After years of a political standoff between the Vuvulane peasant farmers and the royal family over swathes of agricultural land the battle has been half done: their land has been returned. 

The farmers have had it all; a political battle between the royal family going on for years. This battle has taken the farmers to all the stages of the legal system, taken them to the international community and more than anything saw them court all manner of political organisations to fight side by side with them. 

For the uninitiated, Vuvulane is a resettlement satellite farming venture that grew into a small village of mostly small scale sugarcane farmers located in the lowveld of eSwatini. It is lush with green sugarcane fields stretching kilometres cross the plateau of the Lubombo Mountains. It grew as a community after the establishment of a re-settlement and later an out grower scheme in 1962 by the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC).

The CDC had been established by the British in 1948 as a development agency through an Act of Parliament. It started off as a Colonial Development Corporation whose purpose was to assist in the development of the then dependent territories of the Commonwealth. The Act defined the CDC's role as neither the achievement of maximum profits nor the promotion of British exports but rather to carry out projects for developing resources in all those territories in which it was empowered to operate.

The Vuvulane settlement scheme therefore became the first of many such schemes established as means towards rural development and poverty alleviation. Such schemes were a direct result of pressure sugar mills felt to increase their sugarcane output. The mills were struggling to find large tracts of land to purchase themselves and opted to do so through subsistence farmers working on customary Swazi National Land. To the government, integrating peasant farmers to the sugar cane industry was to help improve food security through the commercialisation of smallholder agriculture. It was also going to allow poor farmers to access the credit necessary to cover the business start-up costs. It helped that there was a ready buyer in the sugar mills too.

Vuvulane Irrigated Farms was therefore created as part of an interrelated agro industrial complex involving Inyoni Yami Swaziland Irrigation Scheme (SIS), the Mhlume Sugar Company (MSC) and the Vuvulane Irrigated Farms (VIF). VIF was a resettlement satellite farming venture established using 4000 acres of land owned by SIS. The SIS enterprise was a combination of cattle, citrus, and sugar covering an area of 100 000 acres of land. In addition to their farms, which they operate on twenty year renewable leases, roughly 70 acres of Vuvulane land was managed by the farmers’ cooperative primarily for use as a cane nursery.

At the time of the establishment of Vuvulane, settler farms ranged from eight to 16 acres, with 75 percent to 80 percent of the farm devoted to sugarcane cultivation. By 1983, 263 families were by now resident in Vuvulane and that number has risen to 4 115 today. What made Vuvulane interesting is that it represented dichotomies between capital intensive commercial and industrial sector on the one hand and capital poor rural sector on the other hand. Even more interesting is that it became the first and only break with the tradition where land was not owned by the tribal chief except, of course, for the large commercial farms, mostly owned and operated by non-Swazis.

Farmers from all over the country were invited to apply for small holdings in Vuvulane where they would each be guaranteed eight acres of land on which to grow sugarcane. Applicants had to be citizens of eSwatini, healthy, of good character and willing to make their home at Vuvulane. In other areas like Mafucula, for example, located a few kilometres to the east of Vuvulane, integration into sugar cane farming did not come smooth or voluntary. The government forcefully removed residents. In 1983 the Mbuluzi community was forced out of their ancestral land by the King and relocated to Mafucula to make way for Simunye sugar estate. The community of Mafucula had no choice but to join sugar farming on the instruction of their Chief. Before this, the community had individual farms, the size of a hector where each family could decide what crop to cultivate. For example, the Phakama Project was born of a merger of different fields to produce one farm that could operate as a 286.2 hectares smallholder out grower for the local sugar mill. By joining the project, the community had to give their land and convert their individual farms into a communally operated smallholder commercial farm.

The distinguishing factor with the Vuvulane Irrigated Farms is that it was the CDC’s attempt at extending benefits to out growers by means of a resettlement scheme. They did this by diffusing ownership of the venture to Swazis as a whole. [AR1] Telling is the words of J.R Tuckett, the first general manager of VIF, about the ground breaking nature of the scheme.

“When the scheme started it presented to the majority of Swazis an entire new concept in their approach to farming and land use. Payment for the use of the land and for the availability of water, complete dependence upon arable crops rather than livestock, the techniques involved in irrigation and modern farming methods, the idea of leasing land rather than receiving rights from chiefs, the new disciplines involved, and the unfamiliarity of sugar production; all these were foreign and somewhat suspect to many Swazi chiefs and leaders from whose areas were to come. It was scarcely surprising that at first there was no rush to apply for holdings,” J.R Tuckett

Right from the beginning, Vuvulane set out on a very different land holding pattern that allowed peasants to exercise semi autonomy from the rule of chiefs or the traditional leadership more generally. The granting of land right to the Vuvulane community therefore set to undermine the power of the monarchy and its traditional institutions. [AR2] Land was always important to the domination and control of the nation by the royal family and Vuvulane had set a different and potentially dangerous path. As author Richard Levin has noted, royal dominance has historically been secured through control over land and the extraction of various forms of tribute by chiefs and the monarchy. Land allocation and use did not just create a controlling mechanism to keep the rural peasantry under a tight leash but it also provided the material basis for the royal aristocracy to pursue a comprador route to accumulation[AR3] . While this route was initially short-circuited by the large-scale alienation of land, in the aftermath of World War II, elements of the emergent petty-bourgeoisie who were simultaneously aristocrats and/or chiefs, were able to ally themselves with foreign capital and imperialist forces within the colonial state . The granting of land holding rights to the community of Vuvulane through the outgrower scheme therefore provided a platform for possibilities to challenge the royal aristocracy and set in motion a political contest that is at the core of the democratisation struggle ongoing in the country. Levin’s penetrating analysis of land tenure and (re)-invention of ‘tradition’, the fluctuating fortunes of Swazi royalty and popular responses to autocracy surfaced the underlying abuse of tradition and centrality of land in Swazi society.

In 1987 the first evictions in Vuvulane occurred when 14 farmers are evicted in response to their open resistance to authority of the Indlovukazi, the King, and VIF. In the same year Mswati III reversed the evictions following sustained protests and resistance by the small holder farmers. The king further yields to the demand for compensation for crops lost, damage done to businesses and properties of the 14 farmers. A sum of €2 500was ordered to be paid by VIF/Tibiyo to aggrieved farmers. Relations and trust further deteriorate between the small holder farmers and the authorities (VIF and Tibiyo) when a levy was imposed on them to fund the compensation that had been given to the farmers.

In 1998 CDC transferred the contested land to the king without consultation with the farmers. Sucha transfer was initiated by what is called Libandla, a committee that had presented a 1996 report where they were openly scornful of the rights of the farmers and the CDC decisions of settling them on freehold land outside the control of the king or chiefs. The transfer of the Vuvulane farms to the king by the CDC, outside the terms of the CDC/Indlovukazi Agreement, and in total disregard of the fate of the farmers, would seem to have been the result of the desire to get the king’s consent for the merger of Mhlume Sugar Company and Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation. This included the sale to Tibiyo of a number of CDC businesses (Swaziland Justice Forum report, 2016).

The takeover of the smallholder scheme by Tibiyo and Vuvulane Irrigated Farms (PTY LTD) has been a major turning point in the life of the farmers, culminating in the evictions and the leasing of some of the land to the RSSC for the benefit of Tibiyo and the King. The effect on the farmers was enormous: from being permanent settlers on the land, with entrenched historical rights, to the status of squatters at the mercy of the King. Through this complicity of the CDC, the farmers lost all their accumulated investments in improvements in the land together with the permanent structures and houses built over many decades.

Tibiyo, Vuvulane and oiling extravagance

One intriguing dimension of the Vuvulane issue has been the direct and indirect role of Tibiyo TakaNgwane in forced evictions and the sequestration of the potential of the outgrower scheme to live up to its initial billing. The King, with the aid of the government, sought to use Tibiyo as a vehicle to dispossess communities their land in order to extend his stranglehold over the economy. The history of Tibiyo is itself interesting. In 1978, at the end of the independence decade, Tibiyo had accumulated assets amounting to € 2,798,344.00 million and ten years later the value of their assets had more than doubled to above € 5,599,160.96 Million. The organization does not pay tax, its legal status is questionable, is led exclusively by members of the royal family, is not under the oversight of parliament and accounts only to the King.

In the second half of the nineteenth century eSwatini’s agricultural potential and mineral resources attracted white[AR4] South Africans in droves to the country. By 1910 more than 60 per cent of the surface area of 1 7 363 km2 had either been made Crown land or belonged to a small group of white Swazis resident in the country. King Sobhuza II spent much of his early reign fighting for a more equitable distribution of land and regaining mineral concessions that he had taken by the colonial administration. The Swazis themselves also bought land by means of the Lifa fund and much later, the Tibiyo TakaNgwane fund. As instructed by Sobhuza, the land and mineral question was put on the agenda during the constitutional discussions leading to independence.

However, on the eve of independence, Sobhuza persuaded the British government to transfer the royalties obtained from mineral concessions to the exclusive control of the King. The income received from mineral concessions was paid into the Tibiyo Taka Ngwane fund until 1975 after which the Tisuka Taka Ngwane fund was created. Apart from the acquisition of land and the promotion of education and training, both funds were ingeniously applied to obtain substantial shareholding in foreign companies which were active in all the different sectors of the economy (Esterhuysen, 1984). Levin (1986) argues that the royal family was desperate to use their control, which they exerted over land allocation, to cement their alliance with South African and British capital. He sees the subsequent creation of Tibiyo Taka Ngwane as a vehicle for a comprador accumulation process by the royal family.

The cash flow that followed Tibiyo’s successful granting of loan arrangements with potential foreign investment partners, negotiations at the United Nations and Commonwealth backed legal assistance enabled Tibiyo to enter the field of land purchase and development. Tibiyo’s funds were largely spent on land purchases, share acquisitions and commercial and agricultural investments (Levin, 1988). While the establishment of Tibiyo nourished the capitalization of the monarchy, it increased land shortage among the peasantry and consequently further depressed the living conditions of rural communities.

The creation of Tibiyo was sold to the nation as means to transfer economic power from foreigners through buying of land. Tibiyo was to be owned by the Swazi nation as a whole with the Monarch as a trustee on behalf of the people. However, in practice it became an exclusive monopoly of the King. The result of the formation of this corporation was that the land bought by the independent government’s Land Purchase Programme was instead bought by Tibiyo to establish commercial farms. Towards the end of the 1970s, Tibiyo had spent approximately €2,798,344.00 on the purchase of freehold land used for the establishment of huge sugar estates, a development that made Tibiyo a leading shareholder in the Swazi sugar industry (Simelane, 2000). The decision to put land under Tibiyo compromised the ability of the post-colonial state to solve the squatter problem in the country. The corporation competes with squatters on the land issue, and squatters have continued to be marginalized. The squatter problem intensified because Tibiyo also evicted squatters from some of the purchased farms. Furthermore, the evictions have been extended to people who were occupying Swazi Nation Land that was later earmarked for development by Tibiyo in collaboration with international organizations.

It worth noting that since independence the leadership of Tibiyo has been Prime Ministers who doubled as leader of the government of the day and board chairman of the organisation. This was so until 1993 when Prince Logcogco, brother to King Mswati III, was appointed Chairman as the first non-Premiere candidate. This was rationalized as Tibiyo now following the path of good corporate governance and wanting to demonstrate it through an independent non-executive chairman (Tibiyo Annual report, 2020).

The RSSC, eSwatini’s largest sugar company, has already taken over some of the land which was part of the Vuvulane scheme on a lease arrangement with Tibiyo. In 1986, the year that King Mswati III was crowned king, Tibiyo TakaNgwane assumed ownership of the Vuvulane farm. This meant that farmers, many of whom had been there for over 20 years, suddenly became squatters. Tibiyo TakaNgwane attempted to enforce their own administrators over the VIF and in the process accused Vuvulane farmers of theft and other crimes. In 1999, Tibiyo TakaNgwane brought an interdict application to stop the farmers from planting crops other than sugarcane. The court ruled in favour of the farmers, saying the entity had no legal standing to bring the matter to court in the first place.

The Swaziland Justice Forum (SJF) has accused Tibiyo’s business partnerships with multinational companies as aiding and abating what they call massive financial flows through a scheme akin to money laundering where as much as 50 percent of proceeds of the sugar industry meant to benefit the country has been transferred to the king in his personal capacity. The organization argues that all multinational companies in a business partnership with Tibiyo were aiding the transfer of Swazi nation assets to the king without public scrutiny or attention.

Tibiyo TakaNgwane gets much of its revenue from the lucrative preferential markets in Europe, United States and Southern Africa. Tibiyo TakaNgwane has constructed an elaborate scheme which facilitates massive transfers of public wealth to the personal kitty of the king. Large South African companies as well as multinational companies such as Coca Cola, RCL Foods Limited, Illovo Sugar and Associated British Foods (ABF) have entered into business with Tibiyo TakaNgwane as a transactional vehicle that ostensibly represents the Swazi nation. In reality, however, Tibiyo is a vehicle for royal accumulation and has transformed the royal aristocracy from a backward semi-feudal class into comprador bourgeoisie class. In 2009 Forbes Magazine estimated the King personal net fortune to be about US$200 million, thanks to the already mentioned advantages that local regulators offer it: no tax burdens and no oversight. Even the International Monitory Fund has suggested that Tibiyo must pay tax. The IMF had raised the issue of Tibiyo’s taxation several times and had asked the King to curb his spending.

King Mswati lavish lifestyle is partly funded by tax payers through the Royal Emoluments and Civil List Act of 1998. The law obliges government to put aside at least five percent of the national budget for the upkeep of the Monarchy. Paid under royal emoluments are salaries for the King and payments to immediate members of the royal household. In 2010/2011 five percent of the €56,015,000.00 national budget went to cover expenditure associated with the Monarchy. Most of the money went to refurbishing royal palaces and € 28,167,719.00 for link roads to royal residences. On top of this the King’s brothers and sisters, each receive € 2,799.62 annual allowance from the Monarch’s budget. Expenses under the civil list category is monitored and managed by the royal trustees led by the Minister of Finance. Any savings or excess amounts from the royal emoluments and civil list “budget” is not remitted to the Consolidated Fund, but invested by the royal trustees as they deem fit. The Consolidated Fund is the purse which funds the Civil List. The Consolidated Fund gets its money from shares that government owns in the big investment companies in the country such as the Royal Eswatini Sugar Corporation and MTN eSwatini. The Consolidated Fund is also said to be responsible for the repayment of government loans to the African Development Bank and World Bank.

This money, together the revenue he gets from his private businesses and Tibiyo, allows the King to enjoy all manner of luxuries. In the last few years he has bought a fleet of luxury cars, a jet and several Maybach limousines. His entourage blew millions when it booked 38 rooms at the five star Taj Hotel in Cape Town for a conference on poverty in Africa (Karodia, 2015). The King’s control of land has also meant that anyone who mines minerals from the soil must give him the constitutionally enshrined 25 percent shareholding but also dividends from profits. Malaysian businessman Shanmuga “Shan” Rethenam who wanted a license for a lucrative iron ore mine in Ngwenya, 20km outside the Swazi capital in Mbabane, had a fall out with the Monarch after a business deal had gone wrong. Rethenam could not get justice in the country’s courts after a bad business deal with the King’s company, Inchatsavane. He was chased out of the country leaving him to seek justice in Canadian court.