King Sobhuza alighting from a vehicle at the country's 1968 independence celebration

Analysis of the birth of Tinkhundla as a system of political control

The word inkhundla (singular) denotes a venue or place where public meetings or events take place. It is said during the reign of King Mswati II Tinkhundla (plural) were designated assembly points in the mobilisation, training and call up of warriors in the Swazi traditional army.

However, there is no evidence that this was a political system but a grouping of “imiphakatsi” for assembly and efficient organisation. It is suggested that Sobhuza II resuscitated Tinkhundla as regional venues in the mobilization of the Swazi nation to revive popular participation in traditional ceremonies like Incwala, Lusekwane and other royal commands.

It is clear, therefore, that during the period of King Mswati II Tinkhundla was not a political system. Even though Tinkhundla’s transformation into a political system only emerged in 1978, an analysis of early thinking of Sobhuza II reveals that the idea had long time been in the works.

For example, in 1928 when the colonial administration invited him to submit his views on the future constitution of Swaziland, he submitted a document titled ‘The original Swazi Organisation’. This document outlined the positions of the King, Queen Mother, chiefs, the councils, Libandla and the executive council/Liqoqo.

The aim of this document was to show that the original Swazi traditional system of administration had strong checks and balances to prevent abuse of power (MacMillan, 1985).

The biggest challenge to Sobhuza’s charter of traditional governance, however, was that it assumed an inherent right of the king to compel other chiefs to comply with his demands. In reality, many chiefs, particularly in the lowveld, were fully autonomous and actively resisting his imposition of central control. 

King Sobhuza announcing the new currency in 1974

In fact, by the late 1920s Sobhuza II was increasingly becoming less relevant to the aggrieved Swazis and their different chiefs in various parts of the country. He ascribed this phenomena to the bad influences brought by western education and missionaries in the country. 

He saw these as denigrating African customary systems of governance and thus tearing down the very pillars of Swazi social organisation and cohesion. He argued that education was forcing Africans to deny their identity and social organization.

To ground this self-serving philosophy, Sobhuza enlisted the help of a number of white advisors including prominent anthropologists Winifred Hoernlé, Isaac Schapera, Bronislaw Malinowsk  as well as Hilda Beemer (later known as Mrs Kuper, the so called official historian on Swaziland).

This group of anthropologists came to Swaziland on a curiosity venture and had little to no meaningful experience of the Swazi society at the time to qualify as experts of any substance. 

In giving Sobhuza II political advice, they were likely influenced by the dominant narrative of a white settler superiority complex plus the position of the colonial administration that still promoted a policy of treating the indigenous population as some inferior class deserving of exclusion from the formal economy and political administration of the country.

 Based on the advice of these anthropologists, and also reflecting his own deeper emotions and beliefs, King Sobhuza II recommended radical changes in the school curriculum to include mandatory subjects which, in the final analysis, bordered on indoctrinating of the youth on Swazi culture and the role of the king, libandla and chiefs in the socio political organization of Swazi society. 

One of the new subjects taught was titled ‘Libutfo’ and it included elements of ‘Swazi history’, custom, lore, law, traditional ceremonies and the singing of ‘Inqabakanqofula’—termed Swazi national anthem. It also stressed the importance of attending national ceremonies.  

It would seem the idea of Libutfo was also motivated by the reality that Sobhuza II, and the Dlamini aristocrats more broadly, had become less relevant to many communities. This is more so as most Swazis were aggrieved by the advent of colonialism and the loss of ancestral land and grazing rights. 

This subject, seen as a pilot study, ran for a number of years at Swazi National High School in Matsapha (Manzini district). However, it dismally failed owing to opposition mounted by students, teachers, the emerging intelligentsia, as well as the missionaries. 

The resistance from missionaries mainly centred on the fear that this subject had a pagan inspired ideology meant to celebrate Swazi backwardness and thereby retard their development.

It is important to note that the power and influence of the royal elite over the general populace and the chiefs had been severely weakened by the suspension of Incwala during the regency of Labotsibeni (1899-1920). It was only in 1921 that incwala was again revived following the crowning of Sobhuza II as king. 

Moreover, the colonial administration had taken away the administrative powers of the king over land, chiefs, customs and communities. This meant that a large segment of the country’s youth had no connection with the traditions of the Dlamini kingship such as incwala, umhlanga, and tribute services. 

As noted by the former Swazi High Commissioner, Brian Marwick, many chiefs in the Lowveld were autonomous and not accountable to the king by the late 1920s.  This led Sobhuza II to appeal to the colonial government for help reign them in and restore the legitimacy of the Ingwenyama over the entire nation. 

Sobhuza seen here with Broederbond lawyer Van Wyk de fries who advised him on enacting the 1973 decree that banned political parties.

However, this failed dismally as the chiefs and their subjects mounted some resistance. The 1944 Native Administration Proclamation Act did not make things any easier for Sobhuza. If anything, it formally institutionalised an already entrenched position that had eroded his meaningful control over chiefs and the Swazi nation. This law practically sealed King Sobhuza’s political isolation.

 It was not until 1950 that the Native Administration Proclamation Act of 1944 was reversed together with other similar instruments imposed by the colonialists from as far back as 1860s. The new Proclamation restored the customary powers of the king over chiefs and the Swazi Nation (Booth, 1983 and Levin 1997). This was a turning point in building the political power of Sobhuza over the chiefs and the Swazi Nation.

 By 1959, when the colonial administration introduced the idea of self-rule  King Sobhuza, his council and the white advisers, were already in a strong position to control and influence chiefs to direct, particularly the rural majority population, in favour of the demands or wishes of the king. 

This was to be the cornerstone of Sobhuza’s power base and the centerpiece of the royal strategy to outplay not only the colonialists but also the emerging opposition parties. Accordingly, during the pre-independence constitutional negotiations Sobhuza and the Swazi National Council, together with their white advisors, recommended an elective system which was in accordance with what they called “Swazi elective traditions.” 

This so called Swazi elective traditions was defined as an elective process through the so called imiphakatsi (or the respective chiefdoms). This approach was clearly designed to guarantee the royal aristocracy absolute power to control and manipulate the process for a predetermined outcome. 

This can be seen as an embryonic stage of Tinkhundla political system. In the final analysis, it was similar in conception to the cruel work place Induna system dominant in the mines and farms.

In January 1964, in opposition to the democratic aspects of the imposed constitution and its perceived marginalisation of the monarchy, Sobhuza II, together with the SNC, with the support of the white business community and some European advisors, called for a national referendum rejecting the western constitution and asserting their own views on the pillars of a true Swazi constitution. 

In their perverted version of what constitutes a truly Swazi political system, the emerging ruling class placed Sobhuza as the central pivot and representative of all that is Swazi. 

This, they argued, needed to be reflected in the independence constitution by vesting land, mineral rights and customs to the king including the endorsement of a Swazi elective system through imiphakatsi or chiefdoms. 

Even though the referendum was rejected by the colonial administration and opposition parties, Sobhuza II proceeded with the exercise and allegedly received over 98 percent support of the Swazi population.

This political manipulation and engineering was the most practical test run of the Tinkhundla conception– initially referred to as the Swazi electoral traditional system.

 At independence King Sobhuza’s Imbokodvo National Movement (INM) swept into power and won all the parliamentary seats in in 1967 elections. The absence of any opposition to the king and his party meant the he had unfettered absolute power over all institutions of state.  

For this reason, the idea of Tinkhundla system remained dormant until 1978 when it was re-introduced in response to widespread political discontent and unrest in the country triggered by the teachers’ strike of 1977. 

This strike inspired the massive students’ unrest of 1977 led by the Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS). When introducing the Tinkhundla political system, Sobhuza II emphasised that it was an experiment that would be scrapped if it did not work. 

In the period between 1978 to 1993 the system was run like a political scam, with the process rigged from the nomination stage right through to the actual election of the members of parliament. 

The voters were not registered, the ballot was not secret, voters elected individuals by passing through a gate designated for the candidate of choice while officials counted them.

In the majority of cases, the voters participating in this process thought they were electing members of parliament. Those elected would in turn think that they had won parliamentary seats until they got to parliament where they would be told that in fact they were an electoral college whose job was to choose the real members of parliament from a list of individuals provided by the king and the so called “labadzala”. 

Invariably, when the process was completed and the successful members of parliament announced over the radio, television and national newspapers, voters throughout the country would be confused not to mention the dejected individuals who had been directly elected by the voters. 

This practice continued until 1993 when for the first time the system allowed elected candidates to go straight to parliament. These were in response to the coordinated challenges mounted by PUDEMO and the growing discontent that was prevailing throughout the country. 

This history clearly shows that the central philosophy and design of the Tinkhundla system was always to take power away from the people and entrench it to the king and in turn make him have control over all facets of Swazi society.  


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

Levin, R. (1997). When the sleeping grass awakens. Witwatersrand Univ Pr.

MacMillan, H. (1985). Swaziland: Decolonisation and the triumph of ‘tradition’. The Journal of Modern African Studies23(4), 643-66

NB: Mandla Hlathswayo is former Managing Director of Illovo. He contributes as part of our alternative history series. 

Mandla Hlathwayo

2 thoughts on “Analysis of the birth of Tinkhundla as a system of political control

  1. Interesting Read…I like the ideas,opinions and insight explained on the above document. It makes one to understand the background of Tinkhundla System and its influence into today’s Swaziland Political hierarchy. Thanks Cde Mandla

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