Friday, June 14, 2013


A demand by a chief in Swaziland that his subjects pay him E5,000 (more than two years’ income for some of his people) as a ‘tribute’ highlights the power chiefs have over people in the kingdom of the autocratic King Mswati III.

Chief Mshikashika Ngcamphalala, of  Kangcamphalala, is reported to have demanded the money from sugar cane farmers in his chiefdom.

He is demanding ‘setfulo’, which traditionally are tributes paid to the chief a person pays allegiance to.

The Times of Swaziland reported that he is demanding the money from 18 sugar cane farming schemes and he stands to collect E90,000 in total.

The paper reported that people in the area said, ‘members of the sugar cane associations were tentatively earning around E2,000 a year each on average’.

The chief has, through his inner council, sent letters to the sugar cane schemes in the area, reminding them to pay the ‘agreed’ E5,000 with immediate effect.

A source told the newspaper, ‘If you raise such a matter in my area, you will be viewed as radical and you will be victimised. Therefore, most people are complaining in hushed tones.’
Farmers denied that they consented to the arrangement of paying E5,000, claiming the idea was imposed.

Chief Ngcamphalala, described by the Times as, ‘well-known as a disciplinarian’, told the newspaper that he deserved a cut of the takings earned by his subjects. He criticised some of his subjects for talking to the media.

Chiefs in Swaziland have enormous powers over their subjects, because they are personally appointed by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, and traditionally they lead a band of area elders. They can decide who lives where and some have been known to banish people from their homes for not obeying rules. Sometimes chiefs demand tithes from their subjects such as a beast or money.

Chiefs also settle disputes such as over land, accusations of witchcraft, and wandering livestock that harm someone’s crops. Many also settle criminal disputes that probably should best be left to magistrates.

Chiefs are given stipends by the national treasury, but not salaries, and community members pay their allegiance to chiefs by weeding and harvesting their fields, and constructing the traditional mud and thatch huts usually found at chiefs’ homesteads.

In Swaziland chiefs do the king’s bidding at a local level. People know not to mess with the chief because their livelihood depends on his goodwill. In some parts of Swaziland the chiefs are given the power to decide who gets food that has been donated by international agencies and then the chiefs quite literally have power of life and death in such cases and with about a third of the population of Swaziland receiving food aid last year.

Chiefs can and do take revenge on their subjects who disobey them. There is a catalogue of cases in Swaziland. For example, Chief Dambuza Lukhele of Ngobelweni in the Shiselweni region banned his subjects from ploughing their fields because some of them defied his order to build a hut for one of his wives.

Nhlonipho Nkamane Mkhatswa, chief of Lwandle in Manzini, the main commercial city in Swaziland, reportedly stripped a woman of her clothing in the middle of a Swazi street in full view of the public because she was wearing trousers against his orders,

Chiefs know they have the backing of th eking if things go wrong.  Zwide Nxumalo defied a courtorder to stop being chief of the Ezikhotheni area in the Shiselweni region of Swaziland because he was appointed to the post by King Mswati III. Magistrates told him he couldn’t go ahead with a sibhimbi ceremony that officially introduces a new chief to his subjects because of a dispute about whether he had been correctly chosen as chief. So he went with the ceremony anyway.

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