Originally published in Inqaba ya Basebenzi No. 8 (November 1982).

by Florence Bosch

It is just over 14 years ago (on 6 September 1968) that British imperialism was forced to grant political independence to Swaziland.

Independence has meant the enrichment of the foreign monopolies and traditional rulers. But, for the Swazi masses, impoverishment has increased.

Libby’s – 80% controlled by Nestle, 10% by the Swazi government, and 10% by the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) – is a multinational company with extensive plantation and canning interests in Swaziland.

Women working for Libby’s revealed recently the full horror of their working conditions.

In an interview in the SA Labour Bulletin (April 1982) they told how they work long hours unprotected against fruit juices which ulcerate their skin; how they sleep at night overcrowded in makeshift shacks without water or sanitation, at the mercy of slumlords who demand E10 (=R10) for the ‘privilege’; how they fear pregnancy, which usually means dismissal; and how insecure they are as casual labourers, who in spite of many years’ service must join the job queue each year and take the starting wage of 44c per hour.

And most of all they complained of the wages paid. After deductions, they take home E21.08 every two weeks. The permanent workers get, on average, E38 per fortnight for a 56 hour week.

With permission from the Deputy Prime Minister, the company is allowed to pay below the established minimum wage. When the season is over, and the pressure of work eases, the working week is cut and their wages reduced as a result.

And when the bosses can squeeze no more from them, and they are bent with fatigue and disease, they are cast out.

Their conditions of life are no different to those of factory and plantation workers elsewhere in Swaziland. In July 1977, the legal minimum for a labourer in the sugar manufacturing industry was 115c per day; in construction, 20c per hour.

Although wages have remained low, prices have rocketed. According to government figures, prices of goods bought by low income groups increased 100% since 1975.

The Swazi workers are needed for unskilled labour; capitalism has no interest in them apart from that. So by the mid-1970s, only 25% of the population could read and write. Of those over 25 years of age, 73% had no schooling, and 0.4% had some kind of post-secondary school education.

In 1976, there was one hospital bed for every 294 people; one doctor for every 10,000. With the majority of the population living in dreadful poverty, exposed to the hazards of poverty-related diseases like TB, it is hardly surprising that the average person lives no longer than 46 years.

Swaziland gained political independence not because the British imperialists suffered a change of heart and became freedom lovers rather than oppressors, but because their position was weakened, internationally as well as at home, after the Second World War. The tides of resistance were pounding on their colonial doorsteps.

British imperialism realised that political independence of its colonies was a necessary price to pay to defend its long-term economic and political interests. It carefully sought allies within the colonies with whom it could make political deals against the colonial masses.

If independence was resisted too long, it feared, the colonial masses would destroy not only the colonial administration, but the economic robbery it protected.

On sugar plantations even children are forced into wage labour.

Deal

So it was with Swaziland, tiny though it is (just over 500,000 people today on 1,736,400 hectares). Resistance of the small working class (numbering about 30,000 in 1972) during the 1960s forced Britain to make a deal with the traditional rulers (the King, his family and the chiefs) and draw them into a common defence of capitalist interests.

A wave of strikes hit the mines, saw mills, processing factories, plantations, ranches and railyards of Swaziland. Usutu Pulp, Ubombo Ranches, Peak Timbers and Swaziland Plantations were a few among them.

Strikers’ demands again and again hammered the same theme – better wages, better housing, better food and working conditions, and an end to the repressive Nduna system so ardently supported by the King.

The strikes gave impetus to the building of trade unions, like the Pulp and Timber Workers Union, the Railway Workers Union and the Mineworkers Union.

One of the most important strikes took place at Havelock Asbestos Mine in May 1963. In June, a virtual general strike took place in the Mbabane area in support of the Havelock workers, many of whom had been arrested.

Strikes

A further spate of strikes followed that at Havelock, taking up the miners’ demand for R2 per day.

The British Resident Commissioner, alarmed by this growing resistance, appealed to the King for help. But the King could do nothing but make empty appeals, which the workers completely disregarded.

The Commissioner’s alarm was not only on account of the enormous pressure for higher wages, but also because increasing numbers of strikers were rejecting the British constitutional proposals for independence.

By the end of 1963, 66,000 days in labour time had been lost. From mid-June the British began to fly troops from Kenya. On arrival, they set to work rounding-up and arresting thousands of workers, and coercing them back to work.

After elections in June 1964, a new wave of strikes opened up in Manzini and Sidvokodvo. Strikes of agricultural workers were broken up by police in 1965.

As a result of state harassment, and the lack of clear political leadership, the workers’ militancy temporarily subsided. The British wiped their brows with relief, and handed the reins of power to the King in alliance with white settlers and foreign capitalists.

Although many of the whites had initially resisted independence, they realised that strong backing for the King and a tightly-controlled constitution would be the best way of protecting their interests.

In the 1972 elections, the workers expressed their rage by voting in large numbers for the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress, which, although led by the middle class, had been involved in a number of strikes. To find a basis of support in their campaign against the King’s Imbokodvo Party, the leadership had turned to the working class.

In the 1964 elections, the NNLC had got 12% of the vote; in the 1972 elections they got their first three members of parliament. The King’s party swept the elections because of its ability to demand support in the Trust Lands, whose inhabitants are the King’s direct tenants.

But the King’s victory didn’t diminish his rage and fear. He regarded the election of these three NNLC MPs as an insult to his authority and a threat to his security. With strike waves mounting in Durban, he decided to act quickly to nip any resistance movement in the bud.

Failing in his efforts to deport one of the opposition MPs, he suspended the constitution and banned all political parties. Trade unions, although not formally banned, were heavily restricted by security legislation. The King, and other employers, pushed a system of workers’ councils and Ndunas.

But constitutions can be suspended more easily than poverty. By 1973, the average unskilled working class household was living at 48% of the Poverty Datum Line. Although not on the scale of the 1960s, worker resistance continued.

Anger

In 1977, in the aftermath of Soweto, students and teachers came out on strike together in support of teacher’s wage demands. A strike of sugar workers in 1979 continued the struggle for a better deal.

Under the pressure of simmering anger and discontent from below, the King was forced to make the pretence of reconvening Parliament in 1979.

But this was just for show; parliament is a talking shop with no real decision-making powers. Power remains in the hands of the monarch and the royally appointed advisers. With the death of Sobhuza in August this year his mantle has passed to the Queen Mother. Political parties remain banned.

So independence has not meant liberation of the Swazi masses from oppression. On the contrary, it has meant that capitalism could continue its robbery at an even greater pace, behind the smokescreen of ‘independence’.

The monarchy has aided and abetted the capitalist robbers. Not only has it lent its weight to the repression of strikes and trade unions, but itself has become a major investor in Swazi agriculture and industry, in alliance with foreign capital.

At independence the King on behalf of the ‘nation’ was given the National Land (now 55% of the total) and mineral rights. Money from mineral royalties was used to increase the National Land, but also to swell the coffers of what is in effect a private trust – the Tiboyo Taka Ngwane Fund – whose trustees are appointed by the King.

Answerable to neither the Ministry of Finance nor Parliament, this fund (and another set up along the same lines) has been used to promote the financial interests of the monarchy in agriculture and industry. This has been done directly – such as its investment in the new sugar development at Simunye – and indirectly, through taking shares in foreign multinationals like Turner and Newall, Lonrho, Swazi Breweries, Rennies, CDC, etc.

Background

Swaziland, previously an independent African kingdom, was ruled as a British colony from the 1870s until 1968 (except between 1894 and 1902 when it was ruled by the Transvaal Republic).

Imperialism carved its boundaries, leaving it a small, dependent landlocked country surrounded by South Africa and Mozambique. Not content with this, however, imperialism also proceeded to dispossess Swazi tribespeople of their land.

By 1914, the Swazi had been pushed off two-thirds of their land, and confined to reserves or ‘Trust Lands’ – the poorest land, scattered about in 35 pieces. The rest of the land was in the hands of farmers and speculators who had grabbed and counter-grabbed Swazi soil since the mid-1880s.

The aim of this relentless policy of dispossession was the same as that in South Africa itself – to force tribesmen off their land and ‘free’ it for use by white farmers, and to force tribesmen from the reserves into wage labour on the farms and mines.

This was achieved by the imposing of cash taxes. Those imposed on Swazis were often higher than those imposed in South Africa.

Although the Trust Lands have now been increased to 55% of the total land area, 44% of the land is still held by a small group of multinational companies and white farmers.

The British Princess Anne visited Swaziland in October to help boost the prestige of British imperialism and the Swazi royal rulers.

“Trouble-Makers”

It is little wonder that with these financial interests, the King was in the habit of describing trade unions as ‘un-Swazi’ and strikers as ‘troublemakers’!

Independence meant that those that had, got more. After independence the foreign monopolies – especially those based in Britain and SA – tightened their stranglehold on Swaziland’s natural resources.

Foreign investors smile on Swaziland, not only because of the rich, well-watered soil and lavish tax concessions, but because labour is cheap and stripped of effective political and trade union rights.

The 44% of the land owned privately belongs to a small handful of foreign companies, Transvaal farmers (who use their Swazi farms for winter grazing) and white settler farmers. Forests, sugar cane, citrus and cattle cover most of this land, which is producing mainly for export.

The giants in plantation agriculture and ranching are British-based CDC, Tate and Lyle, and Courtaulds, together with the Anglo American Corporation.

SA Capital

SA capital predominates also in construction, commerce and tourism. Not only does it control the Swazi economy through direct investment, but exerts its stranglehold in many other ways. As a result Swaziland has no more economic independence than an ‘independent’ Bantustan.

For example, to move its imports and exports, Swaziland depends largely on rail links through SA and on SA ports. 80% of imports come from SA.

As a member of the Southern African Customs Union and Monetary Union, government economic policy is effectively determined from Pretoria. Although Swaziland has its own currency, this is completely backed by the Rand, which is also legal money.

Not only does SA sway economic policy, but it can apply pressure to prevent industries developing in Swaziland in competition with its own. It has already done this in relation to a planned fertiliser plant.

Televisions can only be produced in Swaziland because SA has allowed a given quota to be sold on the SA market each year. Without this, the venture would have been impossible. Swaziland has natural resources which could be harnessed to generate and export electricity – but this would depend on SA being prepared to buy it. Swaziland alone lacks the internal market to make it viable.

Imperialism, particularly through the domination of SA capitalism, has left the Swazi people impoverished and deprived.

The tribal lands are hopelessly overcrowded, overgrazed and eroded. In 1976, 40,700 families lived on the National Land, and 15,000 on the freehold land, making up 75% of the population.

Unable to eke a living from the land, men, women and even children are forced into the factories and onto the farms and plantations in search of wage labour, not only in Swaziland, but in SA as well, where some 30,000 are employed.

As wage labourers they confront the appalling conditions that South African workers know so well. As the effects of international recession bite deeper, conditions will worsen. Unemployment in SA will combine with growing unemployment in Swaziland to increase the burden of poverty. Every year now, 7,000 school-leavers are coming onto the market to compete for 2,400 new jobs.

Like all the countries of the Third World, Swaziland is particularly vulnerable to the ups and downs of the world economy. ‘Developed’ only to the extent that it provided the labour and raw materials required by imperialism, Swaziland remains completely dependent on the produce of agriculture, and most importantly, sugar.

Agriculture contributes about one third of Gross Domestic Product (a measure of the wealth created in Swaziland in a year). Including subsistence farming, three quarters of the labour force work on the land.

From the sale of exports (the bulk of which are agricultural) Swaziland must import the oil, machinery and equipment it needs, buying and selling on terms laid down by the world market.

Manufacturing industry (which contributes about one quarter of GDP) is almost wholly tied to agriculture in that it has developed on the basis of processing agricultural produce. Most important is sugar and wood pulp processing, which, together with fruit-canning, account for 80% of income from manufacturing.

Sugar Industry

The sugar industry lies at the heart of Swaziland’s economic survival. Making up three quarters of the total value of agricultural production and half the value of exports, it provides directly or indirectly the source of livelihood of 60,000 people. With the development of the Simunye sugar project, Swaziland will become the second largest sugar producer in Africa.

Its heavy reliance on sugar makes Swaziland particularly vulnerable to world sugar prices. While a quarter of output has guaranteed markets under a quota system, three quarters must be sold on the open market, in competition with South Africa and other sugar-producing countries.

Already the Swazi economy has been tossed to and fro by ups and downs in the world sugar price. A sharp rise in the 1970s encouraged the government and business to vastly expand production, and foreign loans were raised to assist this. But in the early 1980s, the price fell, and with the present economic downturn, world commodity prices will be unstable.

Swaziland in 1981 had a deficit of E60 million on the balance of payments and will soon confront serious problems in repaying its foreign debts. In this crisis, even greater attacks will be launched against the working people.

Terrible poverty will force the Swazi workers again and again to struggle against their conditions of existence. There will be no end to this battle so long as the farms, mines and factories remain in capitalist hands.

The experience of independence shows that there can be no real liberation from oppression so long as the land and factories are in the grip of capitalism.

More and more in the struggle ahead the question will be raised of who controls the land, mines and factories.

Real independence for the Swazi people will mean taking control of the ranches, plantations and commercial farms, and running these on a collective basis in the interests of society. Industry and mining will also need to be brought into public ownership under workers’ control and management. With the profits from agriculture, money could be spent to improve production in the National Land and expand industry.

But this can only be achieved by linking the revolution in Swaziland with the South African revolution. Only when capitalist power in SA is broken down will it be possible to break its back in Swaziland. Democratic planning could open SA to Swazi goods, make resources available for Swazi development, and open up a period of prosperity and security for the whole of Southern Africa.

© Transcribed from the original by the Marxist Workers Party (2022).