Africa Watch

ANC-Swaziland tensions anchored in history

Swaziland claims SA land
Swaziland.jpeg

If covert plans of the South African government of 33 years ago succeeded, Swaziland could have been the host of an American naval base today.

Those plans in 1982 to transfer the area of Ingwavuma from the then Kwazulu homeland to the kingdom of Swaziland is but one episode in a centuries-old history of tensions between traditional leaders and colonial powers in that part of Southern Africa.

The events in 1982, however, also mark the start of particular tensions between the kingdom and the ANC.

In June 1982 the then SA government announced plans to “repossess” the Ingwavuma region in the self-governing homeland of KwaZulu. Importantly, it included the natural deep sea harbour area of Kosi Bay.

Covering the story at the time, I visited both sides of the border to talk to locals. It was clear that it was an emotional issue, fuelled by a centuries-long history of conflict between competing black warrior kings, arbitrarily drawn colonial borders and forced removals by past regimes. On the Zulu side one particularly emotional issue is claims that the great warrior, Dingane kaSenzangakhona or Dingane as he is commonly referred to, was buried in the area.

Geopolitical strategies

Part of the 1982 drama, which among other things saw the South African government lose a court case on the repossession issue against the government of the Kwazulu homeland, was the strategic value of Kosi Bay, with ironic echoes from history almost a century and a half earlier.

Swaziland, named after the legendary King Mswati II, under whose reign the kingdom’s area was extended to twice its present size, was recognised as an independent country in 1881.

After the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand and the resultant tensions between Britain and the South African (Transvaal) Republic (ZAR), Britain extended the borders of its Natal colony to prevent the Boers from gaining access to the sea via Kosi Bay.

With the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910 as a self-governing British colony, Natal and with it Kosi Bay, became part of South Africa’s territory.

In 1982, at the height of the Cold War, off-the-record information and rumour had it that the Americans were keen to establish a naval base in Southern Africa. Apartheid South Africa was, however, not an acceptable host and the plan to transfer Kosi Bay to Swaziland was hatched.

ANC 1982 memo to Swaziland

A memorandum dispatched by the ANC, then headquartered in Lusaka, Zambia, in July 1982 to the Swazi king, not only confirms the agreement between the then SA government and Swaziland to transfer land to the kingdom, but also the naval base plans.

In its second paragraph the memorandum states: “The reported agreement between the Government of the Kingdom of Swaziland and the apartheid regime is fraught with grave dangers for the brother people of Swaziland and South Africa. If implemented, it will seriously complicate and impede the struggle for the liberation of South Africa, and transform Swaziland into an ally of the apartheid regime …” Further on the memorandum states: “An equally disturbing aspect of this agreement is the intention to develop the area along the Indian Ocean, reportedly to be ceded to Swaziland, as a naval base for use by the Western and South African navies. This refers specifically to Kosi Bay.”

The memorandum also clearly reveals where the “ANC in exile’s” sentiments and alignment during the days of the Cold War lay, as it states: “We are convinced that the Government of Swaziland, in keeping with its obligations under the Charters of the OAU, the Non-Aligned Movement and the UN, will defeat this effort to turn the Kingdom of Swaziland into an enemy of the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America and a base which threatens international peace and security.”

Promise about the future  

The memorandum also contained a promise about how the matter of the disputed land would be dealt with in future, and states: “The people of Swaziland and of South Africa can and will, in future, solve any territorial disputes between them peacefully and amicably, in the spirit of African brotherhood and mutual solidarity. For this to be possible, it is, however, necessary that the people of South Africa should, like those of Swaziland, govern themselves.

“It is, therefore, our considered view that the Government of Swaziland would be perfectly within its right to raise any territorial questions with the government of a liberated South Africa, should there be such questions. In the meantime, it would, in our view, have been an advantage both to Swaziland and ourselves, if the Government of Swaziland had sought the opinion of the ANC on the question under discussion before entering into negotiations with the Pretoria regime.”

Issue remains unresolved

That the matter has remained unresolved after the ANC came to power in 1994 is well illustrated by the fact that Swaziland in 2006 declared its intention to take the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In dispute are, besides areas in KwaZulu-Natal, large parts of Mpumalanga – including towns like Nelspruit, Malelane, Barberton, Ermelo, Piet Retief, eManzana (Badplaas) and Pongola, which are home to an estimated one million people.

At the time Swazi government officials said the monarch, King Mswati III, had decided to take his case to the world body in The Hague after several representations to President Thabo Mbeki had fallen on deaf ears.

There is also some support on the South African side of the border for the claims by the kingdom on “land stolen from it by white colonial settlers”. In 2006 Prince Tikhontele Dlamini, the most senior member of the Swazi royal family in South Africa, said they had run out of patience, since negotiations with the ANC government, over several years, had “yielded nothing”.

Since then the threatened ICJ case has disappeared from the radar screen. But while most of the blame at the time was laid at the door of the then president Thabo Mbeki and the general perception is one of warmer relations under President Jacob Zuma, tensions between South Africa and Swaziland still simmer under the surface.

Not only is this evident from the latest discussion paper (geopolitical) watch) for the upcoming ANC national general council, but Swaziland is often also singled out for sharp criticism. For instance, in April 2011 the ANC sharply criticised the Swaziland government for the way it dealt with internal protests.

In September 2014 King Mswati III voiced worries “about the lack of equal recognition for Swazis who are based in South Africa with that of other nations such as the Xhosas and Zulus”.

At the particular occasion, a meeting with some 500 Swazi chiefs living in South Africa, the question of land in SA “belonging to King Mswati” was also again under discussion.

It can be expected that the whole land issue can again rise to prominence in the near future as the Swaziland government has just announced a multi-billion dollar project to realise its long-held ambitions to break its landlocked status. It entails the construction of a port and canal linking it the coast.

It seems clear that the relationship between South Africa and Swaziland is set to be troublesome for some time to come.     

by Piet Coetzer

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