Mbabane — More Swazis live in informal settlements in the mountainous kingdom's urban centres than in established formal neighbourhoods, according to recent government statistics. The revelation has spurred efforts to improve living conditions for the urban majority, but the government's emphasis is on upgrading informal settlements rather than building new housing.
"We don't have a housing shortage, really, we have a neighbourhood shortage: places for people to put dwellings," said Madoda Dlamini, city engineer in Manzini, in central Swaziland, the country's commercial hub. A population of 65,000 makes it the biggest urban centre, but only 30,000 residents live in formally declared neighbourhoods.
"People are building houses for themselves everywhere," said Dlamini. "Some are substandard, but there is [also] substandard housing in established residential neighbourhoods. Some people have the money to build grand, stylish, double-storey houses, but can't find a place to put them. They can't purchase plots in towns because they are in short supply, so they build on the outskirts of town."
The capital, Mbabane, with a slightly smaller population, houses an equal number of residents in formal and informal areas. The accommodation in these informal settlements ranges from shacks to brick-built structures.
Land needed for housing
The country's eleven urban areas are controlled by town boards, but private land exists side by side with Swazi Nation Land, or "king's land", controlled by hereditary traditional chiefs. Four out of five Swazis reside on Swazi Nation Land, which they are given on condition that it will be forfeit if they do not make use of it.
On this basis, the right to land use is hereditary, and explains not only why there is a shortage of land - according to new statistics showing that towns are growing - but also why most people reside on non-town land. Efforts to expand towns onto Swazi Nation Land require permission from area chiefs.
We don't have a housing shortage, really, we have a neighbourhood shortage: places for people to put dwellings
Town dwellers occupying national land are reluctant to construct permanent dwellings, which would have to be demolished to make room for government projects, such as highways. Those who have built on land adjacent to towns are counting on expansion of the municipal boundaries to incorporate their homes.
People living on Swazi Nation Land cannot subdivide and sell the land, but the practice has become common in towns. "It is land speculation: people know the towns are moving outward, so they sell their nation land to others, and the new residents know they will one day acquire title deed to their plots," said Napoleon Ntezinde, Director of the government's Urban Development Project (UDP).
The UDP has been mandated to turn informal settlements into formal communities by granting title deeds to residents, and providing municipal services like water, sewage, roads and electricity from the national utilities.
The plan is taking shape in Mbabane, where three-quarters of the 1,500 plots in Msunduza township have been acquired by people who were previously long-term informal residents, while those in three other informal settlements around Mbabane are also being given title deeds to their plots. The capital city has little room to expand because it is ringed by mountains, with little land available for building sites.
Property values have been kept low to minimise taxes, but the new owners are required to pay for electricity and water. "Property taxes are essential, because through these city services are paid for: rubbish collection, street lighting, road upkeep - all these things must come from property taxes," said Ntezinde.
In Mbabane, existing slums are also set for upgrades and a government project is laying out ground plans and road networks for new residential areas. In Manzini, a new township is being laid out in a field adjacent to the informal settlement at Moneni, on the east side of town.
The lure of urban centres
Both Manzini and Mbabane are a mix of communal Swazi Nation Land, and title deed properties registered with city councils and sold through the government's Land Control Board, and are subject to property taxes.
Some chiefs do not wish to yield any part of their territory to towns: they would be losing subjects, and they would be losing influence because they have less land to control, once they have ceded it to the towns
Chiefs are reluctant to yield land under their control to towns, and having rural dwellers move to urban centres. "The chiefs' authority is largely executed through the parceling of land," said a source at the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development.
"Newcomers pledge their allegiance to a chief, and they are given a place to build a home, raise subsistence crops and graze their cattle. The new residents give gifts of cattle or money. Some chiefs do not wish to yield any part of their territory to towns: they would be losing subjects, and they would be losing influence because they have less land to control, once they have ceded it to the towns."
However, in a traditional society where chiefs are held in high regard, some maintain they are looking out for their subjects' welfare. "What happens to people who live in towns? Who is their chief?" said George Ntshangase, an elder in the Sigombeni chieftaincy north of Manzini.
"There are no jobs there [in towns]. Their children become tsotsi [gangsters]; they do not answer the call to attend national events. The town people can act like they are not true Swazis."
But the possibility of employment in town, if not the reality once they arrive, has lured the thousands of people idling in the KaKhoza and Moneni townships of Manzini.
As Alicia Simelane sat in the sun on Friday, finding some warmth during winter's coldest week, she said, "I can sometimes get work as a housecleaner, but at the likhaya [rural homestead] back in Bhunya [a rural settlement 50km south of Mbabane] there was nothing to do. But Bhunya is far, so me and my cousins bought this plot from a man who had formally received the land from a chief."
A report released this week by the ministry of housing found that most property tax defaulters were not the indigent owners of small properties, but the owners of larger properties who could afford to pay, but chose to avoid doing so despite fines and interest levied on outstanding accounts.
The National Housing Board was set up to provide rental flats for working-class Swazis in towns, but does not deal with housing for indigent persons requiring government housing subsidies.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]