Last week, Amnesty International released its report on forced evictions in eSwatini. The report, They Don’t See Us as People: Security of Tenure and Forced Evictions in eSwatini, is a culmination of more than a year’s investigation into demolitions and forced evictions by the government, which have left hundreds of people homeless.
The report covers two forced evictions — one in the Malkerns area in April this year and another in Nokwane in 2014 —which have left more than 200 people, mainly subsistence farmers, homeless and without land.
On August 31, many of the people whom Amnesty International had spoken to during its research gathered in a local hotel conference room in Manzini, eager to hear the organisation’s findings. After listening to the report, they began telling their own stories. Their pain, as they spoke about the loss of their homes and the manner in which it was done, was palpable.
Even though some lost their homes four years ago, their lives have been broken in ways they can never forget. They are left with a strong sense of injustice.
Nomathemba (not her real name), a domestic worker and one of the women who lost their homes in Nokwane, said: “When our home was demolished, I didn’t feel like I had human rights. They … left us out in the open like we were animals or something to be thrown away.”
She tried to salvage what she could on that day in October 2014 when the eviction was carried out, but her children’s school uniforms, clothes, dishes and documents were destroyed.
In another case, Nokwane, east of Manzini, was once known for its pineapple plantations, avocado trees and pawpaws, which sustained local families. Today it hosts the 159 hectares Royal Science and Technology Park, a government-led development initiative inaugurated this year. The Taiwanese government-funded project is on land where there were at least 19 homesteads.
In 2014, after a protracted legal battle with some of the residents, the authorities arrived with bulldozers and reduced the homesteads to piles of rubble, thus forcibly evicting at least 180 women, children and men.
More recently, in April this year, eSwatini authorities forcibly evicted more than 60 people in the Emphetseni farming area in the Malkerns district.
When Amnesty International arrived, one week after the homesteads had been demolished, children’s shoes, school books, wires from mattresses, shattered glass and window frames lay strewn around. Some of the families were searching through the rubble, recovering items such as doors.
Although many of those made homeless in April have found some form of housing, it is far from adequate and has only increased their financial burden. They not only lost their homes, but in many cases, their livelihoods as well.
Amnesty’s report highlights the existing land governance system in eSwatini as one of the root causes of why people are vulnerable to forced evictions. Most of the land is held by King Mswati III “in trust”. The authority to allocate land to individual farmers is delegated to local chiefs.
In other cases, Amnesty International found that many families were on land because of verbal agreements with previous landowners who had subsequently sold the land.
In both these cases, there is no guarantee of security of tenure, leaving many people vulnerable to forced evictions. In a country where the majority of the population relies on subsistence farming, curtailing access to land has direct implications on their rights to adequate housing, food security and means of making a living. Amnesty International is aware of at least another 300 people at risk of imminent eviction.
Amnesty has called on the prime minister to declare a nationwide moratorium on mass evictions until adequate legal and procedural safeguards are in place to ensure that all evictions comply with international and regional human rights standards. The organisation has also recommended that the government takes all necessary steps to guarantee security of tenure to all.
Shireen Mukadam is Amnesty International’s researcher in Southern Africa