Eswatini’s King Mswati III stirred up great hope among his subjects when he promised to give them better access to farmland on which to feed their families and make a living. EmaSwati were asked to apply for access to specific, underutilised farms. But, five years after this promise was made, many of the king’s subjects have realized that his words were, at best, empty and, at worst, a red herring to divert attention from his real business plan.

The land in question is made up of 23 farms that span almost 15 000 hectares in the Lubombo and Shiselweni regions. These farms are all supposed to be held in trust by the king for the benefit of emaSwati. As the historian, Dr JSM Matsebula, points out, the land held by iNgwenyama (king) in trust for the Swazi nation does not mean the king owns the land. It means the king holds the land for emaSwati.

Nevertheless, despite his promise to use the farms he holds in trust for his subjects to increase farming opportunities for his impoverished people, King Mswati III did the opposite. On October 4, 2017, he registered (Certificate of Incorporation No. 2524 of 2017) a private company called Silulu Royal Holdings (Pty) Ltd.

The "ownership" of this land was transferred to Silulu, the king’s company, through a 99-year lease agreement. Silulu leased the land from the iNgwenyama (king) and iNdlovukazi (queen mother) in trust for emaSwati for a nominal fee of E1 (0.05 USD) a year. At this point another royal company comes into play.

Enter the royal sub-letting company, Temaswati Farms (Pty) Ltd. This was established to sublease the farms from Silulu. In turn, Temaswati was registered under Certificate of Incorporation No. 703 of 2020 on May 19, 2020, and, as court papers show, it sub leases the farms out to commercial farming operations. Inhlase understands that the farms can generate E100 000 (5 295 USD) or more each per year. The proceeds benefit the royal companies, no-one else.

The Notarial Deed of Sub-Lease between Silulu Royal Holdings (Pty) Ltd. and Temaswati Farms (Pty) Ltd. reads: “The sub-lessee shall have the right, while this sub-lease remains in force, to use the land for agri-activities including, without limitation, cultivation, planting, harvesting, and processing of trees, crops, and pastures on the sub-let property.”

It goes on to state that "the sub-lessee shall not sub-let or permit occupation by any third party of the sub-let property or any portion thereof without the prior written consent of the sub-lessor. The sub-lessee will be obliged to permit such third parties to continue to exercise the rights under such servitudes if they comply with their respective obligations."

The way in which the king has usurped control and financial benefit from the 23 farms has raised concerns about what he might do with vast swathes of other land that he holds in trust for his subjects. Eswatini covers 1.7 million hectares of land, of which 1 million is Swazi Nation Land (SNL). This is also held by the iNgwenyama in trust for emaSwati. This land should benefit ordinary people largely through customary land rights, which would allow communities to feed themselves and make a living from it. While access to this land is controlled by chiefs who are aligned with the king, there is growing concern that there is little to stop the king from commandeering this land under Silulu control as well so he can lease it out for the sole benefit of the royal family.

When the king promised to increase access to the 23 farms in 2017, the ministry of agriculture was inundated with applications from indigenous farmers. But applicants complain of having been sent from "pillar to post" by government officials whose hands were clearly tied because the farms had secretly been taken over by Silulu under the disputed 99-year leases. Current Ministry of Agriculture Principal Secretary, Sydney Simelane, confirmed to Inhlase that the ministry received farm lease applications. These, he said, were then passed on to Eswatini Finance Minister and Silulu Royal Holdings Board chair, Neal Herman Rijkenberg, who is responsible for processing them.

Silulu Board Chairman Neal Herman Rijkenberg

Minister of Agriculture, Jabulani Mabuza, who also sits on Silulu’s four-man board, acquired a special power of attorney, Inhlase can show, from the king to act on his behalf as the king’s agent, especially when informing communities that they had to stop farming and/or get off earmarked farms. Mabuza did not respond to Inhlase’s request for comment.

Inhlase tracked down a small group of award-winning women farmers who had approached Mabuza and then Principal Secretary Bongani Masuku about leasing one of the 23 farms. One of them, who insisted on anonymity, described the reluctance of senior public servants to grant them an audience for them to present their farming proposal. This raised suspicion.

Another applicant spoke to Inhlase, who also on condition of remaining anonymous for fear of reprisals, said: “As award-winning farmers of the Woman Farmer Competition organized annually by the Woman Farmer Foundation (WFF), we decided to approach the minister of agriculture and then the principal secretary about renting one of the idle government farms. We’d planned to divide it into plots among our top 10 winners since the competition's inception. We’re in crop farming, vegetable farming, dairy farming, poultry farming, and feedlotting. Surprisingly, they turned down our request without giving us any valid reason. This wasn’t easy to accept because the minister had been encouraging us to organize ourselves and lease one government farm to grow our business.”

While applications for access to the 23 farms were getting nowhere, communities living on the farms started receiving eviction notices to make way for Temaswati’s new commercial tenants. Many of the affected communities had been farming this land since the reign of King Sobhuza II. One such example is the Shewula and Lomahasha residents utilizing Nkalashane Farm R/716 in the Lubombo region. According to the ministry of agriculture, this 1 567-hectare farm has 660 hectares of arable land. In 2019, Minister Mabuza delivered a royal directive to the community, which ordered them to stop farming. The poverty-stricken community now faces hunger and poverty and relies on aid from the World Food Programme (WFP).

Inhlase approached the Eswatini Federation of Cooperative Unions (ESWAFCU) and the Eswatini National Agricultural Union (ESNAU) for comment. However, they chose to steer clear of what they termed "politics" surrounding the leasing of the Silulu farms. Fearing retaliation, they would not deny or confirm challenges faced by their members who are interested in land now held by Silulu Royal Holdings and sub-leased by Temaswati Farms.

The WFP Eswatini Country Brief, March 2022, points out why giving communities access to land for subsistence farming is critical. Over 70 percent of the country’s total population (60 percent of this group are women) rely on subsistence farming. In the Global Hunger Index of 2022, Eswatini is ranked 73 out of 121 countries, which is a deterioration compared to 69 out of the 116 that it was ranked in 2021. Women are key enablers of economic independence, as the reports highlight, which means that access to farmland is critical to building people’s livelihoods and reducing poverty.

The Labour Force Survey (2016) found that only 29% of the youth participate in agriculture amidst a high youth unemployment rate of 47.4%. Youth participation in agriculture can provide employment in agribusiness and help the country achieve food security through crop and livestock farming. Inhlase interviewed young farmers, who singled out lack of land access as the biggest challenge faced by the youth in the agriculture sector.

One aspiring agripreneur told Inhlase that: “Most of us are University of Eswatini agriculture graduates equipped with entrepreneurship and farming skills to run farming businesses. But our big challenge is a lack of land access to start or grow our farming businesses. Our parents always try to assist by allocating us 1.5 hectares of family land, which proves inadequate.”

He adds: “Imagine you’re straight from varsity; you’re then expected to afford an exorbitant farm rental. Not to mention procuring the expensive farm inputs and implements. Worst still, the unspoken political Silulu farms’ rules and beyond- reach farm rentals are indeed a major stumbling block.”

Access to government farms in Eswatini has become impossible for ordinary citizens as the king is able to make lucrative deals with big companies. For example, in 2018, Silulu clinched an agricultural investment deal with TWK Investments Ltd., a South African-based company. In his latest Managing Director’s report, André Myburgh reported that TWK was doing business with Silulu Royal Holdings in the timber and grain segments. The Silulu Royal Forestry Project, a collaboration agreement between Shiselweni Forestry Company and Silulu Royal Holdings, was developing approximately 25,000 hectares of new plantations and other agricultural farming activities in the Shiselweni region of eSwatini.

“The project will secure sustainable timber provision and unlock further value-adding opportunities for TWK. The production of maize meal and animal feed at the same site increases productivity and restricts costs,” reads Myburgh’s report.

These deals between Silulu and commercial farming companies have not benefited the king’s subjects or improved the economic outlook in Eswatini. The country remains a net importer of agricultural products, including maize, fruit, vegetables, dairy, and poultry, from neighbouring South Africa.

National Maize Corporation (NMC) chief executive officer, Mavela Vilane, said. Eswatini is still failing to produce the annual 140 000 metric tons of its staple food, white maize, required to feed the nation. Local farmers are only able to produce about 127 000 metric tons, which means that the country spends close to E300 million importing maize and E200 million importing beans from South Africa each year.

This investigation was done with support from the Henry Nxumalo Foundation for Investigative Journalism and syndicated by the IJ Hub