Swaziland: Settlers, colonialism and the struggle for national identity (1907 - 1945)

Updated July 2008

Notwithstanding the work of the special court of 1890 considerable confusion existed in 1907 around the nature and extent of the various concessions, especially conflicting claims between the Swazis and the concession holders, and the Swaziland Concessions Commission was appointed to bring order to the situation (Crush 1979, 187; Simelane 1991, 719). After a general survey in 1905-06 and intensive lobbying by settlers the Crown Lands Order and the Concessions Partition Proclamation of 1907 allocated 43% to settlers and corporations, 22% to the crown, and the remaining 33% to reserves for the Swazi people (Crush 1979, 187; Simelane 1991, 719). Queen Labotsibeni and the Royal Council (ligcogco) were led to believe that the crown land would eventually be made available for use by the Swazi, but in fact this did not materialise (Macmillan 1989, 293; Simelane 1991, 720).

A Special Commissioner was appointed to demark the allocations made and in 1909 the work was finished; the Swazis were allocated over 30 reserves scattered across the country and were given until 1914 to move from private (settler) concessions to these reserves or to become wage labourers on the land, but by that date some 20 00 peasants still squatted there or were engaged in tenancy relations with the concession owners (Simelane 1991, 719; Macmillan 1985, 645). Attempts by Queen Labotsibeni to buy back alienated land for the nation were blocked in 1915 by a proclamation by the High Commissioner that prohibited them without his permission and restricted land sales to individuals (Simelane 1991, 720). Large scale land alienation and the heavy tax imposed in 1903 forced Swazis into wage labour and most were recruited to work on the mines of the Witwatersrand (Crush 1979, 187; Macmillan 1985, 645). Hugh Macmillan (1985, 645) observes "As a consequence of these unusually strong pressures of land alienation and taxation the Swazi had become primarily a nation of labour migrants by World War I, and remained so until the large-scale creation of local employment opportunities after World War II".

The future of the British protectorate over Swaziland was not resolved by its High Commissioner Territory status. In 1910 Swaziland joined the Southern African Customs Union along with the other High Commission territories, Basutoland (Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and the Schedule to the Union of South Africa Act envisaged their eventual incorporation into the Union (Macmillan 1989, 294; Booth 1983, 23). Up to this point the focus of Queen Labotsibeni and the Royal Council had been on avoiding incorporation into the Transvaal and resisting the land alienation, but now the likelihood of incorporation into South Africa was accepted, and the Queen set about building wider alliances through Pixley kalsaka Seme, a founding member of the African National Congress (ANC. Macmillan 1989, 294, 295). She supported her son Prince Malunge when he joined the ANC, gave support to the struggle against the South African 1914 Land Act and petitioned unsuccessfully for the allocation of land to the Swazis in the eastern Transvaal (Macmillan 1989, 294, 295, 296).

In 1921 King Sobhuza II attained his majority and revived the ncwala, but petitions in 1921 and 1922 to have him recognised as king of the Swazi in South Africa and Swaziland were unsuccessful and, indeed, the British denied him the title of King at all preferring the of Paramount Chief (Macmillan 1989, 296). The following year he left for London and in 1923 petitioned there unsuccessfully for the land partition that came into effect in 1914 to be reversed and subsequent test cases were lost (Beemer 1937, 59; Booth 1983, 30). By way of contrast, in 1921 a European Advisory Council was created to represent the interests of the white settler population, which at that point numbered some 2 000 people, before the colonial government, while their lobbying power was enhanced by a variety of farmers organisations (Booth 1983, 24, 26; Levin 1997, 42). Dominated by English speakers these bodies became increasingly opposed to incorporation with South Africa and advocated measures to secure the British character of the colony, especially those aimed at increasing British settlement such as settlement schemes, expanded infrastructure, improved administration and guaranteed loans (Booth 1983, 24, 26; Levin 1997, 42, 45).

These developments highlighted the policy of the colonial state in Swaziland to privilege the interests of the small minority of settlers at the expense of the indigenous population at every turn (Crush 1979, 183; Levin 1997, 41). Alan Booth (1983, 26) summed matters up thus: "As for the Swazis themselves, British policy in the interwar years... was one of one of studied neglect". By 1927 the colonial government's efforts were restricted to financial aid to eleven mission schools, while healthcare was wholly a mission function (Booth 1983, 27; Levin 1997, 40). The rapid spread of the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICU) in the 1926 in the eastern Transvaal and parts of Swaziland, though a spent force by 1928, pointed to the profound social and economic changes that had taken place over the previous two decades and the degree of discontent that had emerged (Macmillan 1989, 298, 299). Towards the close of the decade Sobhuza, concerned by the decay of Swazi institutions as a result of colonial incursion, the emergence of migrant labour and the division between traditionalism among the illiterate as against the growth of Christianity along with literacy, set on a path of ethnic mobilization aimed at restoring traditional institutions, especially the authority and power of the monarchy and the Swaziland National Council (Macmillan 1989, 300; 1985, 646).

The traditional policy of British colonialism, "indirect rule", was increasingly favoured by the colonial government, the settlers and the monarchy, though for very different reasons. For the colonial government and the settlers it provided a cheap administrative cushion between themselves and the indigenous population while simultaneously transforming potentially independent and subversive traditional rulers into paid lackeys of the colonial authorities (Macmillan 1989, 300; 1985, 649). For the monarchy it presented the opportunity to recover lost power and jurisdictions and revitalise the legitimacy and functioning of traditional structures and for that reason Sobhuza vigorously resisted efforts at turning traditional office bearers into paid functionaries (Macmillan 1985, 300; 1985, 649). By the 1930's the latent conflict had become explicit and continued to be so until 1950, when Sobhuza finally has his way (Macmillan 1985, 649). In a further measure by the government to curb the influence of the traditional authorities, the Swaziland Progressive Association was formed in 1929 to represent the interest of emerging intellectuals, but the election of a leadership close to the royal family and its confinement to expanding economic opportunities for its members negated its ability to challenge the authority of the monarchy and the Swaziland National Council (Macmillan 1989, 300, 301).

Sobhuza's efforts at reconciling the traditional and the modern, along with the revival of traditional practices and institutions that had become moribund, embraced initiatives aimed at the youth. The first of these was the establishment in 1931 of the Swazi National High School, in cooperation with the government, which "was intended to become 'a genuine national undertaking and cater for the cultural, social, and industrial development of the Swazi people'. There was to be an academic stream leading to the matriculation class at Fort Hare University College, but it also had a strong emphasis on agricultural training (Macmillan 1989, 301; 1985, 649). Sobhuza also revived the incorporation of Swazi youths into age regiments (Ibutho) to provide education in traditional culture and values, military training and tribute labour, against strong opposition from settlers, missionaries, some Swazi intellectuals and the pupils of the National High School, but with the support of some white intellectuals (Macmillan 1989, 301).

The rapid growth and influential role that Christianity had come to play led to another of Sobhuza's initiatives. The first effective missions had been established in the 1880s and African separatist churches began to emerge with the arrival in 1904 of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Cummergen 2000, 372). Catholicism, introduced in 1914, grew rapidly as a result of its flexible and eclectic approach to traditional culture and institutions, as by comparison with the other more conservative white controlled mission, but it was with the emergence of Zionist churches in the same year that Christianity really expanded (Cummergen 2000, 372, 373; Kuper 1963, 67, 68). The Zionists, like the Catholics, were more accommodating to traditional beliefs and practices and rejected the firm control exercised by white missionaries over the native churches and soon established close relations with Queen Regent Labotsibeni (Cummergen 2000, 372, 373). By 1920 there were 14 missionary organisations operating in Swaziland and by 1921 4% of the population was Christian and in 1929 the mission churches formed the umbrella Swaziland Missionary Conference (Cummergen 2000, 372; Booth 1983, 51).

In 1932 Sobhuza attempted to unite the Zionist and separatist churches into a "'National Church of Africa", but though it failed, the close ties of these churches with the royal family and their rapid growth in the 1930's culminated in the formation of the League of African Churches in Swaziland (LACS), which "with a flexible dogma and a great tolerance of custom" (Kuper 1963, 68) was to become a bulwark of royal support in years to come (Cummergen 2000, 375, 376). The growth of the Zionist churches in the 1930s could be seen as a reaction to the Swazi perception of the mission churches as agents of the colonial authorities and their assertion of, as Peter Kasenene (cited Cummergen 2000, 376) expressed it, "their desire for religious and political change. Independence in the church became a form of protest and search for social justice and political freedom in a religious language'. The proportion of Christians in the population (and especially of Zionists) continued to rise rapidly, reaching 35% by 1946 and 60% by 1956 (Booth 1983, 51). However, the introduction Christianity by Zulu speaking missionaries established isiZulu as the language of liturgy, education and literary activity, and the emergence of siSwati as a national language was considerably retarded as a consequence (Macmillan 1989, 302).

Sobhuza's sustained campaign against the colonial government's efforts at transforming traditional authorities into paid bureaucrats prevented the decay of chiefly authority that occurred elsewhere in British African colonies (Macmillan 1989, 305). Consequently, despite land alienation, settler incursion, labour migrancy and the emergence of a relatively westernized, educated and Christian intelligentsia, the chiefs were able to maintain a good deal of their traditional power and authority (Macmillan 1985, 654). They retained their control over the redistribution of land, labour tribute and income from traditional gifts and fines, especially as land hunger became more acute; between 1904 and 1936 the Swazi population increased by 81% and stockholdings had increased dramatically (Macmillan 1985, 654; Levin 1997, 45, 46). British requests in 1941 for assistance with the war effort, resulted in the provision of some 4 000 men for service in North Africa and Italy; the regimental system's revival was given impetus for it provided the basis on which manpower was recruited (Patricks 2000; Macmillan 1989, 302).

The Second World War greatly strengthened Sobhuza and the Swaziland National Council against the colonial government, as his successful policy of ethnic mobilization bore fruit (Macmillan 1985, 656). His appeals for relieving overpopulation, over stocking and land hunger were favourably met with a reversal of the previous policy of selling Crown Lands almost only to white settlers, and the bulk of Crown Lands were earmarked for Swazi use (Booth 1983, 31; Macmillan 1985, 656). Moreover, Colonial Welfare and Development funds were channeled towards the repurchase of settler land for Swazi resettlement and both areas were eventually successfully contended for as areas over which the Swazi traditional authorities could exercise traditional systems of tenure control (Booth 1983, 31; Macmillan 1985, 656. For more detail see Levin 1997, 47-51). In 1944 Sohuza also was permitted to set up the Lifo Fund with income from levies on cattle and cash, which was able to repurchase 268 093 acres of settler land by 1960 (Levin 1997, 52). The native Administration Proclaimation of 1944, which vested the High Commissioner with the power to appoint or depose all chiefs, including the King, set the stage for a protracted conflict between the Swazi Aristocracy and the colonial government that was only resolved in 1950 (Levin 1991, 51-52).


BEEMER, H 1937 "The Development of the Military Organization in Swaziland", Journal of the International African Institute , 10(1), January, [www] http://www.jstor.org/stable/1155846 [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

BOOTH, AR 1983 Swaziland: Tradition and Change in a Southern African Kingdom, Boulder, New York, 1983.

CRUSH, JS 1979 "Settler-Estate Production, Monopoly Control, and the Imperial Response: The Case of the Swaziland Corporation Ltd", African Economic History, 8, Autumn, 183-197, [www] http://www.jstor.org/stable/3601564 [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

CUMMERGEN, P 2000 "Zionism and Politics in Swaziland", Journal of Religion in Africa, 30(3), August, 370-385, [www] http://www.jstor.org/stable/1581497 [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

KUPER, H 1963 The Swazi: a South African kingdom, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York.

LEVIN, R 1997 When the sleeping grass awakens: land and power in Swaziland, Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg.

MACMILLAN, H 1985 "Swaziland: Decolonisation and the Triumph of 'Tradition'", The Journal of Modern African Studies, 23(4), December, [www] http://www.jstor.org/stable/160683 [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

MACMILLAN, H 1989 "A Nation Divided? The Swazi in Swaziland and the Transvaal, 1865-1986" IN Vail, L (ed) The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, University Of California Press, [www] http://www.escholarship.org/editions/view?docId=ft158004rs& chunk.id=d0e7328&toc.depth=1&toc.id=d0e7328&brand=eschol [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

PATRICKS, RM 2000 "Olden Times to 1900" IN Swazi History, [www] http://www.sntc.org.sz/cultural/swazihistory1.html (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

SIMELANE, HS 1991 "Landlessness and Imperial Response in Swaziland 1938-1950", Journal of Southern African Studies, 17(4), Dec, 717-741, [www] http://www.jstor.org/stable/2637367 [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).