Nomsa Mngomezulu is from the impoverished, drought-prone Nkalashane area, under the Lomahasha chiefdom in the Lubombo region.

She is currently Eswatini’s reigning woman farmer of the year, but what not many emaSwati realise is that she does not own the land she farms. She farms without security of tenure on a farm owned by the ministry of agriculture, which King Mswati III has transferred to Silulu Royal Holdings (PTY) Ltd.

Silulu has a board of four: Minister of Finance, Neal Rijkenberg, who is its chairperson and Chief Officer in the King’s Office; Chief Mgwagwa Gamedze; Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Jabulani Mabuza; and managing director of Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, Themba Dlamini.

The land on which Mngomezulu runs her award-winning farming operation alongside 50 other subsistence farmers from the community is called Nkalashane Farm R/716. It is 1 567 hectares in extent, of which about 660 hectares are arable, according to the ministry of agriculture’s records.

In 2019, the ministry of agriculture ordered the subsistence farmers using this land to stop all farming on it because it had been earmarked for a royal farming project. This project would have been run on behalf of Silulu by another royal company called Temaswati Farms, named after one of King Mswati III’s daughters.

When asked about the rate at which Temaswati leases farmland to commercial businesses, an impeccable inside source who asked to remain anonymous only disclosed that since the company was established in 2018, seven of them have been leased out to investors at an annual cost of about E100 000 each. He did confirm that most of the investors are foreign nationals. In some cases, they have partnered with emaSwati.

"The money for rental is paid out to a bank account held by Silulu that is controlled directly by His Majesty. Affairs of Silulu Royal Holdings are also controlled by His Majesty, and the board reports directly to the king. The establishment of Silulu Royal Holdings was meant to commercialise land lying idle," the source added.

Mngomezulu continues to farm on the land, but does so under the continuous threat of eviction. Inhlase has established that the Temaswati Farm project that was planned for this farm has officially been scrapped. However, this has not been communicated with Mngomezulu and her subsistence-farming community.

While the story of Nkalashane Farm contradicts the promise by the king and government to increase production by smallholder farmers in the kingdom, Thembinkhosi Dlamini, the Executive Director of the Coordinated Assembly for Non-governmental Organisations, (Cango), said the establishment of Silulu Royal Holdings, with all its noble intentions, had made life hell for the emaSwati settled on state-owned farms and "was a violation of the kingdom’s citizens".

He said, "The land question is a hangover from colonial times. It cannot be resolved piecemeal until power is firmly in the hands of the Swazi people in a new democratic dispensation and a constitutional and democratically elected government is presiding over matters of state policy."

Dlamini is referring to Eswatini’s complicated land tenure system. At independence in 1968, King Mswati III's father, King Sobhuza II, promised change after colonial rule and set out to buy back the land from the British colonialists for the resettlement of emaSwati . To help buy back the land, King Sobhuza II imposed levies on emaSwati. These funds went into what was called the Lifa Fund, which was created with British assistance for the buyback programme. The land that was bought back was earmarked as Swazi Nation Land (SNL), or communal land, which the Ingwenya (king) is also supposed to hold in trust for his people.

Around the same time as starting the land buy-back programme, King Sobhuza II set up a government investment company called Tibiyo Taka Ngwane. It means the wealth of the nation and was set up in trust for the people of Eswatini.

Tibiyo became a major state landholding vehicle, and by 1991, it owned more than half of the estimated 100 000 acres that had been bought back for emaSwati at independence. King Sobhuza had also given some of the farms that had been bought back for emaSwati to his friends and allies to run for private benefit.

The British government objected and stopped support for the buyback programme. The Lifa Fund collapsed.

The author of When the Sleeping Grass Awakens, Richard Levin, noted: "While the amount of Swazi Nation land had legally increased to over 50 percent of the total land surface, much of the land, including that acquired through the Lifa Fund, had not been reallocated for settlement under the traditional tenurial control of the chief."

Meanwhile, Tibyio has grown into one of Eswatini’s biggest and most profitable corporations, with stakes in many sectors, including farming. Despite the company having been set up to hold assets in trust for emaSwati, the company accounts are not published and don’t appear in any state reports. Tibiyo funds are also not used to help the country’s ailing economy. It has become apparent that it is not accountable to emaSwati and the current monarch has free rein over it.

The government describes the farms that have been collected on 99-year leases by Silulu as land meant to increase access to land. In practice, however, the central government has no role to play on the farms. It also gets nothing from the farms that are leased to commercial

farming businesses. The Notorial Deed states that money received from Temaswati leasing land is for royal companies.

Silulu Royal Holdings was established by King Mswati III, along with two other royal companies. Silulu Royal Forestry, one of the key players in the forestry industry, largely in the Shiselweni region, and Temaswati Farms, responsible for leasing state farms held by Silulu to investors, These companies share one address, the King’s Office in Lozitha.

There is growing concern among ordinary citizens in Eswatini that if Silulu Holdings is, with government help, able to secure 99-year leases at nominal rates on state farms, what surety do emaSwati have that this will not be done with the Swazi Nation Land? This is communal land held in trust for the people by the king, and it makes up 1m hectare of the country’s 1.7m hectares of land.

Chairperson of the board and Minister of Finance, Rijkenberg, declined to respond to questions sent by Inhlase on 19 May 2023, on the operations of Silulu and its sister companies. This was not the first time the board had opted to remain silent when questioned about the affairs of Silulu. Four years ago, The Nation sent a questionnaire to Minister Mabuza. The then principal secretary, Bongani Masuku, asked that the questionnaire be directed to him, but he never responded.

Silulu Board Chairman Neal Herman Rijkenberg

Masuku, who has now retired from government, is, according to Inhlase’s source, being considered for a senior manager position at Silulu. He would be the first fully paid employee of the royal land company, the source confirmed.

An employee of Montigny, a company closely linked to Minister Rijkenberg, Dr Colin Lovely, has been holding fort as general manager at the royal land company. Inhlase established that he gets no extra salary for services rendered at Silulu.

An elder of the Lomahasha chiefdom, Sivulane Mahlalela, who also farms on the contended Nkalashane farmland in Lombashe, said the royal’s attempt to take it over not only defied customary dictates but was also an insult to the people of Lomahasha.

"We don’t have arable land for farming since our homes are built on rocky lands. The farm was the only arable land we could use.

"With most people tilling the land having gone on orders of the ministry of agriculture, it is now lying idle. And as far as we culturally know, inkhosi ayinyatseli ka-Lomahasha—the king is traditionally and culturally prohibited from setting foot at Lomahasha," said Mahlalela.

Mahlalela and Mngomezulu’s situation is not an isolated one. Thousands of emaSwati are affected by Silulu’s land-grabbing programme.

Khakhayi Hlatjwako of Gege in the Shiselweni region is another of many emaSwati being deprived of their land to make way for Silulu. Hlatjwako and fellow community members have always thought that the land they farm had been given to them.

"We contributed some money (about 40 years ago) towards the purchase of the farm. We then approached the authorities to help us acquire the land for our homes and farming.

"A lot of papers were signed at the ministry of agriculture. We were told the land had been bought for our use.

"But around 2020, we were surprised when Silulu brought some people to take a portion of our land, which they use for farming. Where then are our sons and daughters going to build their homes?" asked Hlatjwako.

The land taken by Silulu Royal Holdings was, according to Hlatjwako, earmarked for the expansion and resettlement of younger generations who might want to build their own homes.

"Sibuhlungu kakhulu ngalokwentekako (We are extremely hurt by what is happening). We have been told the land belongs to the king; it has never been given to us, and sadly, we have nothing to show as proof that it was given to us.

"Government claims our farmland is lying idle as we cannot sufficiently till it. But the truth of the matter is that it is the government that is failing our efforts by not providing us with tractors. Government is still owing us many hours of tractor service from previous years," added Hlatjwako.

Another case was detailed in a 2018 Amnesty International report on the security of land tenure and eviction in Eswatini. Lomgcibelo and Thoko Dlamini are sisters, born two years apart in 1950 and 1952, respectively. They grew up on portion 26 of farm 692 at Nokwane in the Manzini region. After the death of their parents, they took ownership of the homestead. However, in September 2014, heavy machinery, accompanied by police, demolished their homes because the king wanted to use it for another project. The family was loaded onto trucks and removed. However, with legal help, they successfully sued the government for compensation. Inhlase was unable to establish if the government ever paid the E300 000 compensation to the sisters as ordered by the court.

Another well-documented case demonstrates King Mswati’s modus operandi and how he secures government help when it comes to land seizures. In 2020, Bernard Nxumalo of Ezikhotheni in Mhlosheni and other community members were evicted from the Paradys Farm on which they live and farm. The reason was that the land had been transferred to Silulu Royal Holdings. Documents in Inhlase’s possession show that this farm was held by the Ingwenyama (king) in trust for emaSwati. The farm was placed in trust for emaSwati in 1994, as the Deed of Transfer confirms.

This case has drawn attention to the way in which Minister Mabuza obtained a special power of attorney in 2019, which gave him the power to sign a notorial deed of lease from the lessor, the iNgwenyama in trust to the lessee, Silulu Holdings, for a period of 99 years at a cost of E1 (0.05USD) a year. The court papers also name Silulu as a sub-lessor that leases the land to Temaswati, which, in turn, is able to lease the land out to commercial farming businesses.

The legality of the appointment and delegation of powers to Minister Mabuza are being challenged by Nxumalo and the community on Paradys Farm, which spans 2 566 hectares.

In papers before the court, they argue that the king’s purported delegation of power is unconstitutional. They contend that he has no power to lease out land.

"The nett effect of this is that [by] directing Jabulani Clement Mabuza to enter into lease contracts with Silulu Royal Holdings... in relation to the usage of the twenty-three (23) farms, including Paradys Farm, His Majesty was not only acting contrary to the Constitution; in fact, he sought to arrogate himself powers that he did not have as a matter of law," according to Nxumalo’s argument. This investigation was done with support from the Henry Nxumalo Foundation for Investigative Journalism and syndicated by the IJ Hub