land for farming nor running water for irrigation.
She farms on forbidden land.
She relies for irrigation on an earth dam which in turn is filled by seasonal rains. The land on which she is farming does not belong to her but to the Ministry of Agriculture.
At the time she won the competition, she and other farmers had been ordered off the land.
The directive was issued by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2019.
The land on which she and others utilise for farming had been earmarked for a larger farming project brought by a royal company known as Temaswati Farms under Princess Temaswati, one of King Mswati III’s daughters.
This is Farm R/716, measuring 1567 hectares of which approximately 660 hectares of arable land is currently cultivated by surrounding community members, according to records in the Ministry of Agriculture.
It is situated at Nkalashane, Lomahasha.
Mngomezulu is one of the over 50 community members making use of the 660 hectares.
Against all odds, with the threat of eviction hanging over her head, she was not deterred and continued farming while others rolled-up their fences and abandoned the land in question when told to move out.
The project earmarked on the land which the community uses for subsistence farming has since been abandoned, it has been established.
But not a word has been communicated to Mngomezulu and the landless community.
Her home is built on rocky terrain that is not ideal for farming. The farm, about 10km away from her home is the only land suitable for farming.
A white South African farmer who used it for cotton farming left it idle many years ago and the community took over to make a living from it.
The farm in question is one of over 100 farms that was controversially pooled under Silulu Royal Holdings, a royal company set up by King Mswati in 2018.
An elder of the Lomahasha chiefdom, Sivulane Mahlalela, who is also a farmer on the contentious land said the attempt to take over the land by royalty not only defy customary dictates but is also an insult to the people of Lomahasha.
“We don’t have arable land for farming since our homes are built on rocky lands. The farm was the only arable land we could use.
“With most people tilling the land having gone on orders of the Ministry of Agriculture, it is now lying idle. And as far as we culturally know, inkhosi ayinyatseli ka-Lomahasha – king is traditionally and culturally prohibited from setting foot at Lomahasha,” he fumed citing the royal interest in a piece of land at Lomahasha as against tradition.
At the establishment of Silulu Royal Holdings, two other companies were incorporated by royal command.
These were Silulu Royal Forestry, one of key players in the forestry industry largely in the Shiselweni region, and Temaswati Farms, responsible for leasing out to investors State farms under Silulu.
These companies share one address; the King’s Office at Lozitha.
Already, Temaswati Farms has taken charge of over 23 farms located in various parts of the country.
These farms are registered under the Ministry of Agriculture, Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, King’s Office and the Ngwenyama in trust of the Swazi nation and are part of the farms under Silulu Royal Holdings.
Silulu Royal Holdings has a board of four; Minister of Finance, Neal Rijkenberg is its chairperson and the other three members are; Chief Officer in the King’s Office, Chief Mgwagwa Gamedze, Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Jabulani Mabuza and Managing Director of Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, Themba Dlamini.
Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, a state-cum-royal investment company established by King Sobhuza II in 1968, is a major player in the kingdom’s economy as 60% of it is under its control.
It holds shares in all the sugar production companies and other big companies, all for the benefit of the king and royal household.
The plight of Mngomezulu is not an isolated case as thousands of emaSwati are affected by Silulu’s land grab programme.
Khakhayi Hlatjwako of Gege in the Shiselweni region is another of many emaSwati who are being deprived of their land to make way for Silulu.
Mr Hlatjwako and fellow community members are bitter because for many years they believed part of the farm under the Gege purchase area had been given to them.
“We contributed some money towards the purchase of the farm. We then approached the authorities to help us acquire the land for our homes and farming.
“A lot of papers were signed at the Ministry of Agriculture. We were told the land had been bought for our use.
“But around 2020, we were surprised when Silulu brought some people to take a portion of our land, which they use for farming. Where then are our sons and daughters going to build their homes?” asked Hlatjwako.
The land now taken over by Silulu Royal Holdings was earmarked for expansion and resettlement of younger generations who may wish to move out of their parental homes and build their own homes.
“Sibuhlungu kakhulu ngalokwentekako (We are extremely hurt by what is happening). We have been told the land belongs to the king, it has never been given to us and sadly, we have nothing to show as proof that it was given to us.
“Government claims our farmland is lying idle as we cannot sufficiently till it. But the truth of the matter is that it is government that is failing our efforts by not providing us with tractors. Government is still owing us many hours of tractor service from previous years,” added Hlatjwako.
Lomgcibelo and Thoko, both Dlamini, are sisters who were born two years apart, in 1950 and 1952 respectively.
They grew up on Portion 26 of Farm No.692 at Nokwane in the Manzini region. After the death of their parents, they took over ownership of the homestead they had always known as home all their lives.
In September 2014, heavy machinery escorted by police demolished their homes because the king had decided to use it for another project.
The family was loaded onto trucks and dumped in the wilderness. Through external help, they successfully sued government.
Bernard Nxumalo of, Ezikhotheni, Mhlosheni, and other community members have been stopped from farming on Paradys Farm consisting of 12 farms measuring a total of 2566 hectares.
Paradys Farm is located east of Mhlosheni in the Shiselweni region.
Nxumalo has opted to take the legal route to fight the takeover by Temaswati Farms.
Around 1993, a more than a handful emaSwati families were relocated without compensation after the land they had built their homes on was given to Mkhaya Game Reserve for expansion.
Their homes were on Mtindzekwa Farm, measuring approximately 1744 Hectares and the farm is under Tibiyo.
As a form of assistance to the families who had to relocate, Tibiyo only provided machinery to clear the land to build their new homes, still part of Mtindzekwa Farms, and trucks to move their household goods.
Paradys farm was handed over to Temaswati Farms on a 99-year lease agreement at a cost of E1 per year.
In turn, Temaswati Farms would lease out the farm at commercial rates to an investor who has already been found.
This has been the modus operandi in about seven farms that Silulu Royal Holdings passed over to TemaSwati Farms for lease to investors.
Minister Mabuza was delegated to sign on behalf of the king.
The cases of Ms Mngomezulu, Messrs Hlatjwako and Nxumalo and others illustrates the state of land or its distribution in the country and it has been described in other quarters as a ticking bomb that could explode anytime.
King Mswati’s large support base is in the rural areas and these are the people greatly affected by the operations of Silulu.
Human rights lawyer, Sibusiso Nhlabatsi says the issue of land is a contentious one and emphasised the need for it to be resolved.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an impeccable source within Silulu Royal Holdings disclosed that so far seven farms have been leased out to investors at an annually costs of about E100 000 or more.
He confirmed that most of the investors are foreign nationals. In some cases, they have teamed with emaSwati.
“The money for rental is paid out to a bank account held by Silulu that is controlled directly by His Majesty.
“Affairs of Silulu Royal Holdings are also controlled by His Majesty and the board reports directly to the king. The establishment of Silulu Royal Holdings was meant to commercialise land lying idle,” the source added.
Chairperson of the board who is also Minister for Finance, Rijkenberg declined to comment on the operations of Silulu and its sister companies.
On May 19, 2023, a questionnaire was sent to Rijkenberg but he would not respond.
This was not the first time the board had opted to remain silent when questioned about the affairs of Silulu.
About four years ago, The Nation sent a questionnaire to the Minister of Agriculture, Jabulani Mabuza.
Then principal secretary, Bongani Masuku directed that the questionnaire be sent to him but he never responded.
Masuku, who has retired from government, is set to bounce back as a senior manager at Silulu. He would be the first fully paid employee of the royal land company.
An employee of Montigny, a company closely linked to Minister Rijkenberg, Dr Colin Lovely, has been holding fort at the royal land company but, it was established, he gets no extra salary for services rendered at Silulu.
In handling the 23 farms under TemaSwati Farms, King Mswati gave special power of attorney to Minister Mabuza and appointed him his lawful agent to lease out the farms on behalf of the king.
The legality of the appointment or delegation of powers to Minister Mabuza has been challenged by Nxumalo and those tilling the land at Paradys Farm.
Their contention, in papers in court, is that the king’s purported delegation of power is unconstitutional. They contend that he had no powers to lease out land.
“The nett effect of this is that directing Jabulani Clement Mabuza to enter into lease contracts with Silulu Royal Holdings…in relation to the usage of the twenty-three (23) farms including Paradys Farm, His Majesty was not only acting contrary to the Constitution, in fact he sought to arrogate himself powers that he did not have as a matter of law,” argues Nxumalo.
The controversy over land in the kingdom dates back to colonial times when white settlers pushed emaSwati to land unsuitable for farming for them to take over rich arable land.
When the kingdom attained independence in September 1968, it set out to buy back the land for the resettlement of emaSwati in a move that gained British support.
Historical records show that, to buy back the land, the king imposed levies on emaSwati. The Lifa Fund, created with British assistance for the buyback programme was set up.
Around the same time, King Sobhuza II set up Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, ostensibly as an investment company for government. As operations of Tibiyo became visible, what was striking about it was that it was not accountable to emaSwati and the king had free rein over it.
Fifty years later, King Mswati who had promised, on taking over the throne to walk in the footsteps of predecessors, set up Silulu Royal Holdings in 2018, a new version of Tibiyo.
It is doing work similar to that of Tibiyo; that of accumulating capital for the monarchy.
In its own document where the lands pooled under Silulu are listed, the Ministry of Agriculture states that the government farms were for increased land use.
But in practice, the central government has no role to play on the farms. It also gets nothing from the farms.
Between 1969 and 1983, approximately 290 000 acres had been bought by the state but this land was diverted as state farm projects and agricultural estates with no benefit accruing to the ordinary liSwati.
By 1991, Tibiyo had bought back more than half of the land lined up for purchase for emaSwati at independence.
The British government reacted by cutting support for the buyback programme and Lifa Fund collapsed.
King Sobhuza, it can be highlighted, had given some of the farms bought for emaSwati to his friends and allies to run for private benefit.
It was noted: “While the amount of Swazi Nation Land had legally increased to over 50 percent of the total land surface, much of the land including that acquired through the Lifa Fund had not been reallocated for settlement under traditional tenurial control of the chief.”
Executive Director of Coordinated Assembly for Non-Governmental Organizations (CANGO), Thembinkhosi Dlamini said the establishment of Silulu Royal Holdings, with all its noble intentions, has made life hell for emaSwati settled on State owned Farms…what is happening is a violation of the citizens.
He said: “The land question is a hangover from colonial times. It cannot be resolved piecemeal until power is firmly in the hands of the Swazi people in a new democratic dispensation and a constitutional and democratically elected government is presiding over matters of state policy…”
A 2018 Amnesty International special report on eviction of emaSwati quoted a judgment of the High Court saying that the issue of land being held by iNgwenyama in trust of the Swazi nation has never been explored by the courts.
However, Dr JSM Matsebula, a historian, stated that that land held by iNgwenyama in trust for the Swazi nation does not mean the king owns the land.
He stated that it means the king holds the land for emaSwati.
This investigation was done with the support from the Henry Nxumalo Foundation