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Swaziland - Background information
Music and dance are embedded in traditional Swazi culture. Women sing together in the fields; men sing or utter praise poetry as they pay tribute to their chiefs or kings. There are traditional songs for every occasion: weddings, royal rituals, coming-of-age ceremonies and national festivals.
See Music and dance below.
British, Boers and Zulus at war
Abridged from the History section in Swaziland: the Bradt Travel Guide
Two major events during the first half of the 19th century were to have a significant bearing on the formation and history of Swaziland. The first was the expansion of the Zulu kingdom to the south. Shaka, a charismatic leader and master strategist, organised the scattered Nguni tribes of the KwaZulu-Natal region into a unified, militaristic state. He then embarked on a massive expansion programme known as the Mfecane (crushing), slaughtering or enslaving those he conquered, and causing shock waves far across the region. Shaka was killed in 1828 by his half-brothers, one of whom – Dingane – replaced him as king. This triggered the slow decline of the Zulu nation, but not before it had caused a seismic shift in the relations of peoples across southern Africa – including in Swaziland.
Meanwhile, the Boers had grown increasingly fed up with British rule in the Cape colony, and rejected the British proclamations of equality among races. From 1835, in search of greater independence, they began to set off in groups north into the interior, accompanied by their slaves and Khoi retinue. This upping of sticks was known as the Great Trek and became fundamental to the Boer sense of identity. The nomads, known as voortrekkers (pioneers), found deserted lands and scattered peoples – the result of the Mfecane – and met little serious resistance until they reached the Drakensberg Mountains, where King Moshoeshoe I had started to forge the Basotho nation (now Lesotho), and the wooded valleys of Zululand, where the Zulus held sway.
After establishing a republic at Thaba Nchu, near present-day Bloemfontein, some Boers headed north into the Transvaal and others east into Zululand. The eastern party, led by Piet Retief, entered an agreement with Dingane, Shaka’s successor – trading land for cattle – but the deal turned sour, and Retief and his followers were all slaughtered. This marked the start of hostilities between Boer and Zulu, and the former had their revenge at the Battle of Blood River in 1838. The Boers, driven by the ideals of the Dutch Reform Church, saw this victory as fulfilling their divine destiny.
The Boers’ dreams of a Natal republic were, however, dashed by the arrival of the British in 1843, who annexed the area and founded their new Natal colony at present-day Durban. The British began settling Natal and establishing the sugar-cane plantations that remain integral to the region’s economy today. But stiff resistance from the Zulus escalated into the Anglo–Zulu wars. In 1879 the Battle of Isandlwana marked one of the British army’s most humiliating colonial defeats, with over 1,400 soldiers falling to the Zulus. It was a turning point: the British redoubled their efforts and used superior firepower to divide and destroy the Zulu nation and establish control over Zululand (now KwaZulu-Natal). The Zulus would not labour for the British, however, and so more than 150,000 ‘indentured’ Indians were imported to work the cane fields in what would become the largest Indian colony outside Asia.
The Boers, meanwhile, pressed on with their search for land and freedom, and established various republics, including the Transvaal and the Free State. But chaos broke out when the discovery of diamonds near Kimberley in 1869 brought an invasion of labourers and prospectors that derailed the Boers’ plans. The British stepped in to annex the area, increasing the Boer’s long-standing resentment of them. By 1880 this had escalated into the first Anglo–Boer War – seen by Afrikaaners as a war of independence. The Boers quickly won a decisive victory at Majuba, reclaimed the Transvaal, which had been under British control from 1877, and declared their independence as the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (South African Republic).
The British, undeterred, forged ahead with their plan to bring all the southern African colonies and republics into a British-administered federation. In 1886, gold was discovered in the Witwatersrand, precipitating another chaotic deluge of adventurers, founding the city of Johannesburg and pushing the Boers further towards the sidelines. The Boers, still essentially farmers, were losing out on the mineral wealth of their new lands and were not happy about it, precipitating the second Anglo–Boer War in 1899, after the British demanded voting rights for foreign whites on the goldfields. This war lasted longer than the first, but the British were better prepared and, using brutal new tactics such as concentration camps and scorched earth, they prevailed. A peace treaty was signed in 1902, in which the Boers acknowledged British sovereignty and the Brits undertook to reconstruct the areas under their control.
Swaziland’s natural environment has felt the inevitable impact of human population growth and development. Indigenous habitat has been replaced by agriculture – notably forestry in the highveld, sugar in the lowveld and small-scale subsistence farming nationwide. On Swazi Nation Land, especially, the fauna and flora has suffered from habitat loss and overgrazing. But the country still has many wonderful wild corners where flora and fauna abound, particularly in its numerous nature reserves.
Swaziland’s varied habitats support a collective biodiversity that conservationists recognise as globally significant. Eastern Swaziland lies within the Maputaland Centre of Plant Diversity (one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots), for instance, while the western region falls within both the Drakensberg Escarpment Endemic Bird Area and the Barberton Centre of Plant Endemism. Some understanding of these habitats can be a big help when it comes to watching wildlife, alerting you to which species you can expect to find, and where, and explaining how and why they co-exist.
Swaziland’s rich variety of habitats gives it a profusion of fauna and flora, with the sheer number of species mind-boggling by most European standards. The country is too small to offer the big-game bonanza of destinations like the Kruger National Park. However, several parks house a good selection, with rhinos being a notable speciality, and this is the perfect place to see smaller creatures that are often overlooked on safari elsewhere. Swazi Nation Land is relatively impoverished, wildlife-wise, with the habitat damaged by overgrazing and larger species persecuted. The greatest concentrations of wildlife are generally on private land or reserves.
Some 132 species of mammal have been recorded in Swaziland: about one-third of sub-Saharan Africa’s total. Around 33% of these are bats or rodents. Over the first part of the 20th century, hunting, human population growth and development drove out many larger species. But an ambitious conservation programme starting in the 1960s managed to preserve the last scattered game herds in the lowveld and has since succeeded in boosting their populations and reintroducing many other ‘lost’ species. Today you can certainly also see ‘charismatic megafauna’ such as giraffes and elephants, although not in quite the same unconfined space as elsewhere in southern Africa.
Some 500 species of bird have been recorded in Swaziland. This puts it roughly on a par with France (517) or, for a more local comparison, the Kruger National Park (505); it is a remarkable tally for such a tiny country that, being landlocked, has no sea or coastal birds. It owes this tally to its diversity of habitats, with several very different bird communities occurring side by side. For sheer number of species, the lowveld is the richest region: a keen birder in Hlane or Mlawula can easily top 100 species in a day – especially during summer, with all the migrants in. The highveld has fewer species but is home to many that are hard to find elsewhere. Indeed, Swaziland harbours 52 southern African endemics and is one of the only breeding sites for the blue swallow, one of Africa’s rarest breeding birds. And the beauty of birds is that they are not confined to reserves: throughout the country, from road verge to hotel garden, there are plenty to be seen. This account outlines some key groups, and a few more interesting or conspicuous species. Serious birders will need a field guide.
Reptiles and amphibians
Reptiles are not top of the average visitor’s wish list. If you’d like to become better acquainted with these fascinating animals, however, Swaziland is a good place to start. Some 111 species have been recorded, including one endemic and two near-endemics, and all three main orders are represented: the Crocodylia (crocodiles), the Chelonia (turtles and tortoises) and the Squamata (lizards and snakes). Many species hide away in cracks, foliage or underground, but you’re bound to spot a few – especially during summer, when they are more active. The following are among the better known and more conspicuous.
Some 54 indigenous freshwater fish species are recorded from Swaziland. This is generally of more interest to the angler than the average wildlife watcher, as you are unlikely to meet most of them other than on the end of a hook. Nonetheless, it is further evidence of the rich diversity of Swaziland’s aquatic habitats.
At the tiddlers end of the scale, the threespot barb (Barbus trimaculatus) is the most common of several barb species, reaching some 15cm, and is distinguished by its dorsal spine and three prominent spots on each flank. Much larger, at 40cm or so, is the Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus), a chunky species with red-tinged fins that is found in all major river systems and is an important protein source for local communities. The sharptooth catfish (Clarias gariepinus) is the largest of several catfish species, reaching 1.4m, and feeds on the bottom in still waters, using tentacle-like barbels around its mouth to detect food in the murk. The Swaziland rock catlet (Chiloglanis emarginatus) is a much smaller catfish, just 7cm, which uses a sucker-like mouth to anchor itself to rocks in rapids. The longfin eel (Anguilla mossambica) breeds at sea and migrates back up rivers to mature, although dams prove a major obstacle to its dispersal upriver. The tigerfish (Hydrocynus vittatus) is a large, predatory species with impressive teeth and a serious fan base among sport anglers. It is found around Big Bend, notably in Sivunga and Van Eck dams, and in the nearby Usutu River. A number of exotic species, including rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides), have been introduced to Swaziland to provide sport for anglers. These disrupt natural ecosystems and join numerous other factors – from dam building to industrial run-off – that pose a threat to native fish.
Rhinos and mambas may steal the headlines, but Swaziland’s wildlife is actually at its most prolific lower down the scale where, munching through the vegetation, tunnelling into the ground and swarming through the skies, invertebrates form the engine room of the great food pyramid. This account describes just a few of the better-known creepy-crawlies you may encounter.
The fact remains that you can get a better idea of traditional African culture here than pretty much anywhere else in the region, and that what you will see, including spectacular festivals, has not simply been resuscitated for the tourist dollar but is the real deal.
Swaziland has a population of some 1.1 million. By southern African standards that’s fairly populous, with about 68 people per square kilometre (compared with 41 for South Africa, 29 for Mozambique and just three for Botswana). However, it still leaves the country substantially less crowded than many in Europe. The UK, for instance, has around 255 per square kilometre.
Where Swaziland’s population differs markedly from that of most developed nations is in its age demographic: as of 2009, some 38% of people were aged 14 or younger, with the median age of 20 being half that of the UK’s 39.8. Its current growth rate of 1.2% per year and fertility rate of 3.4 children per child-bearing woman are both relatively low by African standards, although the former is partly explained by a high death rate due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
People are fairly evenly distributed, with the largest population centres along the Mbabane and Manzini corridor, and – other than in the larger nature reserves and wilder mountains – you are liable to meet people anywhere you go. What’s more, most people you meet will be of pretty much the same stock. Ethnic Swazis make up more than 95% of Swaziland’s population and are descended from the original Bantu tribes that settled in the 1500s. Their first language is siSwati, though the majority also speaks English. This ethnic homogeneity has been central to Swaziland’s peaceful history, the population having never been split along racial or tribal lines.
Other people in Swaziland include a white minority of some 3%, mostly of British or Afrikaaner descent, and often South African provenance. Some have been in the country for generations and consider themselves Swazi through and through. They also include a number who left South Africa during the bad old days to avoid national service or to give their children a non-racial education. There is a small Asian population, a growing Portuguese/Mozambican population, and a mixed-race – or ‘coloured’ – population, all of which are predominantly urban.
Swaziland’s permanent population is swelled by a fair sprinkling of short-term expatriates. These range from overseas professionals on contract to the staff and volunteers of NGOs and development agencies. The expatriate community ballooned out of proportion to the country’s needs during the 1980s and early ’90s, when many international organisations preferred to make the kingdom their regional headquarters rather than do business with apartheid South Africa. There is also a pan-African diaspora from countries such as Zambia, Ghana and Nigeria, many of them educated professionals who arrived en route to South Africa but found it easier to stay – whether legally or otherwise. It all makes for a surprisingly cosmopolitan mix.
More than one million ethnic Swazis live in South Africa – about as many as in Swaziland. Most are just over the border in the areas that once made up the siSwati-speaking Bantustan (homeland) of KaNgwane, declared ‘independent’ by the apartheid authorities in 1981. The late King Sobhuza II once petitioned for the return of these lands to the kingdom, and indeed when passing through them today it certainly feels like Swaziland.
If Swazis were obliged to define their own national traits, high on the list would probably be patience and diplomacy. ‘Anginasitsa,’ the late revered King Sobhuza II is reputed to have said, meaning: ‘I have no enemies’. They attribute their peaceful history over the last century to a capacity for talking things over. Indeed, it remains a convention to debate rural community affairs in regular meetings, with everyone entitled to their say. To impatient outsiders, progress may feel glacial and decisions rare. Foreign enterprises in Swaziland have often foundered when people have rushed into decisions, driven by external agendas, without ensuring that all local parties were consulted and protocols observed. Strong objections are seldom expressed directly, so an outsider may give up and leave, still mystified.
Swaziland’s traditional culture is its biggest tourist attraction, and used to sell everything from postcards to guidebooks (see the front cover of this one). The appeal is self-evident: this tiny kingdom has managed to retain traditions that date back to pre-colonial times and that, despite all the challenges of modernity, remain visibly fundamental to its cultural life. Of course Swaziland is not a living museum. Nonetheless, the fact remains that you can get a better idea of traditional African culture here than pretty much anywhere else in the region, and that what you will see, including spectacular festivals, has not simply been resuscitated for the tourist dollar but is the real deal.
Today there is an increasingly sharp distinction between people living in urban and rural areas. The rise of a middle-class ‘Western’ lifestyle in the former, transforming everything from marriage to employment, has left many traditional practices on the wane – although their undercurrents still inform society in ways that are not always apparent to the outsider. To get a better idea of traditional Swazi culture you need to visit the rural areas.
The basic building block of Swazi society is the homestead (umuti). Traditionally this comprises a number of huts, each built for a particular purpose. Sleeping huts house family members, while other huts serve for food storage, brewing and other functions. Larger homesteads – according to the status of the headman – might have additional structures such as bachelor quarters and guest accommodation. The area around and between huts is kept free of grass and the sand swept clean – traditionally to guard against snakes and reveal the footprints of any unwelcome intruders.
At the centre of a homestead is a circular cattle kraal (enclosure), the sibaya, fenced with solid logs and branches, where the cattle are housed every night. This has symbolic importance as a store of wealth and prestige. Women are traditionally barred from the cattle byre. Opposite it is the great hut, indlukulu, occupied by the mother of the headman and used as the family shrine.
The huts in such homesteads would once have been ‘beehive’ huts. Today most rural homesteads are a mixture of traditional huts and more modern, brick-built dwellings. Either way, you can visit and enter homesteads when exploring rural Swaziland, and will receive a warm welcome providing you show suitable respect and follow correct protocol. If in doubt, travelling with a guide on a cultural tour will make things easier. Mantenga Cultural Village is an excellent working reconstruction of a traditional homestead from around the 1850s, where you can discover in detail all the complexities and nuances of traditional Swazi life.
Lubombos homestead – huts today are a mixture of beehive and modern Swaziland © Mike Unwin
Men, women and marriage
Traditional Swazi society was strongly patriarchal, with the roles of men and women sharply defined. Men were responsible for the cattle – only they were permitted to herd and plough. Women, meanwhile, wove basketware, ground maize and brewed beer. Both sexes tilled the fields, although most of this work fell to women. As children grew up, men would spend time with boys to prepare them for manhood, while women taught girls their domestic responsibilities and prepared them for marriage.
The traditional family unit was a polygamous one – or more accurately, polygynous, in that one man had a number of wives. A homestead would include the headman (umnumzane), his wives, unmarried siblings and married sons with their wives and children. Each wife would have her own hut and would be ranked according to her role in the household – older wives might no longer sleep with the headman, for instance, but continue to play an important role in advising the younger child-bearing wives.
Marriage aimed to cement ties between families and thus solidify the clan structure. Once a suitable bride was found and the match approved, the marriage was sealed by payment by the groom’s to the bride’s family of a bride price called lobola. This took the form of cattle. Precise details were negotiated using an intermediary, but a typical rate would be 15 cows for a standard bride and 25 for one of more distinguished birth. Today other forms of livestock, such as goats, or simply cash, may form part of the deal – and payment may come in instalments or involve credit arrangements.
A traditional wedding (umtsimba) was held during a weekend in the dry season. The bride and her relatives would arrive at the groom’s homestead on the Friday evening. On the Saturday, they would gather in the morning by the nearby river and feast on a goat or cow that had been slaughtered by the groom’s family, then in the afternoon they would dance. On the Sunday morning, the bride – accompanied by her female relatives – would stab the ground with a spear in the man’s cattle kraal. She would then present gifts to her new husband and his relatives. Later she would be smeared with red ochre to symbolise the couple’s bond until death returned them to the soil.
Today, many of these customs still prevail, especially in the rural areas, but things have become more complicated. Polygamous marriage is not recognised in Swazi civil law and the custom is declining as better education leads more women to question their lot. Some have also blamed polygamy for facilitating the spread of HIV/AIDS. It remains hard to challenge this custom, however, when the ultimate role model – the King himself – has 14 wives and counting. Of more practical concern for many men is the rising price of cattle, which means that paying lobola for multiple wives is beyond their reach. Meanwhile, a Western-style church service has become the norm for weddings – although the ceremony may well still incorporate many traditional components.
Many Swazi men still have children by multiple women, whether or not these women are officially their wives. But the blurring of boundaries between customary practice and civil law has brought an increase in marital conflicts – and a rise in divorce rates. Women today form an increasing percentage of the urban workforce and NGOs are working hard to advise rural women of their rights. In the rural areas, however, the divisions remain clear: you will not see women herding cattle or men behind a vegetable stall, and boys still tend to be the favoured children – sent to school in preference to their sisters, for instance, when the family can’t afford to educate everyone.
Attire is used in traditional Swazi culture to convey numerous messages relating to age, gender and status, and today remains pivotal to such festivals as the Incwala and Umhlanga.
A man’s traditional clothing consists of a sarong-style, knee-length cloth skirt called a lihiya (plural emahiya), over which he wears an animal-skin apron called a lijobo (plural emajobo), typically the hide of a hare or small antelope. Strict rules govern how these items can be worn and in what combin
ations –lijoba without lihiya, for instance, is unthinkable. A married man wears a cloth wrap around his upper torso, fastened over one shoulder. Grandfathers and elderly men might wear a headband of animal hide.
Girls, traditionally, wore nothing but a string of beads until the age of eight, at which point they would add a short skirt of grass or cloth (lihiya), but never a long skirt until the age of 15. A married woman put up her hair in a bun called a beehive, wore a heavy, cow-skin skirt and covered her upper torso with a wrap of cloth or goatskin. This wrap was fastened under the armpits by a newly-wed then raised over one shoulder after the birth of a first child.
Arts and crafts
Swaziland has a fine artisanal culture, with many of its products now adorning ethnic craft boutiques around the world. Some are the product of tradition; other crafts have been imported – notably by South Africans, who came over the border during apartheid to find a liberated land of skills and enterprise that was ripe for cottage industry. There are numerous outlets around the country – both formal and informal – where you can admire and purchase this work. Some of it may seem familiar: Swazi candles, mohair blankets and grass mats are now widely available overseas, at overseas prices. But here you can watch its creators in action. And at socially responsible outlets you can meet the women for whom the work provides both income and empowerment in poor rural communities.
Music and dance are embedded in traditional Swazi culture. Women sing together in the fields; men sing or utter praise poetry as they pay tribute to their chiefs or kings. There are traditional songs for every occasion: weddings, royal rituals, coming-of-age ceremonies and national festivals. Children in school or congregations in church sing with a vigour and an ability to harmonise spontaneously that seems remarkable to many Western observers. Sibhaca dance is the best known of various dance forms. Traditionally it is for men, although today women also take part. The dance is highly strenuous: teams of dancers step forward in turn to perform barefoot high-kicking and stomping, while their companions behind beat drums, chant and sing. All wear traditional dress, with colourful tassels and embellishments. School sibhaca competitions are popular, with boys forming their own teams and performing for special occasions. A typical session can last two or three hours, with different songs and styles performed.
Festivals and ceremony
Swaziland’s traditional culture finds its most spectacular expression in two ritual ceremonies: the Incwala and the Umhlanga. Both are living cultural events that, bar the odd pair of sunglasses and mobile phone, have hardly changed in two centuries. Visitors are tolerated, but neither ceremony makes any concession to tourism; even the precise dates are not published in advance, being dependent on the vagaries of ancestral astrology. If you’re lucky enough to be around at the right time, get along to the royal parade grounds at Ludzidzini and catch the action. Even if you can’t be on the spot, you won’t miss the mood of celebration that sweeps the nation, and will doubtless see wandering bands of warriors or maidens decked out in full regalia as they head to or from the festivities.