Land reform has been recommended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as part of the solution to deepening economic decline in Swaziland, a country where more than two-thirds of the population lives in poverty.
Following a two-week visit by a delegation, the IMF announced, in a 7 November statement, that one of the key challenges facing Swaziland - in addition to high unemployment, rising inequality and the world’s highest HIV/AIDS prevalence - is “improving access to modern financing by an appropriate land tenure reform.”
Dimpho Motsamai, a researcher from the Africa Conflict Prevention Program at the Pretoria-based think tank Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told IRIN, “It is refreshing land [in Swaziland] is being highlighted as part of the solution to poverty” by international institutions.
Swazi Nation Land
Swaziland has dual system of land ownership, in which some people have title deeds while the majority live on Swazi Nation Land (SNL). SNL is often referred to as communal land, although communal land practices apply only to non-arable and livestock pastures. Land used for crop production is individually held and allocated by chiefs, who also act as arbiters in land disputes.
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SNL is held in trust by King Mswati III, sub-Sahara’s last absolute monarch, forming the bedrock of his power base. The king imposes his authority through a chieftain system in rural areas, which comprise about 60 percent of the country’s land mass.
Those residing on SNL have no title deeds and can be evicted by the chiefs without recourse. Without title deeds, subsistence farmers have no collateral to raise the funds needed to undertake basic improvements, such as irrigation systems, that would increase their yields. As a result, many farming practices are rudimentary, and many people are vulnerable to food insecurity.
Mandla Mduli, a trade unionist and member of the Swaziland Solidarity Network, an umbrella organization of pro-democracy groups, told IRIN, “Land reform as recommended by the IMF will not be done because the system keeps the royal family in power. Seventy percent of Swazis live on these lands that are, in effect, owned by the royal family and run by chiefs appointed by the king. Anyone who joins a [opposition] political party is exiled [from SNL].”
Declining maize production
The preliminary results of the World Food Programme’s (WFP) vulnerability assessment estimated that this year’s harvest of the staple maize was 76,000 tons - over 8,000 tons lower than the previous season.
“About 116,000 people, or 11 percent of the population, will experience food shortages in the lean season before the next harvest in May 2013,” the assessment said.
Swaziland’s maize production has been declining since 2000; previously the country produced about 100,000 tons of maize annually. WFP attributed the slump to “erratic weather, high fuel and input costs, the devastating impact of HIV and AIDS, and a decline in the use of improved agricultural practices and inputs.”
A national land policy was drafted in 2000, outlining a national development strategy for land and rural development, but the policy was never implemented. An agricultural academic at the University of Swaziland, who declined to be identified, told IRIN, “The policy was never adopted, as it would have taken power [over land matters] away from the chiefs, and the chiefs enjoy their power.”
The academic said there is “absolute disorder when it comes to land” in Swaziland. There is widespread corruption, SNL is being sold off without any official documentation by chiefs and “people pretending to be chiefs”, and land allocation is used as an instrument of political patronage.
A 2010 report published by the University of the Western Cape’s Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) said, “Swazi citizens are increasingly losing their hold over the land as the population increases and the demand for land intensifies. The continuance of poor land administration in the face of the continuing challenges of population growth has already had massively harmful social and economic consequences, which will only worsen until the nettle of land reform is grasped.”
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ISS researcher Motsamai said land reform is “very controversial” within the country, as it is not a question of land redistribution “from colonizer to colonized,” but of taking power from the “entitlement of a royal household”.
“It’s [proposed] land reform of land owned by one guy essentially,” she said.
As those living on SNL cannot afford to purchase or lease the land, one consideration could be to nationalize it, but in that scenario, the state would take ownership of the land when the “king is the state,” she said.