In this 2007 study, I considered the historical roots and contemporary consequences of traditional land tenure in Swaziland. Through interviews and archival research, I found that land access in this small country has been intertwined with community structure, political power, and economic status since the first monarch united clans of Bantu ancestry in the early 16th century.
Land is, to this day, owned by the king and stewarded by chiefs and thus cannot be sold via private title. Land is, rather, gained or exchanged through direct grants from another individual, inheritance, or, most traditionally, entrusted to newcomers through an allegiance-giving process called kukhonta. Through kukhonta, an individual wishing to gain access to land within a specific chiefdom approaches the chief who, in conjunction with his council and the broader community, decides whether to allocate land to the individual. To be Swazi is to have a relatively permanent homestead within a chiefdom, allowing all citizens of Swaziland to be known by their chief, the steward of their land.
I asked what implications political change might have on a country’s social organization. I argued that top-down democratization attempts, and related economic reforms and land privatization efforts, would function to destabilize the fragile social organization of homesteads facing a generation gap due to one of the highest HIV/AIDs rates in the world.
As youth migrated from rural areas to cities and neighboring South Africa, grandparents were left to manage the economic functions and cultural meaning-making imbued in traditional homesteads. (Interestingly, this issue of youth migration from rural areas has been a consistent concern of older generations of farmers in all of my research thus far.) Furthermore, democratization proponents calling for the dismantling of the monarchy have not produced an alternative strategy to support a non-titular land tenure program. Land privatization, at the time of my study, was growing more prevalent and appeared to be increasing regional inequalities at land was concentrated in the hands of elites and businesses.