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Swaziland remains one of the last countries within the SADC region to retain a non-democratic political system. In fact, tradition abounds within the secretive realms of the royal heads of state – along with repression, rural conflict, looting of pubic resources and growing discontent with the current system. Prospects for change are plausible if the local trade unions and pro-democracy movements can build a strong following and challenge the tightly woven neo-traditional domination of the ruling elites. (dkc)

vol 13 no 3

Royals and rurals: Impasse in Swaziland
our Swaziland correspondent

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 13 No 3, May 1998
Page 19



It would be easy to see Swaziland as "quaint" since public life there is awash with tradition. People are identified by their traditional status: there seem to be as many Princes as in Saudi and there are a few hundred Chiefs amongst a population of only a million. Any directory is full of people who give their surname as Dlamini, to show they belong to the royal clan. Men will routinely sport the printed cloth, which constitutes traditional dress, over one shoulder at meetings and in the office and not just on the big occasions. There are in fact major ceremonial occasions at certain times of the year, most presided over by the monarch, a practice which, as elsewhere, serves to reinforce the legitimacy of the traditional system. And yet the actual substance of this system is by no means merely quaint. The essential nature of this traditional system is that of a hidden second government which shadows the Cabinet and Legislature. Comprised of a Swazi National Council and other bodies set up by the King to "advise" him, the composition of this second government is not publicly known and makes decisions in what manner who can tell.


Some observers have always seen this system and the persistence of the monarchy as epitomizing a positive contribution made by "tradition." They claim, with some accuracy, that the institution of the monarchy and the "statesmanship" of the old King, Sobhuza, over much of this century helped to ensure the continuity and indigenous character of a way of life and to preserve Swaziland's statehood in the teeth of apartheid South Africa. Who would deny the significance of the fact that the country remained independent, and although even less ready to cross South Africa than other states in the Southern African Customs Union, Swaziland did in the past turn an occasional blind eye to ANC activities in the country. And it did provide a haven for a large number of refugees from the war in Mozambique - even though it now tends to blame Mozambicans for all the crime and other ills of the country.

True, as noted, some aspects of the traditional system are quaint to the point of comic opera. For instance, in the last few months and faced with the forthcoming climatic threat from el niño, public debate has revolved around the issue of whether prayer to god or reliance on the noted rain-making powers of the King would provide the best counter-measure. One senior official involved in forums looking at constitutional change took the latter view. Meanwhile other officials can be found bending over backwards in the press to justify such "traditions" as the ceremony in which maidens dance in their thousands before the King, who then has his choice of additional wives from amongst them. (Just as surreal but more overtly political was the recent claim by an ex-prime Minister that the Maputo province of Mozambique belongs to Swaziland!)

As noted, however, it would be a mistake to see the system as a whole as mere comic opera. As many Swazi radicals have come to feel, the semi-mystical references back to a supposed set of beliefs and practices that are quintessentially Swazi - invocation of "Swazi law and custom" being the common currency of official political discourse from the traditional wing of the government - serve as an all-purpose justification, or smoke screen, for activities deeply at odds with the interests of most Swazi people. Moreover, the dual structure of government and the influence of unnamed appointees makes for ineffectiveness and even more delays than under a normal bureaucratic system. Grinding slowly, this structure thus serves as an effective instrument in limiting power and, as we shall see, in keeping resources in the hands of a few. It successfully obfuscates decisions, and makes responsibility for blame all the harder to pin down. It inhibits any modernization of land tenure into conventional capitalist forms of property rights, thereby maintaining the sole basis for the local power and (shaky) legitimacy of chiefs who in turn prop up the whole monarchical system.

Under this cloak there also occurs a great deal of well-mannered repression. A crucial moment came in 1973 when the constitutional niceties inherited from the Westminster model - a structure that did provide for political parties (one of which was quite progressive) and some basic human rights, and for the exercise of quite circumscribed "constitutional" powers by the monarchy - were swept aside by a royal edict. In the years since the coup from the palace, no political parties have been allowed, and the activities of human rights and other local associations of a possible `civil society' are circumscribed. Trade unions are legal but have only limited freedoms to operate.

Land and loot

Perhaps the most crucial thing to understand about this system is that, at its core, there lies a formalized structure whereby power-holders systematically loot public resources. Since the middle of the century funds - from public subscription and from levies on migrant labourers (funnelled into a royal investment fund, Tibiyo Takangwane) and from the exchequer and even from the UK Government - have been used to buy back a sizable chunk of the farms that were alienated to white settlers at the turn of the century. Much of this acquired land is assigned a legal status under a mythical formula whereby it is held by the King "in trust for the Swazi nation" This formula in turn is designed to legitimate the fact that such holdings are run as a business or joint venture with foreign capital by the royal investment company, Tibiyo (for short), mentioned above. True, some of the farms acquired by Tibiyo or by the government have been used so that Swazi peasants and former farm labourers could benefit from some resettlement, but these programmes came to an end in the late 1980s. And other land is held as state ranches, which are also made available for use by livestock from the peasant areas.

But great swathes of land are also given over to plantations of sugar, citrus and other crops under irrigation, or to timber forests which are off-limits to local people and their cattle, or vast commercial ranches, for cattle or game. These provide a large part of the export earnings and of GDP. And yet the royal company, Tibiyo, is not liable for tax and it does not have to publish accounts. Through this part of the hidden government system there is, in effect, a massive comprador economy with parallels to Banda's holding company in Malawi, or even to the cruder pillage of public assets by Mobutu in Zaire: with the exception that the royal insignia and the traditional trappings give this extortionate system a legitimacy that these ex-rulers never had.

The remaining rural areas, where Swazi small-holder families have continued to eke out an existence, have been termed "Swazi National Land." These were administered in ways similar to those in the "reserves" of the former bantustans of South Africa. They amounted to about a third of all land at the beginning of the century, and as a result of previous acquisition of land from commercial farms now make up over 50%. The pattern of land use divides these communal areas into extensive grazing areas to which there is open access for the livestock of all members of the community, and areas for fields and dwellings for the individual homesteads. Local chiefs claim to administer this land "in trust," but also demand all heads of homesteads in their communities to swear allegiance to them, so that the people as well as the land in some sense "belong" to them.

This has not constituted a fully-fledged "feudal" system, however: as far as the people are concerned this form of allegiance (khonta) amounts to a kind of local citizenship - even though there are still some remnants of an obligation to provide labour to the chief which are occasionally invoked to promote public works or personal aggrandizement. Moreover, as far as land is concerned, the chiefs do not really "own" it and cannot dispose of it freely. And yet they do claim power over access to it, by "granting" fields and residential sites for new homesteads, and access to grazing land (this, in theory, being limited to those who are members of the community by virtue of their having sworn allegiance).

Rural tensions

Times are changing, however. The pattern of power over access to land and the social control which could be, and in the past were, associated with it has in practice become much more limited. In part this is because, with a rapidly growing population and no internal open frontiers, there is a severe shortage of spare arable land for chiefs to allocate as "new" homesteads. There is only a small minority of rural families, perhaps 10% or less, that are, strictly speaking, "landless." Nonetheless, the next generation of farmers - many of whom are women no longer tied to some male migrant labourer - increasingly turn to their parents or extended family to carve out a plot from the existing family holding for them. As one result, this means that they do not directly owe the chief an obligation for granting them land (even though they remain identified as a member of that particular chief's community). Equally importantly, because of their reliance on their families for land, increasing proportions have only tiny plots or are forced to delay marriage and a family or are resource poor in some other respects. Thus, in many communities 30 - 40% of households have no cattle - cattle being not only a source of respect in the local culture, but also, more practically, being vital as ploughing oxen and as an additional source of food and income.

The shortage of land also leads many people to look for space for new homesteads outside their own chiefdom by seeking to khonta to a chief elsewhere and, for a consideration, get land from him. The chief has an incentive to grant land to incomers in this way even if there is a land shortage as it is the only means by which he can translate his partial control of land into a return in cash or kind. But in doing so he also worsens the land shortage and fuels conflict over land. Chiefly authority should also, in theory, extend to the communal grazing areas and thus make possible some environmentally sustainable regulation of the pasture, but in practice chiefs do not exercise much control and there is a tendency for degradation. It is true, however, that this problem is generally over-stated by professional environmentalists and the chiefly and bureaucratic establishments who are happy to blame the victims for problems that are rooted in the much broader system of inequality in land ownership between the peasants in the Swazi National Land and the large commercial holdings.

The chiefly influence over land has also in the past limited the evolution or legislation of capitalist property relations and a free market in land and dampened down major differentiation in land holding within the SNL area, although sharp differences in other productive resources and in off-farm income do exist. However, as land shortages grow and money by those with other sources of income is ploughed back into developments such as small-scale irrigation, differences are on the increase as are transitional phenomena like leasing of land. At the same time, the scramble for land as a welfare stake for the poor and young (for they will seek to get income from a range of labouring and petty trading activities not just from farming), or as the basis for accumulation by the better-off, leads to conflict over access, flames that are fanned by the chiefs often allocating land at their own whim, as we have seen. In sum, the necessary "rationalization" of land access along any democratic lines that would involve genuine peasant control over the process is likely to be resisted by chiefs and the monarchical system, but so too is any shift to individual, classical capitalist property rights. The result? There is political tinder aplenty in the rural areas, with growing discontent and local incidents that have led to killings in recent months.

Resistance and democracy?

It is true that such quasi-political developments in the rural areas seem unlikely to be articulated politically with more urban based demands for reform in the near future - even though such an alliance of forces may well hold the key to longer-term reform. Nonetheless, pressures from opposition forces in the broader system, plus the atomized disorder we have seen to be brewing in the countryside (in which the chiefly structure is recognized as part of the problem), have led to calls even in "traditional" Swaziland for a more representative and answerable political system. Most importantly, there is a vigorous section of civil society, especially the trade unions, along with human rights and other groups, that is in the fore-front of the campaigning around such issues. In the Swazi National Land areas, there is, as noted, little organized protest politics, but grumbling about chiefs and the corruption of the system of land allocation can be heard, and simmering local disputes provoked by this situation do boil over into open and violent conflict between supporters of different chiefs and the like.

Still, the hierarchy as a whole seemingly has no real idea as to how to resolve the growing irritations, frictions and confusions that the dual system of government is giving rise to. Even those who are part of the traditional system and yet see some of the irrationalities of the chiefly and monarchical system clearly enough to join in calls for change and reform are prepared to go only so far. Such "modernizing" elites recognize that their own power and influence is so woven into the fabric of neo-traditional domination that any half-way meaningful reform may merely open the way to struggles for deeper changes they could not hope easily to control.

There is, of course, some external pressure on Swaziland as well, as part of the post-Cold War agenda of "democratization." Perhaps even more influential have been the strongly worded statements from South Africa. Mandela and particularly Thabo Mbeki have publicly weighed in with comments regarding the only country in the SADC region which is not, at least notionally, "democratic" - pressure which has the added resonance of coming from a country on which Swaziland is heavily dependent economically. The pressure from big brother next door has also been reflected in the stance of the South Africa trade unions which gave backing to a stay-away by Swazi unions, on essentially political grounds, early in 1997. (However, the limits of the internal pro-democracy movement were illustrated when the unions omitted to coordinate things with COSATU in SA before a second general strike in October, one which was not widely supported, and resulted in a loss in influence by the unions and by the pro-democracy movement on whose behalf they were acting.)

* * *

The regime's response to such internal and external pressures has been to initiate a modest modernization programme. In 1996, a World Bank official was brought in to take over the Prime Minister's job from one of the princes, and he has sought to improve government structures and performance - a development which many on the "modern," bureaucratic side of the government welcome. Those traditionalists who do realize, more long-sightedly, that other measures of orchestrated change may be needed in order to pre-empt the emergence of a more radical agenda have also seen to the setting up of a Constitutional Review Commission which was supposed to consult widely and recommend change .

Not surprisingly there was scepticism from the outset, not least because a similar review in the early 1990s did head off protests at the time but delivered little change. Some opposition figures did initially participate but the Chairman of it has made gross errors - he may have been appointed, some argue, precisely because he cannot be taken seriously - and the few opposition members of the Commission, like a senior trade unionist, who were tempted to participate quickly withdrew from the Commission. And the King himself seems intent on keeping as much as possible of such discussion firmly within traditional structures, the tikundla (or tribal councils).

Moreover, in the midst of what was supposed to be a public debate about changes to the system, the government drafted a Bill to seriously restrict the media. True, this produced an outcry that has for the moment put it on a back burner, but it is of a piece with a system were the King rules largely by decree and all political activity continues, formally, to be banned under the state of emergency, referred to earlier, that was declared in 1973. And when, in February, the King announced elections to be held at the end of this year (while simultaneously warning against any further strikes) it was done in a context in which, as Southscan put the point, "the major political grievance has not been addressed - under present laws political parties are banned"!

In the end, then, there seems little readiness in traditional circles to countenance significant political change. Yet neither is there a coherent strategy for mounting an alternative to repression. Popular forces are partly mobilized but are not yet an irresistible political presence. Perhaps some limited change of significance will yet be stumbled into but, as the millennium approaches, the question of just what kind of "neo-traditionalism" Swaziland will carry into the twenty-first century remains a very open one.

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