Swazi Culture

Date: Oct 2, 2017

Get to know the SiSwati Culture



Identification. "Swazi" refers to the nation, tribe, or ethnic group, or an individual, "siSwati" to the language. SiSwati speakers are found in Swaziland, South Africa, and Mozambique.

Location. The Swazi reside in Swaziland, a small, landlocked country of 17,363 square kilometers, which is perched on the edge of the southern African escarpment. It is bounded on three sides by South Africa and on the fourth by Mozambique, both countries in which many ethnic Swazis reside. Four distinctive topographic steps largely determine the characteristics of Swaziland's natural environment: the high veld, averaging 1,219 meters in elevation, with forests and grassy hills; the middle veld, averaging 610 meters in elevation, with hills and palatable grasses suited for livestock and rich soils good for agriculture; the low veld, averaging 274 meters in elevation, with tall grasses suited for grazing but usually not for dry-land agriculture; and the Lubombo mountain range, a narrow plateau averaging about 610 meters in elevation, with a warm, subhumid climate and basaltic soils suited for arable agriculture. Several rivers—the Mbeluzi, Ngwavuma, Great Usutu, Komati, and Lomati—cut through the high veld, middle veld, and Lubombo Mountains.

Demography. Swazi identity is based on allegiance to a dual monarchy, headed by a hereditary king, titled by his people ingwenyama (lion), and a queen mother, indlovukati (Lady Elephant). Ethnic Swazis living in the Republic of South Africa and in Mozambique are not under their effective political control, however. Within Swaziland, the population (the great majority of which is Swazi) was estimated at 860,000 in 1992, with an annual growth rate of about 3.4 percent. Most Swazis live in rural homesteads, but, in the middle veld, where nearly one-half of the Swazi population resides, rural homesteads are interspersed with densely populated settlements around employment centers. The two major cities are Mbabane and Manzini.

Linguistic Affiliation. SiSwati is a tonal Bantu language of the Nguni Group, closely related to Zulu and, more distantly, to Xhosa. It is spoken in Swaziland and in the Eastern TransvaalProvince of the Republic of South Africa. Little has been published in siSwati.

History and Cultural Relations

Swazi history dates back to the late sixteenth century, when the first Swazi King, Ngwane II, settled southeast of modernday Swaziland. His grandson Sobhuza I established a permanent capital and drew within a centralized political system the resident Nguni and Sotho people. During the mid-nineteenth century, Sobhuza's heir, Mswati II, from whom the Swazis derive their name, expanded the Swazi nation to an area much larger than modern Swaziland. Mswati established contact with the British. By the late nineteenth century, Mswati's successor, Mbandzeni, granted Europeans land concessions for grazing and prospecting, thus unwittingly giving rise to serious, prolonged conflicts regarding land-usage rights. In 1894 the Boer and British powers granted the South African Boer Republic of the Transvaal control over Swaziland. After the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), Britain made Swaziland a protectorate. The Partitions Proclamation of 1907 confirmed the concessionaires control of two-thirds of the land, which was contested in 1922 by King Sobhuza II. Today the Swazi nation controls about two-thirds of the land area (see "Land Tenure"). Swaziland became independent in 1968.


The ordinary Swazi derives rights to land access and use by virtue of his/her residence or membership in a particular homestead (umuti ). According to Hilda Kuper and Brian Marwick, the homestead is patriarchal, with a male homestead head (umnumzana ) assuming primary powers, but the position of the main wife is important in family life. The homestead head determines resource allocation such as land distribution, makes major decisions regarding both production (plowing and types of crops grown) and economic expenditures, and mobilizes homestead labor.

The traditional Swazi homestead was circular in shape; the dwelling huts and cooking huts were built around the circumference of a circle, forming two "horns" embracing the courtyard and partially enclosing the cattle byre. Homestead residents have access as individuals to arable land and as members of the larger community to communal pasturage. Following the arrival of Europeans in Swaziland, homesteads changed; customarily tenured land was reduced in area, fragmented, and taxed. New agricultural methods, new hybrid seeds and fertilizers, and new technologies were introduced. At the same time, men migrated within Swaziland and to South Africa in search of income, thereby reducing labor power, altering sex roles, and changing the locus of decision making within homesteads. When homestead production activities changed, the social composition and physical organization of homesteads also changed.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Swazi homesteads focus on subsistence agricultural activities—primarily the cultivation of maize, sorghum, beans, groundnuts, and sweet potatoes. Maize had been essentially unknown until the mid-nineteenth century, at which time it was introduced and gradually replaced sorghum as the staple crop. Despite the importance of agriculture to the homestead economy, cattle are the basis of wealth and status. Swazi have the "cattle complex" typical of many eastern African tribes: cattle provide for individual food and clothing needs as well as serving wider economic and ritual purposes.

Industrial Arts. Smithing, a hereditary occupation for men that requires long apprenticeship, is surrounded by taboos. It was, at one time, the most exacting and remunerative of the industrial arts. The iron hoes, knives, and various kinds of spears (weapons of war) produced by smiths were in great demand. The smithy was built at a distance from the homestead and put off limits to women. In the past, the Swazi also had specialists in copper and brass. Today wood carving is important but is mainly limited to functional objects, such as meat dishes and spoons. Wood carvers are not required to enter a restricted apprenticeship and do not receive the status accorded healers, or even smiths. Pottery making lies within the domain of women, who, using the coil technique, produce different sizes and shapes of drinking and cooking vessels. Swazi specialists do not have at their disposal markets comparable to those found in West Africa.

Trade. Swaziland's main export crop is sugar, based on irrigated cane. Several other cash crops, including maize, rice, vegetables, cotton, tobacco, citrus fruits, and pineapples, are traded both within and outside the country. Its mineral wealth, which consists of iron ore, coal, diamonds, and asbestos, is mined for export. Meat and meat products are also exported. The industrial estate at Matsapha produces processed agricultural and forestry products, garments, textiles, and many light manufactures. The main imports are motor vehicles, heavy machinery, fuel and lubricants, foodstuffs, and clothing.

Division of Labor. Swazi division of labor proceeds according to sex, age, and pedigree. Most men know how to construct house frames and cattle kraals, plow, tend and milk cattle, sew skins, and cut shields. Some men are (or were in the past) particularly accomplished at warfare, animal husbandry, hunting, and governing. Most women know how to hoe, tend small livestock, thatch, plait ropes, weave mats/baskets, grind grain, brew beer, cook foods, and care for children; some women specialize in pot- and mat making. Age determines who will perform tasks associated with ritual performances. Rank determines who will summon people for work parties in district and national enterprises and who will supervise the workers. Work parties, sometimes consisting of hundreds or thousands of workers, compete in separate groups of men and women and receive customary rewards of thanks from the host according to rank, age, sex, and locality.

Land Tenure. Land-access rights in Swazi areas (as opposed to freehold areas established by the colonial land partition of 1907) are held by the community as a whole, and the king, representing the entire Swazi nation, is responsible for its allotment to chiefs. The chiefs, in their turn, distribute land to homestead heads. Swazi citizens can pledge allegiance to a chief and rulers and thereby obtain rights to land according to four acquisition methods: kukhonta (direct grant by the chief), kubekwa (direct grant by another individual), inheritance, and kuboleka umhlaba (being "lent" land by another individual). Rose (1992) has maintained that land disputes commonly center around problems of use rights, boundaries, cattle trespass, inheritance, natural-resource ownership and management, or chiefly legitimacy and territorial jurisdiction. In the late twentieth century land disputes have intensified or become more frequent, as populations have expanded or migrated toward employment centers. New varieties of disputes, often in association with development projects (e.g., construction of buildings, roads, or dams) have arisen.


Kin Groups and Descent. At the center of each Swazi homestead is the biological family, extended through classificatory kinship to maternal and paternal groups, the largest of which is the clan. The clan, as the farthest extension of kinship, contains a number of lineages in which direct descent can be genealogically traced over three to eight generations. The exogamous patrilineal clan (sibongo ), with members usually residing in the same locality (sifundza ), is the fundamental unit of Swazi social organization.

Kinship Terminology. One's father is called ubabe, whereas father's older brother is ubabe lomkhulu, and father's younger brother is ubabe lomncane. One's father's sister is ubabe lomsikati(female father). One's own mother, the other wives of his/her father, and his/her mother's sisters are called umake. One's father's brother's wife is also umake, and one's mother's sister's husband is also ubabe. One's mother's brother and his wife are called umalume. Grandfathers are called ubabemkhulu, and grandmothers ugogo, but the kinship terms can be specified by the addition of explanatory words (e.g., the paternal grandfather may be called ubabemkhulu lotala babe to distinguish him from the maternal grandfather). All grandchildren are umtukulu.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Clan membership is important in regulating marriage and succession. Marriage with a person of one's own paternal clan is prohibited (although permissible for the king) but allowed with a woman of the maternal clan. At one time, a preferred form of marriage was the sororate, in which a man married his wife's sister, who became the subsidiary wife (inhlanti ). A woman retains her paternal clan name upon marriage, but her children acquire at birth their father's clan name. Paternal rights are acquired by the man's family through the transfer to the woman's family of bride-wealth (lobola )—valuables such as cattle (and, in modern times, possibly cash). Bride-wealth varies with the rank and education of the bride. Marital residence is virilocal; the bride goes to live with her husband and in-laws. In contemporary Swaziland, several forms of marriage are found: traditional marriages—"love" matches, arranged marriages, and marriage by capture, the latter being uncommon and not always involving the exchange of bride-wealth—as well as Christian marriages. More individuals are eloping or remaining single. The marriage ceremony, particularly for high-ranking couples, involves numerous and sometimes protracted ritualized exchanges between the families of the man and the woman, including singing, dancing, wailing, gift exchange, and feasting. Divorce, which is discouraged in association with traditional marriages, although permissible in situations of adultery, witchcraft, and sterility, proceeds according to a variety of arrangements.

Domestic Unit. Within a complex homestead are households, each household (indlu ) generally consists of one nuclear family (a man, his wife and their children) whose members share agricultural tasks and eat from one kitchen. When there are several households on the homestead, each consists of a simple polygynous family, an extended agnatic family, or a complex family grouping. Sometimes a wife has an attached co-wife (inhlanti ), who, along with her children, forms part of the same "house." A married son and his wife and dependents occasionally form another house within the wider "house" of his mother.

Inheritance. Upon the death of a homestead head (umnumzana), the family council of agnates (including full and half-brothers of the head, his own and brothers' senior sons, etc.) meet to discuss the disposal of his estate. The council primarily considers the household divisions prevailing within the homestead group during the life of the head as well as the land allocations made by him during his life. In monogamous families, the largest land allocation and administrative responsibilities usually go to the oldest son, whereas in large polygynous families, the largest land allocation and administrative responsibilities usually go to the oldest son of the senior wife who is named the general heir (inkosana ) and acts as guardian over the special heirs of each wife's house's estate. When a woman dies, her property (e.g., her pots, mats, and implements) goes, by tradition, to the wife of her eldest son, who resides in the same homestead or village, unlike her married daughters. In contemporary Swaziland, traditional rules of inheritance are not applicable when a Christian marriage, which disallows polygyny and which is governed by Roman-Dutch law, is contracted.

Socialization. Preadolescent girls play and help their mothers with minor domestic chores and child care, whereas preadolescent boys play and run errands around the homestead until they are old enough to accompany their age mates to the fields with the herds. Fathers sometimes play a small role in child rearing, particularly if they are employed at distant locations within Swaziland or in South Africa. The Swazi have not circumcised males since King Mswati's reign in the mid-nineteenth century, but both boys and girls traditionally had their ears cut (ukusika tindlebe ). By custom, a boy who has reached puberty is tended by a traditional healer, and a girl who has had her first menstruation is isolated in a hut for several days and instructed by her mother about observances and taboos. A boy learns about manhood and service to the king when he joins his age (warrior) regiment (libutfo ).

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the dominant Dlamini clan created a hierarchy of control by amalgamating and ranking through conquest, treaty, and peaceful incorporation over seventy disparate, equal clans under a hereditary monarchy. The Swazi hierarchical ranking system came to consist of several units: the polygynous patriarchal family, the hierarchy of clans and lineages, the dual monarchy, the age grades, and the groups of specialists. The stability of the ruling elite's control was achieved through a balance of power among the king, his mother, princes, and commoners, as well as between the dual monarchy and the chiefs. Moreover, Swazi hierarchy harmoniously blended authoritarian political privileges of birth with egalitarian participation in age classes and councils. With the coming of Europeans in the late nineteenth century, the traditional hierarchy was forced to compete with a new, colonial administrative hierarchy that was based upon race and oriented toward the accumulation of wealth. After Swaziland achieved independence in 1968, a complex administrative system was fused together from parts of the dual hierarchy (see "Political Organization"). Currently, traditional hierarchical arrangements are most threatened by the developing class system that found root in the economic and social changes of the colonial period.

Political Organization. Swaziland's government is a monarchy. Its political organization is characterized by dualism: the parallel political structures consist of a "traditional" and a "modern" (postcolonial) hierarchy. At the apex of the traditional hierarchy is the Swazi monarch, who as a member of the Dlamini clan, holds supreme executive, legislative, and judicial power. He governs with the assistance of his traditional advisers. At the middle level of the traditional hierarchy are chiefs who consult with their council of elders (bandlancane ), and at the lowest level are homestead heads who consult with their lusendvo (lineage Council). The modern structure, through which the monarch's power is also delegated, consists of modern, statutory bodies, such as a cabinet and a parliament that passes legislation (subject to approval by the king), which is administered in four regions, and less formal governmental structures, consisting of Swazi Courts and forty subregional districts in which the traditional chiefs are grouped.

Social Control. The colonial powers altered some Swazi customary legal rules and procedures and imposed Roman-Dutch law as the general law. As a result, Swaziland developed a dual system of law and courts consisting of traditional councils, in which procedures are not controlled by legislative enactments or by codified legal rules, and modern courts, which have been formalized by national legislation. Traditional councils consist of the clan/lineage council (lusendvo), the chief's council (bandlancane), and the king's council. Modern courts consist of both Swazi and European-influenced courts at lower levels, including the Swazi Courts, two Courts of Appeal, the Higher Swazi Court of Appeal, and the king on the Swazi-influenced side, and the Subordinate Courts, the High Court, and the Court of Appeal on the European-influenced side. The Swazi Courts Act of 1950 provided for the formal composition of customary courts, the type of law they may apply (customary law), the procedure to be followed, and the limits of the courts' jurisdiction over persons. Swazis may exercise some discretion, depending upon individual circumstances, in choosing which legal forum to pursue a case.

Conflict. Swazis were engaged in tribal warfare until the imposition of European control in the late nineteenth century. Following the arrival of European concessionaires, severe conflicts developed between Swazis and Europeans regarding alienated land (see "History and Cultural Relations"). Throughout history, conflicts arose between Swazi clan and lineage members (commonly co-wives and half-brothers) in association with daily interactions and were often attributed to suspected acts of witchcraft and sorcery. In modern-day Swaziland, interpersonal conflicts are influenced by many social and economic changes, including altered sex roles, increased job competition, labor migration, and the growth of an educated elite. Some Swazis believe that the legal prohibition of "witch finding" exacerbates conflicts by protecting evildoers who promote themselves at the workplace and in personal affairs through the use of magic. New or intensified pressures upon status relationships in stratified Swazi society are also producing conflicts.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Adherents of traditional religion believe(d) in an aloof Supreme Being known as Mkhulumnqande, who fashioned the earth but who demands no sacrifices and is neither worshiped nor associated with the ancestral spirits. Swazi men play important roles in Swazi traditional religious life, offering sacrifices for the ancestral spirits, who are ranked, as are humans. Despite the important role of men in religious matters, female diviners also communicate with spirits, and the queen mother acts as custodian of rain medicines. Swazi ancestral spirits take many forms, sometimes possessing people and influencing their welfare, primarily their health (see "Religious Practitioners" and "Medicine").

Methodists established the first mission in Swaziland. Currently, many Christian sects exist in Swaziland, ranging from the more eclectic Catholics to the more rigid Afrikaner Calvinists. A majority of Swazis are registered as "Christian." Many converts belong to nationalistic Separatist "Zionist" churches, which practice a flexible dogma and great tolerance of custom.Christianity as practiced by Swazis has been influenced by existing traditions, including beliefs in ancestral spirits, and traditional religion has been influenced by Christianity.

Religious Practitioners. Swazi practitioners of traditional religious beliefs articulate belief systems and link the spirit and human worlds. Their primary role, as healers, is to identify and correct the imbalances between these worlds, imbalances that lead to human misfortunes and illnesses. Swazi healers are of three types: herbalist (about 50 percent), diviner-medium (about 40 percent), and Christian faith healers (about 10 percent). Diviners are usually accorded more prestige than herbalists because ancestral spirits are believed to work through them directly. They are called to their profession through spirit possession and may become novices-intraining in a ritual school run by a master diviner. Although the healer categories overlap, in general, herbalists work primarily with natural materia medica (e.g., roots, bark, leaves), whereas diviner-mediums diagnose the "mystical" causes of illness, rely on spirit possession, and perform the femba ceremony, through which agents of illness are removed. Since the late colonial period (1960s), most healers (more than 80 percent) have been officially registered and are thus subject to taxation. Many belong to healers' organizations.

Ceremonies. The annual ritual of kingship, the Incwala, a ceremony rich in Swazi symbolism and only understandable in terms of the social organization and major values of Swazi life, has been described in numerous writings by Hilda Kuper. According to her, the central figure is the king, who alone can authorize its performance. The Incwala reflects the growth of the king, and his subjects play parts determined by their status, primarily rank and sex. Before this ceremony (which is sometimes described as a first-fruits ceremony or a ritual of rebellion) can be performed during a three-week period each year, considerable organizational and preparatory activities must be undertaken. For example, water and sacred plants are collected at distant points to strengthen and purify the king. Thereafter, the oldest warrior regiment opens the Incwala. Sacred songs that are concerned with the important events of kingship (a king's marriage to his main ritual wife, the return of ancestral cattle from the royal grave, and the burial of kings) as well as dances are performed. Themes of fertility and potency predominate. Celebrants are adorned in striking clothing, including feathers of special birds and skins of wild animals. Kuper maintains that the Incwala symbolizes the unity of the state and attempts to reinforce it; therefore, it dramatizes power struggles between the king and the princes, or between the aristocrats and commoners, with the Swazi king ultimately triumphing. Kuper, Beidelman, and other scholars have discussed other Swazi royal rituals, including the reed dance and rainmaking rites, as well as ceremonies that involve Swazis as individuals or groups, including funerals, marriages, and initiations.

Arts. Swazi implements and utensils, such as clay pots and baskets, are unornamented, serving mainly a utilitarian purpose. Wood carvers did not traditionally produce masks or sculptured figures, although in the late twentieth century schools have encouraged woodcraft for the tourist trade. Musical instruments are crafted to accompany popular singing and dancing activities; among those instruments used either in the past or present are the luvene (hunting horn), impalampala (kudu bull horn), ligubu (calabash attached to a wooden bow), and livenge(wind instrument made from a plant). Drums and European instruments have been introduced.

Medicine. Swazis resort to various medical practitioners, primarily biomedical or traditional practitioners. Traditional practitioners retain their high standing among the Swazi, as indicated by their relatively high ratio within the general population: currently, about one person in 110. About half of traditional healers are female, and the vast majority are diviner-mediums (see "Religious Practitioners"). Swazis believe that most serious diseases do not simply happen: they are created and sent by a person of ill will. Furthermore, Swazis differentiate between diseases or conditions regarded as "African" or "Swazi" and those that are foreign, emphasizing that the former, such as madness caused by sorcery, is a Swazi disease best treated by traditional medicine and practitioners, and that the latter, such as cholera, is a foreign disease best treated by Western orthodox medicine and biomedical practitioners. According to Green (1987), Swazi healers claim to be most effective in healing sexually transmitted diseases, sorcery and bewitchment types of ailments, children's illnesses, and migraines. By tradition, a recognized Swazi healer-diviner would commonly receive an initial gift of a goat, spear, or other articles, an intermediary gift of meat from a beast that was slaughtered during treatment, and a cow given in thanks for effecting a successful cure. The diviner's fee did not constitute a regular stipulated payment but did depend on her or his technique and the seriousness of the situation. Nowadays a healer may demand set fees for particular medicines and services.

Death and Afterlife. Swazi mortuary ritual varies with both the status of the deceased and his or her relationship with different categories of mourners. The more important the deceased, the more elaborate the rites given the corpse (particularly so for the king). The closer the relationship through blood or marriage of the deceased and a mourner, the greater the stereotyped performance demanded by the spirit from the mourner. A headman is traditionally buried at the entrance of the cattle enclosure, and his widows, children, siblings, and other relatives are expected to grieve dissimilarly and for different lengths of time. Widows grieve longer than do widowers. A widow may be expected to continue her husband's lineage through the levirate (ngena ), in which she is taken over by a brother of her deceased husband. The spirit of the deceased may manifest itself in illness and in various omens; sometimes it materializes in the form of a snake. Ancestral spirits, acting as custodians of correct behavior and moral standards, inflict suffering on their descendants only as just punishment, not out of malice. The head of the family appeals to the ancestors and directs offerings to them at specific domestic events such as births, marriages, and deaths and during hut-building activities.


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