February 17, 2003

Simmering land dispute tarnishes royal rule

At least 10 people were injured in clashes with police at the weekend as followers of two chiefs, deposed by King Mswati III, refuse to give up the fight for their ancestral lands. Opposing them are the kingdom's security forces and the clout of sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarchy. Allied with them are international human rights groups.

"When the palace turned those people into internal exiles because they defied a royal dictate, they became this country's first real human rights cause," Dr Joshua Mzizi, a theologian at the University of Swaziland, told IRIN. "Before their evictions, human rights issues in the country were abstract," said Mzizi, who is also secretary-general of the Human Rights Association of Swaziland. "There is no freedom of speech or assembly here, and opposition politics to royal rule is banned, but it was always hard to quantify how these absences affected people."

For years, the followers of Chief Mliba Fakudze of Macetjeni village, and Chief Mtfuso Dlamini at neighbouring Kamkhweli, were loyal to their popular leaders, both of whom were noted for their development initiatives in their rural communities. But King Mswati's older brother, Prince Maguga Dlamini, wanted to rule the area as a double chief, reportedly in order to establish a dynasty for his sons. He convinced the royal family he had a claim. Swazi chiefs are appointed on the basis of heredity, but they serve at the palace's pleasure. Both the Macetjeni and Kamkhweli chiefs were stripped of their titles. Over two years ago, the army staged a midnight raid, forced resisting residents into trucks, and deposited them 100 km away in an open field, without shelter, clothing or food. The International Red Cross and other donor agencies have since looked after their welfare. "Prince Maguga said any resident could return who first apologised to him," a Macetjeni resident told IRIN. "We are refusing, because that adds insult to injury."

The two chiefs and some of their 200 followers fled to South Africa. Royal authorities are taking a hard line with those who defy their orders in chieftaincy matters. "We cannot compromise on this issue one bit, because if you open the door to defiance, there will be anarchy," a source with the Swaziland National Council, King Mswati's handpicked counsellors, told IRIN. Eighty percent of Swazis live on communal Swazi Nation Land under 300 palace-appointed chiefs. Bloody land disputes are common, as well as conflicting claims from those who say they were rightfully appointed chiefs by Mswati or his father, King Sobhuza. "King Sobhuza banned political parties when he took control of the country because he said parties would lead to violence. But the chieftaincy system, because it is undemocratic, has led to much rivalry and bloodshed," Jan Sithole, secretary-general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, told IRIN.

At the weekend, 100 evicted residents attempted to deliver a petition addressed to Police Commissioner Edgar Hillary seeking a return to their homes. Several residents and two policemen were injured when the police broke up the march. Hillary has been ruled in contempt of court by the Court of Appeal, and faces jail time for blocking the return of the evictees to their homes, after the High Court of Swaziland ruled they were illegally evicted. Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini has said the government would ignore the order, because Hillary was acting on instructions from King Mswati. The evictions began the "rule of law" crisis that has gripped the kingdom, pitting traditional authorities against courts that have overturned palace policies because they have no basis in law. (IRIN)


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