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Land tenure and agricultural production in Swaziland

G. T. Magagula
Department of Agriculture, University of Swaziland, Luyengo, Swaziland


Since independence, Swaziland's economic policy has consciously focused on achieving rapid increase in the agricultural production of subsistence-oriented farmers and on the reduction of food imports so as to achieve selfsufficiency in food and to conserve the country's limited foreign exchange earnings and raise rural living standards. The policy to stimulate subsistence farmers to take a more dynamic role in agricultural development is, of course, an important evolution from the pre-independence era, when subsistence farmers were typically viewed as passive partners in the process of development. The raison d'Ítre for the present policy emanates from the stark realization that the vast majority of the country's population, located in the rural areas, are engaged in subsistence farming. Therefore, a policy which places a high premium on either industrialization or massive public assistance to large commercial farmers may, in fact, condemn a very substantial proportion of the country's people to prolonged conditions of poverty. Agricultural development in Swaziland, therefore, is perceived as a sine qua non for effecting broad-based national development.

However, the overwhelming evidence of the postindependence period suggests that the national goal, as outlined above, is unlikely to be achieved, at least in the next two decades: the national population numbers are increasing at an alarming rate (about 3.2 per cent per annum, according to the latest estimates), food production rates continue to fall below national requirements, and food imports, primarily of maize, the staple crop, are increasing rapidly.

The literature on agricultural development is replete with references to some of the major factors which condition or determine the degree to which the productivity of farmers in the developing countries can be enhanced, for example, provision and adoption of improved technological information, market infrastructure, credit, water resource development, and factor-price and other economic relationships. In addition, land tenure and agrarian reforms constitute some of the issues which have featured prominently within the literature and in the attempts to ameliorate the conditions under which farmers operate; the unequal and highly concentrated patterns of ownership of land and other productive assets in the rural areas are often held to constitute the ultimate cause of the inability of many developing countries to stimulate farm production and to reduce unequal distribution of per capita rural incomes.

The question of land tenure and land reform in Swaziland is one of the most emotive national issues but, paradoxically, has received very little attention from either economic developmentalists or policymakers. While there is considerable evidence that the present land tenure system has a substantial impact on the ability of farmers to achieve the national objective of self-sufficiency in food, minimal effort has been invested in the task of adequately investigating its effects and providing alternative solutions. Quite frequently the reluctance to rigorously analyse land tenure impacts has been instigated by a genuine fear of incurring political opprobrium (Maine and Strieker 1971, Hughes 1972). It has thus been expedient to consider land tenure as an exogenous factor which is not internal to the system of agricultural production. It is only recently that policymakers at very high levels have strongly intimated that the land tenure pattern in Swaziland is an issue which deserves serious attention. At a recent workshop, for example, the deputy prime minister pointedly isolated land tenure as one of the major restraints on the nation's resolve to engender meaningful socioeconomic changes in the rural areas of Swaziland (Nsibandze 1981). This shift in perception is indeed considered as an overdue challenge to pursue a constructive search for solutions to this problem.

This paper attempts to provide a background description of the land tenure systems currently operating in Swaziland, to analyse their effects on agricultural production, and to suggest policy changes which may mitigate the socio-economic impacts of land tenure on the ability of the rural sector to meet the nation's objective of self-reliance in food and social justice. One should, however, hasten to point out that the paper is neither intended to be entirely exhaustive nor to prescribe a panacea; its intention is to provide one perspective which may be useful in enabling an understanding of the complexities which are inherent in the system.

Land Tenure Systems in Swaziland

Although Swaziland has several socio-political and economic forms of dualism, it is perhaps in the rural areas that the most severe case of duality is experienced. Within this sector, two systems of land ownership and use co-exist: the Individual Tenure Farms (ITF) and the Swazi Nation Land (SNL). This form of duality was initiated during the early 1900s, when the traditional rulers of Swaziland granted several land concessions to foreign interests. Through this process approximately two-thirds of Swaziland was lost to foreign concessionaires and ultimately to private land owners. However, by repurchasing the alienated land, especially after independence, the Swazi nation has been able to expand the SNL to about 56.7 per cent of the 1,739,000 hectares comprising Swaziland. Table 1 provides a summary of some of the major features of these two rural sectors.

TABLE 1. Major features of the rural sector of Swaziland by tenure

  Individual Tenure Farms Swazi Nation Land
Area ('000 ha) 743 984a
Rural development areas b - 489
Non-rural development area - 309
Other land in trust - 186
Ratio of agricultural output (%) 60 40
Production growth rate (%) 5 2.8
Resident population ( '000) 148 345
Average holding (ha) 800 2.75

Source: Third National Development Plan 1978179-1982/83 and Annual Statistical Bulletin 1979 (Central Statistical office).
a. Whereas virtuality the whole area of freehold land is included in the ITFs. the Swazi Nation Land farms occupy less than 120,000 hectares of the Swazi Nation Land. Most of the balance is taken up by communal grazing land.
b. Designated under the Rural Development Areas Programme (see the section, Land Tenure Reform).

Swazi Nation Land

The Swazi Nation Land (SNL) is vested in the king (Ngwenyama) in trust for the Swazi nation, and cannot be individually owned or sold. Land belongs to the nation and not to individuals. Individuals have a right of use but not of ownership. The king governs the land through local chiefs, who act as the main administrators of the land tenure system. Under the customary system, a chief is a head of a community (chiefdom), responsible to the king for land distribution and for ensuring loyalty to the king. Chiefs allocate land to individual households through the kukhonta system. Under this system, an individual, seeking to own, or rather, use land, approaches the chief who, in conjunction with the community in the chiefdom, may decide to allocate land to the individual. In principle, every household, through its male head, has a right to land for cultivation and residence, and general rights to communal pasture land. The size of land allocated to individuals is, ostensibly, based on need and ability, but it is not uncommon for a chief to allocate large expanses of land to himself, his close associates, and those individuals who have successfully ingratiated themselves with the chief by providing certain "essentials", for example, beasts, money, alcohol, etc. Once an individual has been allocated land, he enjoys some degree of security of tenure, including the right to pass land on to his children. However, the chief can always reallocate the land or evict the household, although this occurs quite infrequently.

Grazing, as stated earlier, is communal and the location of grazing pastures is determined by the chief with the advice of members of the chiefdom. Land designated as communal pastures is used during the crop growing season. During the winter months, livestock is allowed to graze on the arable land. The local chief often decides when cattle go off arable land and when they return. Consequently, the decision affects the time in which the farmer has to plant and harvest his crops. Fencing of arable land is by tradition proscribed, though of late some chiefs, usually the progressive ones, have tended to ignore this tradition.

Production on the SNL is primarily for subsistence and less than 10 per cent of total production is offered for sale. Maize, the staple food of Swaziland, is the principal crop grown on the SNL and occupies about 80 per cent of the total crop areas. Maize is quite frequently mix-cropped with cucurbits, legumes, sweet potatoes, and sorghum. In recent years, SNL farmers have appreciably increased production of some cash crops, such as cotton, tobacco, and vegetables, but this still represents a small proportion of the total SNL agricultural production, which has increased at a rate of approximately 2.8 per cent per annum over the past decade, barely keeping pace with the growth of population. Farming techniques are almost exclusively traditional, using very simple tools and employing predominantly family labour and draught animals.

Livestock husbandry provides one of the major agricultural preoccupations of farmers on the SNL. National cattle numbers were estimated at 660,505 in 1979. Of these, about 550,000 were owned by Swazi farmers on the SNL. The cattle population on the SNL has been increasing at a rate of about 3 per cent per year, a rate almost similar to the rate of growth of human population, and rates of destocking remain very low. Overstocking is thus a very critical problem on Swazi Nation Land, resulting in the deterioration of pastures, soil erosion, and loss of condition of most animals, particularly during dry weather conditions. Since privately held animals are grazed on publicly held land, there are no incentives to individuals to reduce herd size and to improve pasture. Table 2 provides a rough indication of the cattle situation in Swaziland.

Individual Tenure Farms

As indicated in table 1, Individual Tenure Farms (ITFs) cover an area of about 750,000 hectares and average about 800 hectares each. About three-quarters of the freehold title holdings are held in equal proportions between Swazis, the majority of whom are the so-called "white Swazis," and expatriates, and the balance belongs to large companies such as the Commonwealth Development Corporation.

The ITFs are predominantly cropland, livestock ranches, timber and fruit plantations, and mining concessions. However, a large proportion of this subsector consists of unused land, owned by absentees. Production techniques on most of the ITFs are modern and intensive, including use of full inputs and mechanization. The bulk of output produced in this subsector is intended for the market, both domestic and foreign. Sugar and timber are the principal commodities and account for a sizeable proportion of total merchandise exports. About 60 per cent of the national agricultural production originates from the ITFs, and includes other important commercial crops such as cotton, citrus, pineapples, tobacco, and livestock. This subsector grows at a rate of about 5 per cent per year. However, it must be stressed that, though the literature on this sector tends to take it for granted that the ITFs are technically efficient, it is very difficult to judge, given the paucity of relevant data, the extent to which ITFs operate efficiently. But there is no question that a sizeable portion of the ITFs, owned by absentee landlords and part-time farmers, remains underutilized.

Agricultural Production in Swaziland

As stated earlier, agriculture constitutes one of the most important sectors in the economy of Swaziland. According to de Vletter 11981), "Available data suggests that primary agricultural production including planted forests, contributes approximately one-third of the Gross Domestic Product, and that agricultural processing accounts for more than 80 per cent of the value added by manufacturing and more than half of total industrial output." The agricultural sector is very diversified, and is differentiated not only by geographic region but also and, even more important, by the dichotomy between the traditional and modern sectors. While the growth of agricultural production has been relatively high, it is notable that the rate of growth has emanated mainly from the ITFs and production on the SNL has remained relatively static, barely keeping pace with the rate of population increase. Consequently, the benefits of agricultural production have disproportionately accrued to the ITFs.

TABLE 2. Cattle population and offtake in Swaziland

Year Cattle population in Swazilanda Cattle slaughtered Percentage slaughtered Value of meat export (emelangeni)
1972 589,220 53,842 9.1 -
1973 602,414 44,787 7.4 -
1974 607,366 52,438 8.6 -
1975 621,721 49,124 7.9 2,035,681.69
1976 634,241 48,606 7.7 3,664,415.09
1977 634,090 50,410 7.9 4,586,224.44
1978 644,156 60,198 9.3 8,186,946.52
1979 660,505 56,866 8.6 10,388,297.05

Source: P.M.D. Martin, "Agriculture in Swaziland-Past, Present and Future," Royal Swaziland Society of Science and Technology Special Conference Issue, vol. 3, no. 1 (Nov. 1980): 17.

a. The majority of the cattle in Swaziland are located on the SNL.

TABLE 3. Maize production and imports (metric tonnes)

Year SNL ITFs Maize produced locally Imported maize
1964 - - 30,475  
1965 - - 31,745 -
1966 - - 36,552 -
1967 55,600 6,983 62,583 -
1968 40,186 3,946 44,132 -
1969 52,875 3,797 56,672 29,442
1970 57,042 4,518 61,560 23,399
1971 82,147 7,894 90,041 16,932
1972 102,396 10,499 112,895 14,771
1973 77,893 9,941 87,834 25,130
1974 108,578 8,676 117,254 20,410
1975 87,961 5,950 95,911 20,658
1976 86,105 11,358 97,463 27,641
1977 68,764 - - 35,060
1978 96,329 - - 35,088
1979 65,291 - - 44,610

Source: P.M.D. Martin (see table 2).

Maize, a crop grown mainly on the SNL, has hardly kept pace with national requirements, leading to increased imports from the Republic of South Africa (see table 3). It is noteworthy, with respect to table 3, that the annual production of maize on the SNL appears to have declined since 1974 from a high of over 100,000 tonnes to a low of approximately 65,000 tonnes in 1979. In addition, maize imports have rapidly increased from 15,000 tonnes to 45,000 tonnes (69 per cent of maize production on the SNL) during the same period. There has, therefore, been an increasing dependence on foreign sources of maize, a crop of vital importance to the survival of the nation. Quite clearly, the goal of selfsufficiency in maize seems a remote possibility unless far-reaching steps are taken to precipitate fundamental changes in the production of this crop.

Other output statistics also show a consistent pattern of dependence on South Africa. Table 4, for example, indicates that the import of fluid milk has also been on the ascendancy over the years. Milk produced domestically, as a proportion of total milk consumed in the country, has declined from 29.8 per cent in 1975 to 6.6 per cent in 1979.

It is anticipated that, with the recent reorganization and strengthening of the Swaziland Dairy Board, the situation may be improved. But improvements will be closely related to policies which attempt to modify the communal grazing patterns on the SNL. Unless this is done, any material changes in the production of milk can only come from the ITFs.

The pattern of crop production and land use on the SNL has changed very slowly over the years. Maize has continued to be a predominant crop, although there has been some change in certain areas. The Third National Development Plan, for instance, indicates that "over the last seven years, the expansion of high-value crops such as cotton and tobacco has been encouraged as a measure to increase farm incomes. However, the programme has affected only some 71,270 hectares of land and caters for 33,615 people living in some 4,000 homesteads, constituting approximately 1 per cent of the total rural population."

Table 5 clearly shows the dominant position occupied by maize in the SNL cropping pattern. The predominance of maize in the range of crops grown on the SNL emanates not only from attitudinal factors but also from the land tenure system which is practiced on the SNL. As stated earlier, the grazing patterns of livestock, between the communal pastures and arable land, determine the timing of planting and harvesting. They therefore influence the decisions which farmers have to make and impose a limit on the range of crops which an individual farmer may grow. Consequently, there is pressure on farmers to effect uniformity in crop production.

Another feature reflected in table 5 is the predominance of land allocated to communal pastures. About 10 per cent of the total SNL is used for raising crops and close to 90 per cent is devoted to grazing. Undoubtedly, Swazis are primarily cattle raisers, but cultural attitudes towards cattle continue to serve as intractable bottlenecks to making livestock farming a commercial enterprise. It is apparent from the existing stocking rates and the continued reluctance of Swazi farmers to increase offtake that any attempt to redistribute land between arable and pasture can only result in the exacerbation of the acute problem of overstocking.

Given the numbers of cattle on the SNL, it is clear that, with increased monetization of cattle husbandry in this subsector, the prospects for increasing the economic development of Swazi farmers can be enhanced. However, a combination of factors militates against this possibility, for example, the use of cattle as draught animals, the communual grazing patterns on the SNL, low yields resulting from technical and managerial constraints, and lack of adequate information on animal husbandry and price conditions.

TABLE 4. Milk production and imports (litres)

Year Swaziland production Percentage of total milk consumed Imported milk (RSA)
1975 528,944 29.8 1,159,147
1976 614,263 28.3 1,537,720
1977 442,693 12.9 2,162,741
1978 291,844 6.6 2,739.997
1979 340,851 6.6 2,747,839

Source: P.M.D. Martin (see table 2).

TABLE 5. Land use and major crops on Swazi Nation Land (percentage distribution)


Land use


Major crops

1971/72 1975/76 1971/72 1975/76
Cultivation 9.3 9.8 Maize 73.6 66.9
Fallow 1.7 2.2 Groundnuts 5.8 4.6
Homestead and     Cotton 4.5 11.3
other lands 0.7 0.6 Jugo beans 3.3 1.8
Grazing land 88.3 87.4 Sorghum 3.0 3.2
      Beans 2.5 2.4
      Sweet potatoes 1.1 2.0
      Pumpkins 3.4 3.9
      Tobacco 0.4 0.6
      Other crops 2.4 3.3
Total 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0  

Source: Third National Development Plan (see table 1), p. 72.

While production on the SNL is mainly directed at optimizing subsistence, the ITFs produce mainly for the market. Freehold land contributes about 60 per cent of the total agricultural output, accounts for a sizeable proportion of total merchandise exports, and provides the basis for most of the manufacturing activity in the country. For this reason, therefore, the benefits of agricultural production are skewed in favour of a small minority, the majority of which are foreigners, and the SNL has continued to be a depressed subsector, reflecting a continuous relative deterioration in real living standards.

Rapid population increase in the SNL has further compounded the problem of rural poverty and the concomitant decrease in agricultural productivity by exerting great pressures on the limited land resource base, thus reducing the marginal productivity and incomes of farm families on the SNL. Consequently, the SNL is currently experiencing outmigration of labour into the ITFs and industrial sector. Given the limited capacity of these sectors to expand productive employment opportunities, however, open unemployment in the modern sector and underemployment in the SNL are fast becoming problems of alarming magnitude.

In brief, therefore, the consequences of the dual land tenure system are reflecting themselves in an ever increasing gap in incomes between the traditional and modern sectors with the SNL farmer being the most disadvantaged one.

Land Tenure Reform

The prospect of improving the agricultural productivity of SNL farmers and reducing the asymmetrical distribution of wealth among rural households continues to be a remote ideal and is a main feature in the several national challenges which call for policy formulation and implementation. The Swaziland Government, through its Rural Development Areas Programme, has invested massive efforts and resources in promoting agricultural improvements in the SNL. On the basis of this programme, it is hoped that, by providing access to improved technologies, market facilities, credit, extension services, and rationalization of land use, the productivity of Swazi farmers can be enhanced. However, despite this important sectoral shift in emphasis, the relative level of poverty on the SNL has remained the same and has, in fact, been accentuated among certain poverty groups, particularly those with limited access to land.

The above experience of the programme underscores the view that efforts at increasing agricultural productivity and incomes of poor farmers often prove to be insufficient to stimulate meaningful changes if not associated with assiduous attempts to reallocate productive assets and modify decision-making patterns. The latter preconditions entail profound changes affecting those social and institutional structures which condition the transformation process of traditional societies. In this context, it must be recognized that economic and non-economic considerations cannot be separated in the formulation of a consistently relevant policy of agricultural modernization.

Land is an important productive asset in agriculture and is a major factor in determining inequity in the distribution of rural income. When land is unevenly distributed, the prospects for the development of rural smallholders are made extremely intractable. Todaro (1977), for example, explains this idea very well when he states that "large landowners with their disproportionate access to the complementary inputs and support services are able to gain a 'competitive' advantage over smallholders.... Large-scale farmers obtain access to low interest government credit, while small-holders are forced to turn to the moneylender. The inevitable result is the further widening of the gap between rich and poor."

The existence of structural and income duality in the agricultural sector of Swaziland cannot be mitigated unless the institutional distortions on the SNL are modified to enable the subsector to take fuller advantage of the new and efficient production possibilities which are promoted by the Development Programme. Quite clearly, the current land tenure system as practiced on the SNL is a powerful influence on the failure of Swazi farmers to expand commercial production. The disposition of smallholders towards livestock improvements and investments in processes of agricultural capital formation can be heightened in an environment which provides prospects of long and secure tenure.

One shibboleth of economic thought which has dramatically influenced the literature and past intervention programmes of land reform is the assertion that freehold tenure is eminently superior and more efficient than any other form of land tenure. However, current research and experiences of the developing countries are increasingly reflecting the view that reform of any kind can be a debilitating and futile undertaking if phenomena which work in the developed world are directly transplanted into the developing countries without any adaptations to make them appropriate for the countries for which they are intended.

Any transformation of the land tenure system on the SNL must be sensitively adjusted to accommodate the various sensitivities and concerns of the powers-that-be, and to provide a meaningful option for the target population, viz., the subsistence farmers. As stated earlier, the practice of selling land is absolutely incompatible with Swazi culture. Thus, freehold tenure is considered alien to the mores and values of the Swazis. In addition, objections to this form of tenure can be advanced on practical economic and equity grounds; freehold tenure has the real danger of further destabilizing the equity objective by concentrating land in the hands of those who can afford to purchase it, thus resulting in the emergence of a landless class. Furthermore, it is not possible to state in absolute terms that the emergence of such a tenurial arrangement will, ipso facto, result in increased agricultural productivity and improvements in the economic welfare of Swazi farmers.

Within the framework of the above, it is important that, in designing changes in the traditional land tenure system, the final outcome be measured against the following criteria (Maine and Strieker 1971 ).

  1. Security of tenure. According to the customary land tenure, farm families, once they have gone through the process of kukhonta, have a right of use of land, not of ownership. While it is said that chiefs may not evict individuals unless they have committed unpardonable acts such as witchcraft, there are several cases where evictions have been based on petty issues, primarily emanating from simple jealousies. Such uncertainties do play a role in a farmer's decision to invest in land improvements and commercial production.
  2. Clarity of tit/e. The rights and obligations of the farmer to land must be clearly stated to include a specification of his right to improve his holding, the propriety of fencing off arable land, and the extent to which he can exclude others from using his piece of land, for example, for communal grazing during winter months. Furthermore, each farmer must be certain about the boundaries of his land and about the extent of his rights regarding water use.
  3. Freedom to use land as collateral. Land, being an economic and productive asset, can be used as a means to assist farmers to secure credit from banks. Currently, under the existing system, farmers can only bond their cattle against bank loans. Where a farmer does not have cattle, he is left with no physical asset to use as collateral. The farmer should at least have the authority to use the monetary value of his land to secure credit from financial institutions.

At various times, advocates of the present tenure system on the SNL have indicated that the traditional land tenure system confers a long-term leasehold right to individuals. However, the extent to which this right can be defended legally remains unclear. At this stage of national development, it is essential that the nebulous leasehold occupation of land by Swazi farmers be reflected in a contract of lease clearly specifying the conditions under which farmers have a right to land use and management. In addition, the lease should unequivocally state the principal rights and obligations of farmers under customary tenure so as to engender clarity on those aspects of the present tenure system which remain obscure.

It is noteworthy that under a leasehold system, land would continue to be held in trust for the Swazi nation by the king. However, the relationship between landholders and chiefs is bound to be marginally transformed. This constitutes an area which requires serious consideration before changes in the present tenure pattern are effected, so as to ensure that chiefs are not alienated by such a change. On the whole, chiefs have a vested interest in the perpetuation of the status quo and may, therefore, not be sufficiently flexible to accept modifications of their responsibilities and areas of control. It is thus incumbent upon the policymakers to consider alternative ways of compensating chiefs for their likely loss in stature. Since chiefs are currently not being paid salaries for the work that they do on the SNL, compensation of chiefs by paying them salaries may, for example, present a viable option.

One serious implication of the proposed modifications of the present land tenure system is that they may curtail the right of avail which all Swazi citizens currently have under the customary land tenure. However, this should be contrasted with the rates of return which may emanate from a leasehold tenure system and the increased degree of certainty with which farmers would now hold land.

Given the above considerations, it is, therefore, essential that any change in the present land tenure system be introduced gradually and in a few selected areas, particularly in those areas where chiefs and communities have a likelihood of responding favourably to the opportunities which may be offered by the leasehold tenurial system. This should progressively be expanded as the benefits of the system become both obvious and appreciated by the target communities.


In this paper, we have attempted to describe the dual nature of the land tenure system operating in Swaziland and to indicate the extent to which it is a contributory factor in the uneven distribution of income and economic progress in the rural areas. It is argued in the paper that marginal changes in the traditional tenure system may have beneficial effects in transforming traditional agriculture on the SNL into modernized agriculture. The proposed leasehold system may not be drastically different from the existing tenure system but it has the definite attribute of obviating some of the uncertainties which are inherent in the present form of land tenure.

In conclusion, it is of paramount importance to note that, although the traditional land system on the SNL is one of the major bottlenecks in agricultural productivity and incomes, programmes of land reform can be worthless investments unless they are accompanied by programmes to ameliorate the myriad other factors which continue to retard the stimulation of agricultural production on Swazi Nation land.


de Vletter, F. 1981. "Rural Development and Agricultural Dualism: A Case Study of Swaziland." Paper presented at the International Conference on Rural Development, Harare, Zimbabwe, 8 - 10 June 1981.

Hughes, A.J.B. 1972. Land Tenure, Land Rights and Land Communities on Swazi Notion Land in Swaziland: A Discussion of Some Interrelationships Between the Tenurial System and Problems of Agrarian Development. Institute for Social Research, University of Natal, Durban.

Maina, M., and G.G. Strieker. 1971. Customary Land Tenure and Modern Agriculture on Swazi Nation Land: A Programme of Partnership. Ministry of Agriculture, Mbabane.

Nsibandre, B.M. 1981. Opening speech at the Workshop on Population, Employment and Rural Development. Mbabane, Swaziland, 11 December 1981.

Todaro, M.P. 1977. Economic Development in the Third World. Longman, London.

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