Land tenure and the question of democracy in Swaziland

This piece was originally published on the Human Economy Blog.

I have recently written a commentary for Al Jazeera English on the question of democracy in Swaziland, following the parliamentary elections held in the country at the end of September this year. Taking as my starting point the unique trajectory of an absolute monarchy that still avails itself of a partially elected parliament, I tackled the question of democracy from the angle of land tenure.

The article also suggests that a look at the human economy of Swaziland, that is, at  people’s economic options in their everyday lives and their interactions with wider structures of regional capital and legal systems, provides a much more fruitful line of inquiry than an abstract focus on notions of democracy imported from the North without much attention to the local and regional context.

My main argument is that most Swazis are not actively fighting for regime change because they rely on land they can obtain in indefinite usufruct under the customary system managed by the chiefs and headed by the king. This land, obtained at a minimal price compared to equivalent land on the private market, is the real “welfare state” for Swazis. It provides the most viable option for building one’s own home and planning for retirement in a formal economy dominated by appallingly low wages and a state that has no universal welfare benefits for its citizens – except a miniscule social pension grant.

The article has stirred some debate among Swazi activists and citizens online, in particular a heated Facebook discussion on some of the implications I laid out in my article for the pro-democracy movement (unfortunately the lively discussion is not online anymore). Some activists have taken issue with some of my claims on the land question, but also acknowledged that the pro-democracy movements so far have offered little in the way of concrete plans for a transition towards a better and more equitable economic system.

A few days after, on 18 October, I discussed some of these insights on Swaziland as a guest on the Drivetime Show hosted by Shafiq Morton for Voice of the Cape Radio, a popular Muslim community radio in the Western Cape, South Africa (click here to listen to the interview). There I was also able to make some comparison with the South African situation, suggesting that the land question and issues around customary tenure and traditional leadership are central to understanding some of the contemporary struggles for economic democracy in the southern African region.

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