Kicking Swazis onto the streets

The eviction of people from land they acquired through the traditional system has become the norm rather than the exception in Swaziland. And sadly, the government is turning a blind eye as thousands of people are pushed out onto the streets because the land on which they had built their homes turns out to be a farm – and to belong to someone else.

July 24th, 2013

The eviction of people from land they acquired through the traditional system has become the norm rather than the exception in Swaziland. And sadly, the government is turning a blind eye as thousands of people are pushed out onto the streets because the land on which they had built their homes turns out to be a farm – and to belong to someone else.

What makes it even worse is that some of the land that is now being claimed as farmland by certain individuals was concession land, which was given to white settlers by King Mbandzeni way back in the 1880s. When the concession period came to an end – usually after 99 years – some white farmers gave the land back to the king, who was supposed to hold it in trust for the Swazi nation. It remains a mystery how this concession land was then turned into title deed land. But it is crystal clear who is most affected – the poor families who had been living on the land for years.

Indeed, chiefs have continued to allocate people pieces of land on these ‘farms’ since most people presumed that the land was in trust for the nation. Sadly most people have been proved wrong.

Armed with a title deed that gives them the right to the land, owners do not take into consideration that the ‘farm dwellers’ have acquired the land through the traditional khonta system. Instead, they use the courts to kick out anyone they find on their farms – in many instances without any compensation.

People in this situation find themselves with no protection because the courts do not take into consideration the role traditional leaders played in allocating the land to them – or the fact that no one realised that they were being allocated land within the ‘boundaries’ of a private farm. And despite their role in the saga, the traditional authorities do not seem to care about the plight of the evictees. Indeed, the ‘farm owners’ seem to have everyone on their side – government, courts and chiefs.

Recently 150 families from Malkerns, about 30 kilometres outside the capital Mbabane, were evicted from a farm belonging to Umbane Limited, a company owned by employees of the Swaziland Electricity Company (SEC). The Supreme Court sided with the company and ordered the families to vacate Farm 670 even though the affected families argued that they were entitled to the land through acquisitive prescription – as they had been living on it uninterrupted for over three decades.

However, their compelling argument did not move the court, which gave them just 21 days to leave the property or face the demolition of their houses – a ruling that was widely criticised by human rights organisations, including Freedom House, which accused the court of failing to ensure that the evicted residents got compensation and alternative accommodation from the owners of the farm.

But sadly this is not an isolated case in Swaziland.

In 2010, residents of KaShali, an area that is just a few kilometres from the commercial capital of Manzini, watched in disbelief as government graders demolished 18 houses. The incident shocked the whole country, especially as it was all the result of a dispute between King Mswati III and one of his half-brothers, Prince Matatazela. The king accused the prince, who is also a chief of Nhlambeni, which includes KaShali, of encroaching onto his farm and allocating people land.

While the affected residents won an interdict against the government to prevent any further demolitions, no compensation was paid to those whose houses had been destroyed.

And there will be more evictions. As a prominent businessman, Thomas Moore Carl Kirk once said, the country will see more evictions around Malkerns because the whole area sits on a farm. Kirk himself kicked some long-term residents off land that he said was part of his farm. Once again, the courts could not help the residents because Kirk had title deed to the land – even though the local traditional leader, Lusendvo Fakudze, admitted that he had allocated the residents the land.

Meanwhile, families in Madonsa Township are also waiting – and have been for over a year now – for the decision of the Human Rights Commission after the Supreme Court ruled that they were living on a farm. The residents took the matter to the Commission after failing to convince the Court that they were victims of the traditional system. While there is always some hope that the Commission might rule in favour of the residents, the farm is owned by the Swaziland National Provident Fund, whose chief executive officer just happens to be King Mswati’s half-brother, Prince Lonkhokhela.

And as for the government – it is very clear whose side the authorities are on. For example, the government shot down an eminently sensible idea by civil society organisations to conduct a land audit to ascertain how much land was available. What’s more, it stopped the public from being able to access land ownership records from the Deeds Registry – which was previously public information. This followed the media’s exposure of a scandal involving the Prime Minister, Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini, and five other Cabinet Ministers, who received huge discounts when buying crown land. When Parliament contemplated a vote of no confidence against the Cabinet Ministers, King Mswati intervened and ordered that the matter should not be discussed any further and the land should be returned to government.

Meanwhile, the king and his government continue to turn a blind eye whenever ordinary Swazis are kicked off land that they have lived on – and lived off – for decades. Who would have thought that Swazis would be evicted from their land in the 21st century after almost 50 years of independence – just as they were during the colonial era.

Sadly, many Swazis continue to live like squatters in their own country. 

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