On the brink of starvation
This small Southern African kingdom cherishes its customs, and prides itself as a showcase of traditional African life, socially as well as politically. But the ability of old ways is now being severely tested as a historic food shortage is threatening the lives of nearly a quarter of the population. The food crisis is attributable in part to farming techniques practised on the traditional Swazi homestead. As aid workers scramble to feed the rural masses, the question being raised is how long the Swazi family farm can continue the way it is.
“We have to make our agricultural land more productive. Farmers must become business people, and we are prepared to help,” says agriculture minister Roy Fanourakis.
“The likhaya (traditional Swazi farm) has long ago ceased to support the people who live there,” says an aid worker with one of the church groups currently distributing grain to hold off starvation in the eastern Lubumbo region. “The traditional farm is being kept for political reasons, because the royal government depends on the peasant class as its principal constituency. Rather than risk losing that support, government won’t press peasants to modernize their ways.”
The cultural debate has an urgent need, because it plays against a backdrop of new statistics that show a rise in the number of Swazis threatened with starvation as food stocks are depleted. Swaziland is one of six Southern African nations that are threatened with famine, mostly due to drought but with some governments’ land policies also partly to blame.
“We have just completed a sweep of the countryside to survey for isolated pockets where people are hungry,” says Ben Nsibandze, director of the National Disaster Task Relief Force. “That accounts for some of the rising numbers, but mostly it is because the little bit of food some people were able to salvage from poor harvests is now completely over”
Things are going to get worse as the year ends. The month of October is when rains return. The National Meteorological Service reports that technically there was no drought in Swaziland this past year. The 2001-02 cropping season saw normal rainfall in the aggregate. However, rains ceased falling for a crucial three-week period in December-January when maize plants were maturing in the fields. Much of the crop was stunted or destroyed. 39 per cent of maize was unsalvageable when the rains eventually returned.
Meteorologists are tracking the warming trend in the Pacific and Indian Oceans called El Nino, which historically draws moisture and thus rainfall away from Southern Africa, and has caused drought in Swaziland. There is worry that rains may be compromised for a second year in a row.
“Swaziland receives little if any rainfall during winter months,” says Clement Dlamini of the National Weather Service. “It is too bad, because the country has a temperate climate with no frost during winter. Year-round rains would enable twelve months of cultivation.”
As it is, new crops when planted this month will mean hungry people must wait until April for the harvest. Original projections by the disaster relief task force was that 215 000 people will be without food by then. That number has been revised upward by 50 000 people, to 265 000, more than a quarter of the nation’s population.
“The months of late summer have always been known to the Swazis as a time of great want,” wrote anthropologist Hilda Kuper in her study of the small agrarian tribe, The Swazis. That was in the 1930s, when the population was a tenth of what it is today, a nation without paved roads or electricity, where the cycles of nature, its bounty or absence of subsistence, were dutifully obeyed.
Today, however, food security is seen as a human right. Swazis no longer passively accept food shortages that stunt their children’s growth and cause misery. But living as peasant farmers on traditional farms virtually guarantees future food insecurity.
According to the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report, 2002, 79,6 per cent of Swazis live as peasant farmers on communal Swazi Nation Land, without title deeds that would allow their properties to be used as collateral for bank loans to purchase irrigation equipment. Consequently, farmers depend on rainfall to nourish their crops, or so the conventional wisdom goes.
One field officer with the agriculture ministry disagrees. “There are inexpensive ways to draw water from streams to fields. Swaziland has lots of rivers, and yet you see maize fields dying right on their banks because Swazi farmers are very conservative, and they’re lazy. They’d rather wait for rain than use a manual hand or foot pump to irrigate.”
Maize turned Swazis from an itinerate warrior tribe that followed the game herds and lived in transportable branch-framed huts, into a settled agrarian society. This happened in the 1820s, when warrior king Mswati II hired some European mercenary soldiers from the Portuguese colony of Mozambique to help put down rebellious clans.
As a gift, the soldiers presented Mswati with maize. The grain had been brought from the Native Americans encountered by Portuguese explorers in the Western hemisphere, and was being tested in Portugal’s Africa colonies as a way to feed settlers. Maize proved ideal for Swaziland’s climate and soil, and spring and summer rains were usually enough for cultivation. If the crop failed, game animals and wild vegetables filled the nutrition gap.
Animal herds were long ago hunted to extinction, and wilderness areas are gone. Even traditional farms have shrunk, as they are divided into smaller parcels and given to the patriarch’s children to raise families.
For years, the agriculture ministry attempted to turn family farms into businesses, to be used as a source of income rather than subsistence gardens while real family income was earned by children who went to town for jobs, and sent back portions of their wages to support the extended family.
But these efforts have largely failed. Swaziland’s meat and milk production cannot meet local consumption requirements, and even grain must be imported into a land where four out of five people supposedly earn their livelihoods on farms.
Government sees agricultural cooperatives as the answer. New irrigation schemes will make water available to any group of farmers who pool their small properties to raise cash crops for export. This means sugar cane, because of Swaziland’s trade agreements with the European Union and other nations that have made sugar the kingdom’s chief export. Such agriculture also brings in foreign currency, and improves the country’s balance of trade.
But sugar cane cultivation does not help improve Swaziland’s food security picture. Cooperatives will also undermine the multi-generational family homestead that has always existed as a self-contained unit.
Critics of peasant farming are unsympathetic. “Swaziland cannot afford to be a welfare state that perpetually supports farmers who will not take steps to make their farms productive, like using irrigation,” says Peter Dube, a farmer’s son who works as a bank executive in Mbabane. “Either peasants stop being squatters on land other people can make useful, and become productive farmers themselves, or they must give up the land.”