Tuesday, November 5, 2013


A newly-appointed chief in Swaziland is threatening to evict nearly 1,000 of his subjects from grazing land if they do not pay him a fine the equivalent of more than six months income for many.

Chief Ndlovula of Motshane has told residents if they do not each pay a fine of E5,000 (US$500) their homes will be destroyed. In Swaziland seven in ten people earn less than E20 a day.

The chief stands to make about E5 million if the fines are paid.

He says his subjects have illegally built homes on land put aside for grazing.

Residents say in the past they donated one cow to the chief of the area by way of allegiance and this allowed them to stay on the land.

The case highlights that 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 the king if things go wrong.  Zwide Nxumalo defied a court order 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 could not 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 to the ceremony anyway.

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