Bittersweet Swazi sugar

How the highly profitable rural-based sugar industry failed the people of Swaziland and enriched the King and multinational corporations.

Image credit: Swaziland Justice Forum.

“My heart was pained again because they grew sugar cane on top of my first born son’s grave… we found bones of our dead in the open,” says 50-year-old Carol as she sits in her dusty make-shift hut in Simunye in Swaziland. A combination of red mud, branches and whatever she can scavenge to hold it all together, her house still looks too weak to protect her against the brutal winter winds that slice through the Lebombo Mountain Range.

To anyone visiting this isolated community of once prosperous farmers, this starkness may seem strange after driving through endless fields of lush sugar cane marked with the insignia of the King’s Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation (RSSC). Carol’s community was among the first of various rural communities in the region forcibly relocated from their homelands in the 1970s to make way for sugar cane production, the crop that has become known as “the hunger crop” because of the poverty left in its wake among evicted communities.

Image credit Swaziland Justice Forum.

As we visit Carol, meanwhile, on the other side of the country, King Mswati III—with an entourage of selected wives and a bevy of royal hands—boards his recently refurbished A340-300 Airbus purchased for US$30 million. He is on his way to New York for his annual address to the United Nations General Assembly, but is reportedly flying a few days earlier to squeeze in some shopping and business.

That Swaziland is also home to some of the biggest multinational companies in the region, which makes a killing off of cosy relationships with a regime notorious for paying little heed to human or property rights (by Western or even traditional definition)—a kingdom described by a local critic as a bizarre place of “traditional leather sandals and BMWs”—goes unnoticed by most.

Swaziland was colonized by Britain, and the former Empire’s financial interests in the country go back long before they granted Swaziland independence in 1968. Britain built strong relationships with the current King’s father, Sobhuza II. This was no different for various multinational companies who saw great opportunities in the natural resource-rich Kingdom decades back, largely underexploited by traditional structures in the country.

For regular poverty-stricken Swazis like Carol who got caught up in the political and business ambitions of the Royal family and multinationals, there would be no respite. Her story is a common one in the many isolated rural areas of the region and just a precursor for further evictions that took place in a community not far away – again, to the benefit of the King.

Swaziland attracts foreigners for its natural beauty, towns and villages nestled between endless rolling hills and mountains, as well as some of its cultural spectacles. The Reed Dance ceremony—where as many as up to 40,000 young Swazi maidens cut reeds in front of the king and Queen Mother as a rite of passage to womanhood—attracts tens of thousands of international tourists every year. During the ritual, the king may, should he so choose, pick a bride to join his 15 current wives. This spectacle is an easy sell for Swazi tourism as an opportunity for foreigners to see one “of the biggest and most spectacular cultural events in Africa.”

A successful post-colonial experiment goes awry

With independence, the fertile kingdom was open for (new) business. The British government, which, at the time, had major interests in agricultural projects across commonwealth countries, guided the process through its international finance development institution, the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC).

With Swaziland’s eastern lowveld region having an exceptionally high-yield per hectare of sugar cane (currently 9th internationally), the CDC embarked on an ambitious pilot project of relocating a group of the country’s most experienced farmers to a piece of CDC-owned land called Farm 860 in an area called Vuvulane close to the Mozambican border.

This fertile land—collectively known as the Vuvulane Irrigated Farms project—would become the new home to approximately 265 farmers (and their families totaling over 3000 people) who would gradually move there from all over the country through the 60s and early 70s to learn from the British how to become smallholder sugarcane farmers and businessmen. Each farmer was allocated approximately 14 acres of land on which they could grow sugar cane as well vegetables and other crops with which to sustain their families.

“My first time here was on 16 October 1972—that was the day I was allocated land. I was brought to Vuvulane by the whites. It went very well and we were better off in those years… I had my first car in 1974. We worked well and it was profitable,” says Msolwa Dlamini, one of the original group of farmers who came to Vuvulane. In a country where almost 75% of the population survived (and still does) on subsistence farming, this created a steep learning curve but they prevailed and times “were good.”

Image credit Swaziland Justice Forum.

As evidenced in interviews with eight of the farmers and their families and various documents and contracts that I reviewed, the deal was that the farmers would lease their patch of land from the CDC for approximately 20 years after which they would be given freehold title—making them landowners.

“[They said] after 20 years we will give you your portion of land because you no longer have land where you came from,” said Mpisi Dlamini, one of the elders leading the farming community who also moved to the scheme in the 60s.

After the lease period had expired, many successful harvests had come and gone. Their children had become adults and learned the family business of smallholder sugar farming. The CDC then resurfaced after speaking to the father of the current King.  “In 1981, the whites made a decision to give us the land …We heard the decision to cede the land from the King [Sobhuza II]. The King said the whites had decided to give us the whole land,” said Msolwa.

It was soon after this that Swaziland went through a time of political flux following the unexpected death of Sobhuza II, which saw power changing hands and a new Queen Regent, Ntfombi (mother to Mswati III), assuming power and, according to the farmers, took advantage of the profit potential of the Vuvulane scheme. Ntfombi’s son was crowned as King Mswati III in 1986. “On its exit in 1983, [the] CDC handed over the farm to the resettled farmers [but] King Sobhuza was not present  he passed on in 1982,” says farmer Allen Mango. 

The Vuvulane scheme had already gained recognition in international development circles. As one of Oxfam’s staff in the 70s noted (from a memo their archives), “this is beyond a doubt the finest settlement scheme I have seen anywhere.” But an allegedly opportunistic move by the Queen would eventually spell the beginning of the end of the community’s success story.

In 1998, as a precursor to the privatization of the CDC in 1999, the development company allegedly signed over the farmers’ lands to the King, instead of returning it to the farmers as originally promised. Prior to this, due to mounting questions over land ownership in Vuvulane and surrounding areas King Mswati III commissioned a secret report by a committee, or Libandla, of his closest advisors in 1995. This report—now leaked to the Swaziland Justice Forum—indeed reconfirms the rights of the farmers to the land following the 20 year lease period with the CDC. But as a final recommendation and conclusion to the King, the commission noted that it was “unSwazi” for the farmers to own land and suggested it would give them too much power in the future.

“If [the] CDC had given the land to the farmers directly we would not be where we are today—there was no compensation. We were never compensated,” says Cabangembili Mamba.

Farmers evicted

Just before sunset on the morning of 6 February 2016, the absolute darkness of rural night was ignited by an all too familiar sight in the area—police van flood-lights and blue lights crawling up the gravel farm roads. The RSSC’s threats of eviction had finally become a reality.

“They [the police] started with Mpisi Dlamini. They bundled him into a police car… shoved him like a hard core criminal in full sight of his little children. It was a great pity. They drove off with them leaving their earthly possessions,” said Cabangembili, who witnessed the evictions.

The family were dumped by the trucks over 300 km south of Vuvulane on a drought stricken stretch of dust known as Lavumisa on South Africa’s border. 

There is no legal recourse the farmers can take due to the country’s compromised judiciary. “There is a law that says when you move someone… when you evict someone you should compensate him. They are not compensating us, they just take you and throw you in the open regardless whether you have children,” said a grey and weary Mpisi while fighting back tears. 

Many of the interviews with the 33 evicted farmers (and their 293 dependents) were conducted in the bush alongside the highway in a barren patch of forest between makeshift huts like Carol’s in neighboring Simunye. The squatter camp is less than affectionately called “Baghdad” by locals due to its starkness and isolation, contrasted with the lush, green, fertile lands they’d been evicted from. With a correlation of satellite images of the area and plot numbers of the farmers evicted by the RSSC, it is clear to see the move to expand the company’s reach in the area at the expense of the farmers.

Evicted farmer *John, says: “we are under slavery here—it is slavery. I say this because since [I’ve been here from] 12 August 1963, I have nothing to show for it. There is no hope for the future to take care for my family… these clothes [he takes his jacket off] are all I have, nothing more. What’s the point of living?”

Image credit Swaziland Justice Forum.

A generation of farmers trapped in perdition

Leading the charge publicly for the evicted farmers is the Swaziland Justice Forum (SJF), a small group of dedicated activists and academics representing the farmers and their plight to get their land back. The forum has run a social media campaign which has garnered a fair amount of public interest and concern around the evictions on both sides of the border. In their press release the forum accuses the Tibiyo Taka Ngwane sovereign wealth fund and the Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation of “being behind illegal and reportedly violent evictions of smallholder sugar cane growers in that country.” 

“Over the years the farmers have made exhaustive appeals (legal and traditional) to the King, the Queen Mother, the Royal Advisors and the Prime Minister to no avail. The farmers are convinced that despite compelling evidence in their favor, coupled with the fact that they have occupied the land for over 54 years as promised to them by the CDC (and confirmed in official documents) justice would never be achievable through the compromised Swazi Justice system as the king is above the law,” says the SJF.

The King’s personal wealth was estimated by Forbes at around $200 million in 2017.  Following the fairly benevolent rule of his father, Sobhuza II, Mswati III made hasty moves within the lucrative sugar industry by purchasing the majority shares of the RSSC through Tibiyo TakaNgwane—the faceless, unregistered “national development” fund critics have labeled his own personal “ATM.

Tibiyo’s present total worth was estimated at around USD 2 billion by a 2013 Freedom House report, and the fund supports Mswati, his 15 wives and scores of childrenAs is the tradition in Swaziland with any Royally connected entity, Tibiyo is entirely immune to taxation, civil suits and criminal prosecution. The SJF and other critics are challenging the notion that an entity that doesn’t legally exist but for the benefit of the Royal family, should own 53% of the largest company in the country.

Image credit Swaziland Justice Forum.

The RSSC made Tibiyo almost $10 Million in profits last year as reported in the company’s 2018 annual report. While this may seem a small amount, it is hugely significant in a country with a population of 1.2 million, 65% of which live in abject poverty. The evicted farmers feel helpless to challenge the RSSC which Mpisi says is effectively the same as the King.

“The RSSC is the royal family and it is another one that cannot be taken to court easily because it is also one with Tibiyo… and Tibiyo cannot be prosecuted. RSSC is the one that is really oppressing these Swazi people, it is the one taking the wealth,” says Mpisi. 

In various public statements released by the RSSC responding to the SJF’s allegations, they “state categorically that we [the RSSC] are not aware and have absolutely no involvement in any alleged evictions. We do not own any land in Vuvulane and therefore we do not have any basis to evict anyone.” The forum has responded publicly refuting the denials and presenting a court issued ejection order from “portion 28 of [Vuvulane] farm 860” sealing the fates of Vuvulane farmer leaders Dlamini and Mamba, dating back to 2014 with the RSSC clearly listed as applicants for the order.

The company also has an interesting list of shareholders that the SJF assert are complicit in the evictions. At the time of the evictions in 2016, Coca-Cola Export Corporation owned a 1.8% share of the company. Coca-Cola Swaziland’s managing director, Manqoba Khumalo, also sat on the RSSC’s board. Coca-Cola has a long history with the kingdom dating back to Apartheid and runs a huge domestic factory under the name Conco (Coke concentrate) that supplies over 22 countries across Africa with the concentrate that goes into coke products, and reportedly enjoys a 6% tax rate as opposed to the standard 27.5% rate other Swazi companies pay. Khumalo has also recently been elected to Swaziland’s senate—a prestige critics say just further illustrates the cronyism evident within the kingdom. Coca-Cola Swaziland has yet to publicly comment on the issue.

The RSSC’s other major shareholder is South Africa based RCL Foods which has a 29.1% shareholding and whose parent company (The Rembrandt Group) also owns international luxury brands (under their Richemont division) including Cartier, Dunhill, IWC watches, Jaeger-lecoultre, Montblanc and Chloe. The group’s owner is South Africa’s richest and one it’s most divisive men, Johann Rupert. Naturally, RCL Foods has denied that the company was complicit in any human rights violations in Swaziland passing the buck on to the RSSC saying “they have responded with an assurance from [the sugar corporation] that the allegations are untrue,” according to  South African magazine Farmer’s Weekly report.

With over 4 million Swazis estimated living and working in South Africa, the cause is now being championed by various large trade unions including South Africa’s largest, the Confederation Of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) who recently visited the farmers. COSATU alongside others have publicly demanded that the country’s largest retailers stocking Swazi sourced sugar launch an independent investigation into these allegations, including publicly listed stores Woolworths and Pick ‘n Pay who both stock RCL’s product Selati, which is one of South Africa’s biggest selling brands of sugar. In response to questions put forward by Farmer’s Weekly, spokesperson for Pick n Pay said they were “concerned about the allegations [made by the forum] and have put them to our supplier, RCL [Foods].”

Bittersweet hope, trepidation and multinationals

While the SJF’s investigation has yielded thousands of pages of documents—lease agreements dating back to the 60s, leaked reports, contracts, piles of court cases, eviction notices—the reality remains grim for these farmers and their families. They are still currently in legal perdition and have been reduced from once successful and prosperous smallholding farmers to squatters virtually overnight, says Vuvulane farmer Cabangembili.

Our fathers worked for this land. They worked for over 20 years for the British but today they are like squatters, they have no right to live—that has made us lose hope that there is anything the Swazi courts can do for us. There is no hope. The courts don’t respect the law… Swaziland courts are not neutral.

While the RSSC and Royal Family assert that the farmers are lying, the 2013 Freedom House report on Swaziland purports an even larger motive for evicting the farmers that transcends just financial gains from the sugar cane, and one that is echoed by various critics of the current regime. The greatest threat to Mswati III and his cronies is the prospect of a financially prosperous, politically independent Swazi middle-class that is not dependent on the state for anything, which would start a wave of public demands for democratic accountability that could lead to revolution. In a country where press freedom is non-existent, where dissenting journalists and human rights lawyers are jailed and a ban on opposition parties continues, it seems the King’s fear of independent minded citizens may stifle the country’s future potential even further.

Various international voices have started speaking out on the land crisis including Amnesty International in a recent report and International Lawyer and former UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, Ben Emmerson:

Social justice is in real peril in Swaziland – the sugar farmers are people, are citizens not subjects. It is time to start naming the multi-nationals who are profiting from this land grab. The eviction of sugar farmers in Swaziland is a scandal that demands the urgent attention of the UN Human Rights Council. The King’s ransom deserves international condemnation.

Until then, the farmers struggle on, waiting for the next hammer to fall as other members of the community have received eviction notices from the RSSC, says evicted farmer Nicholas Mkhabela, sitting outside the high fences surrounding what was once his community. 

We have resigned to fate … everyone will go to heaven [and] everyone will be answerable for their deeds on earth—a King and any ordinary human being—we will all be equal … they have already killed us. We do not eat, we have no clothes—we used to work for ourselves.

Further Reading