The resemblance is striking. The dramatic turn of events all too familiar. The consequences? Well, they are way too predictable. Welcome to Swaziland where 2020 feels like 1970 yet again. Sugar and cannabis have united to remind a nation how it feels living in an absolute monarchy in the 21st century.
To Swazis old enough, the events of the past few days feel like a script written in the early ’70s except that for sugar you substitute for cannabis, for Thomas Ngwenya you substitute for Sifiso Mabuza and then for King Sobhuza II you substitute for King Mswati III.
The media has already reported about the disqualification of aspiring Senator S’fiso Mabuza, the dramatic arrest of Hosea Member of Parliament Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza, the hounding of Swazis under the Prevention of Organised Corruption Act (POCA) and the battle for the granting of cannabis license.
What is missing, however, is how everything connects together. To make sense of what is happening in Swaziland today one must know the story of Vuvulane, an area in the north-east of Swaziland.
Vuvulane: a brief history and why it matters today
In 1958, 10 years before independence, the British Empire’s Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) acquired the title to Farm 860 in Vuvulane. On this land, green with sugarcane fields stretching for kilometres, impoverished farmers whose homesteads were old and crumbling stayed in defiance of numerous eviction orders and all sorts of abuse from the RES Corporation, formerly known as the Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation (RSSC). The company is owned by the king through Tibiyo TakaNgwane, an entity created through the Royal Charter under the stewardship of King Sobhuza II.
In 1962, a settlement scheme for farmers called Vuvulane Irrigated Farms was established. The best farmers from all over the country were invited to apply for smallholdings. Each would be allocated eight acres of land on which to grow sugarcane. Applicants had to be citizens of Swaziland, healthy, of good character and willing to make their home at Vuvulane.
By 1972, the number of established families in the area had increased to about 197 homesteads. They came from the outskirts of Lavumisa, Hhohho, Mankayane and every other corner of Swaziland. Upon joining the settlement scheme, farmers obtained leasehold titles to their land, with the understanding that after 20 years, ownership would revert to them.
This was to prove to be the greatest undoing for the Vuvulane farmers. The autonomy granted by freehold land and the financial success brought by the Vuvulane sugarcane farms, the community began to have less loyalty to the royal aristocracy at Ludzidzini. This financial ‘independence’ morphed into open rebellion when in the 1972 multi-party election they voted for the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC)’s Thomas Ngwenya instead of Prince Mfanasibili, a candidate for the king’s Imbokodvo National Movement (INM).
The loss of three seats for the INM did not in itself constitute any serious threat to the royal family and the then King, Sobhuza II. What was significant was that the three candidates were elected by constituencies containing large numbers of sugar plantation workers who were disgruntled with the government over their working conditions. In particular, it was the Vuvulane Irrigated Farms, which were at that time the only settlement scheme in which Swazi farmers held their land on a freehold basis rather than under the traditional land tenure system, who seemed to irritate the royal family more.
The NNLC’s ability to build a political base among this community constituted a potential threat which the King and the royal family were determined to eradicate. Their first strike was an attempt to deport Thomas Ngwenya on the grounds that he was not a Swazi citizen.
Ngwenya challenged the deportation order in court successfully. Unable to dislodge Ngwenya by using existing legislation, the King submitted the Immigration Amendment Act to Parliament. The Act was passed, and its provisions empowered a specially constituted tribunal to decide cases of disputed nationality.
Under the terms of the new Act, Ngwenya was once more ordered to be deported. This time he challenged the order in the Appeal Court, the highest court in the land. The Appeals Court struck down the Immigration Amendment Act as unconstitutional. The King’s only remaining option was to revoke the independence constitution altogether.
This he did in April 12, 1973, abandoning the Westminster-style institutions the country had inherited. He banned all political parties, declared a state of emergency, took all legislative, executive, and judicial power to himself, inaugurated the Umbutfo Defense Force, and promulgated a decree banning all political meetings of more than ten persons unless such meetings had the written permission of the police.
From then on the country was to be run like a personal fiefdom of the royal family. The people of Vuvulane had no idea that voting Ngwenya would set in motion a series of events that still haunt Swaziland to this day. To the royal family, a lesson had been learnt; never allow Swazis too much financial freedom they become rebellious. So what are the similarities between the plight of Vuvulane farmers and informal cannabis small scale farmers in the country? Let us start from the beginning.
Cannabis and the battle for the control of the rural peasantry
From time immemorial Swazis have grown cannabis mainly for recreational use. In fact, it was legal for most parts of our history until 1922 when it was criminalized under the Opium and Habit Forming Drugs Act of the same year. Economically cannabis was of little value to Swazis though. The domestic market was very small. Only after the fall of apartheid did a significant market emerge in South Africa triggering rising demands in the country.
Even then Swazis preferred to migrate to the new opportunities brought by democracy in South Africa than invest in the cannabis business. Politically, the authorities treated cannabis with kid gloves hence the lukewarm approach to fighting its farming and sale. The law itself was never strict. Offenders could get away with paltry fines while police would sporadically raid cannabis farms in the countryside.
Perhaps the biggest name associated with cannabis in Swaziland was that of Charles Mashesha Nhlengetfwa. Nhlengetfwa’s homestead at Nkomanzi was known to be the cannabis hub of the country. At the turn of the century, he was busted with 1 098 bags of compressed and vacuum sealed blocks of top grade cannabis weighing 2 294 kg.
Even though ‘Mashesha’, as he is commonly known, became a poster boy for cannabis he was just a drop in the ocean in the bigger scheme of things. Even his dramatic arrest did not lead to a conviction. The large scale move to cannabis farming by small scale growers happened concurrently with the economic downturn that started in early 2000 and reached its apex with the financial collapse of 2011.
As the economy nose-dived rural communities bore the wooden end of the spoon. For them, things were compounded by the failure of subsistence agriculture which got hard hit by recurrent droughts. Cannabis, therefore, became the much needed economic reprieve for many in rural areas. Just like sugarcane farming in Vuvulane, the steady growth of cannabis farming meant the economic noose in rural communities was starting to loosen, oftentimes unnoticeably.
The royal aristocracy at Ludzidzini has always relied on the rural peasantry for political support. Over the years this could be guaranteed by making them perform free tribute labour to the king and chiefs under the hope that excessive fawning would guarantee them jobs in the security cluster and civil service. Many people saw fraternising with the royal family or their hangers-on as a possible escape from the clutches of poverty that had become the defining feature of rural life.
However, the rising untaxable income of cannabis soon surpassed income of those employed in the civil service or security cluster. Cannabis farming also meant rural communities no longer had time for royal events because cannabis requires careful nurturing, security and lots of time.
As all this was happening the cannabis growing communities were getting politically and economically ‘unhinged’, just like the Vuvulane sugar farmers of yesteryears. The only difference is that this time cannabis farmers did not have a political movement championing their interests. As long as cannabis farmers were not threatening royal interests they were ‘allowed’ to earn a decent living, a position many understood to be the unofficial policy of the government. Even the tax master never bothered to question the unexplained wealth of so many people.
Rural communities transformed rapidly. Families that never dreamt of having electricity suddenly could afford it. Beautiful houses were springing up in the most far-flung areas. Crime in urban cities drastically reduced while small and medium sized Swazi entrepreneurs in bottle stores, car rental, saloons and eateries saw real dividends of a booming cannabis trade. The economy was not picking up this economic activity because it was illicit. However, the fast growth of the cannabis business started to attract the interests of royal family members.
In the past, the authorities had no substantive interest in cannabis hence dithered and ignored lobbying by the late Dr Ben Dlamini and the Lusolotja Ginindza group. However, soon as multimillion foreign companies told of the benefits of legalizing cannabis and the potential kickbacks that come with it, royalty did not hesitate in expediting the process.
Enter Bacede: the new kingmaker in parliament
Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza is a political novice thrust into politics by chance. Mabuza’s rise to political office as a Member of Parliament under Hosea Inkundla is itself a measure of the flaws in the Tinkundla system of government. Before becoming an MP, Mabuza had allegedly been in the cannabis business and spent most of his life in South Africa.
In fact, the first time he got to parliament he returned like a prodigal son, spent a few months campaigning (read buying) and won the votes with a landslide. For a person of his deep pockets, buying voters was just a stroll in the park. His rise as a kingmaker in parliament started unnoticeably but to the powers that be, it moved from inconveniencing to annoying and later irritating. Mabuza first flexed his muscle when he led the charge that defied a royal candidate, Themba Msibi, as a Speaker of parliament. Mabuza wanted Petros Mavimbela and rallied a majority of MP’s to support his candidate.
He was quoted by the Times of Swaziland saying “it would be amiss if the elected MP’s chose someone from outside the house to represent them.” This was a political statement that did not go down well at Ludzidzini. But Mabuza had a willing ear from most MP’s partly because he had supported some of their campaigns but also because his deep pockets and lack of political ambition made him too independent.
In the past MP’s could easily be politically castrated by promising them cabinet appointments, a campaign point Msibi dangled to MP’s while campaigning for the Speaker position. When Mabuza again threw cash to get his preferred candidate during the election of a woman to join parliament he had become a nuisance within the royal echelons of power.
Some royal family members like Prince Sigombeni could no longer hide their irritation with Mabuza anymore. During the official opening of parliament on March 2, 2020 Prince Sigombeni let out expletives against some of the MP’s while singing the king’s praise names. Prince Sigombeni accused Mabuza (and by extension Parliament) of being ‘ncancabutane’ something that Mabuza took exception to.
“I cannot keep quiet about the matter just because the person who insulted me is close to the authorities,” Mabuza charged in parliament and called for the Prime Minister to reign in on the Prince. At this point, Mabuza should have known the vultures were already hovering over his head. He did not understand this was a warning shot, a bounty was on his head.
POCA, Cannabis license and royal interests
From as early 2018, the government had been working on regulations that will legalise cannabis for medical and scientific use. This culminated in the Production of Cannabis for Medicinal and Scientific Use Regulations of 2019.
These regulations set conditions and requirements under which a license to deal in cannabis business will be issued, and how this kind of business will be monitored by the relevant authorities. The government sent to Parliament an amendment to the Opium and Habit Forming Drugs Act of 1922 to prepare for legalizing Cannabis. The Bill and the regulations were controversial from the beginning.
On the one hand, the Bill and regulations wanted to make it almost impossible to get a license by placing exorbitant fees one needed to have prior to getting the license. In effect, the government was now going to push the small scale informal farmers out of the Cannabis business and pave the way for multinational companies.
Even worse all this was happening amid reports that some companies with royal interest had already been given exclusive licenses to grow cannabis. Meanwhile, parliament was engaged in a phoney exercise where Swazis were making appeals for a license.
The Times of Swaziland reported in June 2020 that as much as ten companies were making spirited presentations to a portfolio committee headed by Lobamba Lomdzala Member of Parliament Marwick Khumalo hoping to get the license.
Some were Swazi companies and some not. Meanwhile, Profile Solutions, Inc. (OTC Pink: PSIQ) was already claiming it has been promised an exclusive license to grow, farm and process medical cannabis and industrial hemp. PSIQ and Stem Ventures, Inc. (“Stem Ventures”) have formed StemPro International, Inc. a Nevada corp. (“StemPro”) and will be responsible for anything cannabis in the country. According to their statement, StemPro shall be owned 51 percent by PSIQ and 49 percent by Stem Ventures, all foreign companies.
StemPro has already raised $2,500,000 (currently held in Escrow pending the granting of the exclusive 10 year license) to do five things; (1) operate advanced hemp & medical cannabis manufacturing facility (2) distribute hemp & medical cannabis within the Kingdom of eSwatini (3) export hemp & medical cannabis worldwide (4) operate a medical cannabis R & D lab and (5) build a training facility to create jobs for local citizens, at least according to their statement.
According to agreements between the government and StemPro, in the event the company does not receive the required licenses and permits, the country must refund the company its $2,500,000. StemPro is not new to controversy though.
In 2017 this company, together with the Minister of Economic Planning, was taken to court by a company trading as Umjono (Pty) Ltd challenging the granting of a 10 year monopoly license. In court the Ministry of health, together with the Attorney General, claimed StemPro was being economical with the truth, no such license had been granted. The urgent application by Umjono (Pty) Ltd was therefore dismissed.
Meanwhile, in parliament the battle for the Cannabis license has pitted two sides; one led by Mabuza, which favours informal small scale Swazi growers and another led by Khumalo, which favours multinational companies with royal interests.
Khumalo has struck a rare partnership with the Minister of Finance, Neil Rijjkenberg, and by extension the royal family, to bulldoze the Bills and regulations through parliament. For Khumalo, he is driven by his own financial interest to be seen to have successfully lead the lobby for multinational companies in the cannabis business. He also hopes to get kickbacks from the deals. Importantly, he hopes the royal family will ease down his own pending criminal prosecution at the High Court and endear himself to people who long held strong resentment against him.
Owing to his long held position as Chairperson of the Finance Portfolio committee, Khumalo has allied with Rijjkenberg, in whose shoulders lies the responsibility to secure royal interest in the cannabis industry. The pro-Cannabis lobby in parliament consists of other royal family ice boys and shoe shine girls like Lutfo Dlamini, Robert Magongo, Roy Fanourakis, Vusi Swali, Thandi Nxumalo, Nkhanyenti Ngwenya from among others.
Already another company, SWAURORA organic healthcare products (Pty) Ltd, is thought to be a front runner for the license. This company claims it has five Swazi shareholders while two are non Swazis. Some of the shareholders of this company are children of King Mswati III who are also heavily invested in the Cannabis business.
What the royal family and their lobby in parliament did not prepare for was a push back by Mabuza. It was Mabuza who evoked standing order 58 (2) that moved a motion to halt the Opium Act Amendment Bill pending wide scale consultation.
The MP’s reasoning makes sense. First, the Bill is unpopular throughout the country because it aims to wrestle small scale informal growers out of the industry. If it passes MP’s are not guaranteed of votes because a majority of their constituencies rely on the holy herb for income. Again here Mabuza 2 and royal interest 0.
Mabuza has been very bold in taking on the royal lobby and ultimately put the last nail on Sibahle Sinje’s power and influence in parliament. Together with MP’s like Siphofaneni Member of Parliament Mduduzi Magawugawu Simelane, Manzini North Member of Parliament Macford Sibandze, from among many others, Marwick has been reduced into a political toddler unable to win any political battles any more.
S’fiso Mabuza and the battle for senate
When Marwick and his caucus attempted to have former Senate Deputy President, Ngomuyayona Gamedze, a fellow traveller with Sibahle Sinje, they found Mabuza equally prepared for them, politically and financially. By nominating his brother, Sfiso, Mabuza was no longer showing his political muscle but was now poking the authorities’ nose.
They had had enough. At first, there was a belief that Gamedze would win but when the stakes were raised he threw his toys out of the coy bitching about how parliament seats were now for sale. He announced his withdrawal from the senate race crying like a spoilt brat denied candy at a shopping mall. Accusations of bribery were rich coming from a man whose Sibahle Sinje cabal had ran parliament like a Ponzi scheme for years.
For Mabuza though, he had miscalculated badly by throwing his brother’s name in the hat. He should have known better that S’fiso rise from a mere taxi driver only a few years ago to a Millionaire business guru was always questionable and someone powerful knew this.
When Ngom’yayona pulled out of the Senate race, the lobby led by Minister Neil, Prime Minister Mandvulo and their ice boys in parliament knew Mabuza had gone too far. It would no longer look good at Ludzidzini if they were seen to be defeated by a political nonentity. The next move was predictable; descend the law on Mabuza and his brother in a dramatic fashion. Suddenly the score moved from 3-0 to 3-3 with just one strike.
After all, Mabuza’s political sins were many; he had been vocal in opposing POCA to a point of leading a motion to suspend it (a move rejected by the Prime Minister), he had led the charge against Themba Msibi, he was stonewalling the passing of the Cannabis Bill and then he had forced Ngomuyayona out of a coveted Senate seat.
The mercurial way in which the state ran to revoke his brother’s tax clearance (and vetting) plus the subsequent arrest of Mabuza is only the start of the worse to come for the Mabuza family. Because of his own lack of political sophistry and inability to understand how Tinkhundla as a system operates, Mabuza thought fraternizing with the king’s children and occasional donations to Prince Majaha’s foundation will endear him to the powers that be. He was wrong!
Mabuza thought having conquered parliament he was now going for the jocular by buying royal favours through Prince Majaha’s Foundation. In fact, when Prince Majaha openly praised the nomination of Sfiso Mabuza in the local press, Champaign bottles were popped in Mabuza’s caucus believing they had won the battle at long last. What Mabuza missed, however, was that he had long treaded on sacred grounds.
Stonewalling a royal project running into Millions was never going to be forgiven. Even worse, he did not understand that while POCA is necessary in any country, in our case it is going to be useful to whip the dagga community out of Cannabis in preparation for the 10 year monopoly of foreign companies.
For Mabuza and his brother, it will be easy to deal with them because POCA allows the state to seize assets of those suspected of criminality. The onus is then on you to prove your innocence. Sfiso Mabuza, meanwhile, will have to justify his sudden financial rise and where he has been paying tax. Already the tax master, by revoking his tax clearance, has indicated he won’t be on his side. POCA is a noble law long needed in a country where criminality has become normal. However, the way it has been employed in the recent past has raised eyebrows.
How King Sobhuza dealt with Vuvulane farmers when his interests were threatened is exactly how King Mswati III will deal with the Mabuza family or even parliament if they continue to stonewall the Bills on Cannabis. For the Mabuzas their flamboyant lifestyle and Multimillion top of the range cars will come under close scrutiny.
Their tax compliance will be questioned and soon they will face exactly what Thomas Ngwenya faced in 1972. For the majority of the informal cannabis growing rural communities, they are increasingly seen in no different light than the Vuvulane farmers. However, unlike in the past, cannabis growers do not threaten the powers that be politically but financially.
Already $2,500,000 has allegedly been given to the royal family and that exclusive license has to be given come hell or high water. Parliament already has an example of what will happen if they continue to resist the Opium and Habit Forming Drugs Amendment Bill and the Cannabis regulations.
That is how it works in an absolute monarchy. The police are already conducting large scale and never seen before raids destroying cannabis farms in the rural areas. The Swazi news reported on the 8th of August that the police have in the last few days alone destroyed E12 Billion worth of cannabis. This has never happened in the last 30 years. It seems the police are now acting out of vengeance and look determined to squeeze everyone out of the cannabis business.
For police to dedicate so much efforts to destroying the one source of livelihoods for so many rural communities shows exactly why it is Vuvulane 2.0 all over again. If you doubt this then a drive down to Vuvulane will remind you how it feels to live in a personal fiefdom. Better yet read up on Thomas Ngwenya, whose soul must rest in internal peace.
NB: Additional writing on Vuvulane sourced from The Frame. To read more on the story of Vuvulane go to The Frame
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