For a Monarch venerated for keeping traditional leadership standing in a continent washed up by ‘western’ influence it would appear King Mswati III is struggling to keep the very centre of the traditional leadership holding.

King Mswati III sells himself as a paragon of Africa’s ‘pristine’ tradition and culture but right in his backyard the legacy of Sobhuza’s Dlaminisation of the country has come back to haunt him. The country has over 300 chiefs and the positions are hereditary, but can also be given to senior members of the royal family, the ruling Dlamini clan, screw history or tradition governing that village.

In fact it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the Monarchy system, made up of a complex web of traditional structures with tentacles deep in the community comprising of Chiefs, traditional courts and many advisory committees surrounding both the Queen Mother and the King, is tearing apart with almost every chiefdom embroiled in disputes of succession or leadership. 

Chiefs play a huge role in the country, considering that four out of five people live as landless peasants on communal Swazi Nation Land. Chiefs distribute this land, providing an area to grow crops, graze cattle and build a home for each person who undergoes the kukhonta (initiation into a community). The rite is simply a pledge of allegiance to the chief, acceptance of the newcomer by the community through a council of elders, and payment of a cow as gratitude to the community.

King Mswati III

The Constitution identifies Chiefs as footstalls of the Monarchy and have been the basis of the royal family’s dominance and control at the community level. The Tinkhundla system of governance has integrated Chiefs into the political system and elevated their power at all levels of the state. The integration of traditional leadership into the business of the state is justified as Swaziland’s way of ensuring that Swazi Law and Custom is not lost.

Before 1973, matters related to the exercise of powers in Swazi law and custom in general, and the powers of chiefs in particular, as well as chieftaincy disputes, were regulated by the traditional Swazi administration as supplemented and complemented by the modern court system.

The agenda to ‘Dlaminify’ the country, as initiated by the late King Sobhuza II, has come back to haunt the very traditional leadership the present Monarch is standing on for support. There are a lot of recent examples that point to chieftancy disputes which can be traced back to the ‘Dlaminisation’ process of the country started by Sobhuza and taken forward forcefully by the present king. King Mswati himself has followed this ‘Dlaminisation’ process by trying to install his own family members into areas and communities with their own lineages and traditional leadership structures. For example, 12 years ago residents of Nsenga had to appeal to the King to reverse the installation of the late Prince Sobandla as their chief. The prince had claimed that after the demise of his brother, Prince Lukhuleni, his mother Inkhosikati LaNganya, he was appointed the head of the area. The prince claimed whenever he spoke about royal kraal issues he was speaking on behalf of his family (indluyakabo) because he was the eldest male representative. But this was disputed by the Vilakti umphakatsi as they claimed to have a deep rooted history of the place dating back to the time of King Mswati II.

The Umphakatsi claim that Nsenga was given to one Mhlahlo to be chief and that after his death the area did not have a chief and Indvuna Mandanda, father to the late 'TV' Mtsetfwa, took over and looked after the area on an interim basis while the Vilakatis were looking for a suitable chief. In 1981 the late King Sobhuza II then called all the chiefs through his trusted aide, Prince Sifuba, to convene to explain how they had ascended to their positions.

King Sobhuza II

In that meeting Indvuna Mandanda explained to the king the history of Nsenga and how it was given to Mhlohla for his bravery during the Mfecane wars. It was explained that this was the king’s token of appreciation to Mhlohla. The chieftancy dispute in Nsenga is not isolated. In Moneni, around Manzini, over 100 found themselves caught in sixes and sevens as there was a dispute on whether the area belonged to Prince Mshoshi of Moneni or to Chief Nkamane Mkhatshwa of Lwandle. But in a ruling delivered after a long dispute King Mswati III claimed the area actually belonged to him.

The ruling was communicated by the Ludzidzini Royal Council through Indvuna Lusendvo Fakudze and as a result, both Mshoshi and Nkamane were told they had no right to settle people on the farm. The area in dispute was Farm No.9, ‘The Peebles Block' in Moneni. Chief Malambule Mdluli (who is in charge of an area known as Mbilaneni Umphakatsi) has been involved in a chieftancy dispute himself and at some point tried to stop the funeral so that a chieftaincy dispute could be settled first. The town of Machobeni falls under the chieftaincy jurisdiction of Mbilaneni Umphakatsi.

Another example of the challenges of traditional leadership and chiefs in particular was best highlighted in the ‘fight’ between the late Timothy Velabo (TV) Mtsetfwa–who doubled as overseer of Zombodze– the country’s Attorney Genral and Chief Sifiso Khumalo. The two were in disagreement over the mountainous area known as Buka. At least 400 people have settled in Buka by acquiring land from either Zombodze or Khumalo. The dispute recently got nasty when three homes were demolished by a mob of people who paid allegiance to Mtsetfwa and not Khumalo. By far the biggest rapture in the traditional leadership has been the long standing dispute in KoNtshingila where former Senate President Gelane Zwane stand accused of imposing herself as a chief. At some point the youth staged a mini-revolt in a bid to oust Zwane from her citadel of KaGwegwe Umphakatsi. Bottled up frustration led to a march on KaGwegwe by the youth from the enclave of KaGodloza, also in KoNtshingila, was the culmination of decades of bottled-up anger over the area’s long-drawn-out chieftaincy dispute.

Gelane Zwane

Gelane was enthroned as acting chief of the area, a violent uprising was triggered from those sections of the chiefdom opposed to her enthronement. The story of how Andreas Mzikayise Ntshangase spent five years in a morgue without being buried owing to chieftancy disputes is still fresh in the memory of this country. Since his death in December 2002, the ruling Dlamini royal family claimed Ntshangase had been evicted from his home area of Mkhwakhweni and thus could not be buried there. For five years he stayed in a morgue without burial as the most coldest act the royal family has ever done to a Chief, second only to the violent eviction of Mtfuso and Madeli of Kamkhweli and Macetjeni. Chiefs are the gatekeepers of an area, seeing to the people's needs, and they act as a bulwark against outsiders who have designs on their area.

Competing claims as to who is a rightful chief, sometimes pitting clans against each other, meant some areas have not had a chief for up to two decades. Because developmental initiatives and grants from foreign donor agencies cannot proceed without the approval of a chief, some areas are lagging behind in infrastructure, health and other improvements. 

The democratic movement must stand ready to inherit the problems of Dlaminisation of the country. In fact chieftaincy disputes is the powder keg waiting to explode.