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The Swazi (Swati) People of Southeastern Africa

Population:     650,000 in Swaziland (1993 Johnstone). Population total all countries: 1,706,924
Religion:        Christian, Traditional Religion
Registry of Peoples code:  Swazi:  109648
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue):  Swati:  ssw


The Swazis of the Mountain Kingdom of Swaziland are a proud but peaceful people; occupying a small landlocked country in Southern Africa surrounded on three sides by South Africa and on the fourth by Mozambique.  Swaziland is the smallest country in the Southern Hemisphere with an area of only 6,704 sq. miles.  Swazis also live in the neighboring areas of Mozambique and South Africa.  Those in South Africa outnumber those in Swaziland

Swazis have lived in present day Swaziland since around 1750.  Ethnically, Swazis are a part of the Nguni People Group, originating from the Great Lake areas of Central Africa.  Their ancestors were part of the general, gradual migration of Bantu language speakers from Central Africa.  The Nguni sub-group, Nkosi-Dlamini, broke from the main group and settled in Mozambique, eventually moving into the area known today as Swaziland.

The Swazi developed from the Ngwane, one of the Dlamini sub-groups, whose separate history can be traced to about 1750, in the southern side of Delagoa Bay, opposite Maputo.  There they associated with the Tembe people and engaged in the heavy commerce along the coast, including the export of ivory through sea trade.  The Ngwane involvement was one factor that led to the Tembes' loss of monopoly on commerce.

As the Boers expanded, treaties established boundaries with Transvaal.  Though there were wars with the Zulus, the Swazi king Mbandzeni refused a British request for help in 1879 in the Anglo-Zulu war.  Shaka never attacked the Swazi during his expansionist activity.  In the mid-1800's Dutch (Boer) and English groups settled in the realm by contract with the king on various occasions.

A few years ago, Swaziland has one of the highest population growth rates in the world — 3.7%.  In the 1990s, the Swaziland Department of Planning projected 1.1 million by the year 2001.  The rate of growth has slowed, due to the heavy toll of AIDS in the last decade. In 2007 an educational crisis developed because of the great numbers of AIDS orphans who had no one to pay school fees for them. The government decided in 2007 it could not pay their fees either.

Fifty-five percent of the population lives in the Mbanane to Manzini area.  Three out of ten Swazis live in towns or cities.  The estimated population of the country in 2008 is 1,128,814.

Swaziland has a reputation as one of the most prosperous countries in sub-Sahara.  Swaziland's economy is tied to the South African economy through the Rand Monetary Area and the Common Customs Area.  Although considered by many, including World Bank, as a middle income nation, a "third-world" economy emerges when one looks closely.

The Swazi people are closely allied with the Zulu, Ndebele and other Nguni peoples by culture, language and history.  The Gwane maintained a separate identity and were not always on good terms with their cousins.  The establishment of Swaziland was a strong factor in their maintaining their separate identity.  The Swazi people today make up a little over half the population of Swaziland but it is ruled as a Swazi kingdom.

Swati is the home language of the Swazi people.  Business and commerce are conducted in English.  Zulu was used in literature and education before independence.  Many Swazis also speak Zulu.  Swati and its neighboring languages are written in Latin characters, following the spelling conventions used in Nguni languages.

One source says that there are about 2.5 million speakers of the Swati language. However, the 2005 edition of the Ethnologue, world authority and ISO standard for information on the languages of the world, gives the total in all countries as 1,706,924.  1,013,193 of these live in South Africa (1996 census), only about 650,000 in Swaziland.

The Swati (or Swazi) language is a member of the Nguni language family, which includes Xhosa Ndebele and Zulu.  The ancestors of the Nguni came into contact with the Khoisan-speaking peoples, whose language has click sounds as consonants.  The Nguni languages now have several borrowed sounds from these languages and some vocabulary items.  Swati has lost all but one of the click sound sets.  Swati is the mother tongue of all the ethnic Swazi people and the language is spoken by many people of other ethnic groups.

Political Situation:
Swaziland is a peaceful country, having struggled for years against outside forces, Zulus, British, Boers and land-hungry settlers.  The country of Swaziland was the tribal land of the Swati people under their hereditary rulers.  Swaziland was recognized as an independent nation by Britain, Portugal and South African entities in a series of treaties conventions and negotiations, dated from the early 1800's.

In 1894 Swaziland requested to become a British Protectorate to halt the encroachments of Boers and Portuguese.  During the years of British consolidation in southern Africa, Swaziland remained separate.  They did not participate for instance, in the Union of South Africa, formed in 1910.  Swaziland preferred to remain a protectorate. (It was never a colony.) The country gained independence in 1968.

The royal line continued in administration over the decades of the Protectorate.  Changes in government introduced a new-found democracy with multi-party elections held for the first time in 1993 for seats of the lower House of Parliament.  The king is still highly respected.  King Mswati III was crowned king in 1986 at the age of eighteen.  During the 20th century many Swazis have felt free to move freely into South Africa.

The Swazis love colourful ceremonies and traditional dress is commonly worn even today by both men and women.  Marriage arrangements are initiated by a request to the fathers of the couple by the mothers of the couple.

There are two types of marriages.  First, a civil rite based on western marriage conventions, prohibiting polygamy, but allowing divorce.  The second category is traditional marriage.  In this kind of marriage, the husband can take additional wives, where dowry (lobola) is paid by the man's family for each wife.  For a woman, this marriage is binding and even if her husband dies and she remarries according to civil rites, the children of the new marriage are considered to belong to the first husband.

Girls help around the home, care for younger siblings and collect water.  Boys herd cattle and goats.  Training children begins as soon as the child is able to speak.  Children do not rise when an elder enters the room but respect must be shown in various ways.

Incwala is a sacred ceremony of kingship and is observed as an annual festival of thanksgiving, prayer and atonement.  Its the most important and sacred of all ceremonies.  It is called the Ceremony of Kingship because it is led by the king.  Umhlanga is a reed dance, a ceremony meant to attract unmarried girls, from whom the King chooses new brides.

The AIDS problem has grown to greater and greter visiblity for the country of Swaziland. One source reported in 2000:

A quarter of Swaziland's population of one million is said to be infected with HIV and the age expectancy has dropped from 38 to 30.
One royal health advisor created a national uproar by suggesting quarantining all the AIDS-infected persons in the country.

The majority of the Swazis associate with some form of Christianity.  Traditional religions which mix tradition with Christianity are predominant.  Although many Swazis claim to be Christian and associate with mainline religions, during times of extreme need they will return to traditional beliefs and intermediaries (Tinyanga — medicine men, traditional healers or Tangoma — diviners).

Some sources indicate that approximately 80% of the Swazi nation consult traditional healers such as physicians, prophets, priests, herbalists and diviners.  This is the same percentage of the population that consider themselves cultural Christians.  Actual participation in formal churches is very low.

Christian work began among the Swazi people in 1844 when a Wesleyan missionary conference in South Africa responded to a request from king Mswati II's request for a missionary:  James Allison and Richard Giddy came with two Sotho evangelists from what is now Orange Free State.

The Swazi responded vigorously to Christian work and many churches now have extensive work among this comparatively small people group.  Churches that have work in Swaziland are Nazarenes, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Assemblies of God and Evangelical Church.  Baptists were added to the list when they also began work in the country in 1983.  Response has slowed in the current generation and cultural Christianity may be a disincentive to personal conversion.

About 80% of the Swazi people claim to be Christian, but only about 27% are active in church.  Actual church membership is even lower than worship attendance, about 20%.  Reports indicate that over half of the population is claimed as members by the African Independent Church, also known as Zionists.  While this movement promotes Christian spiritual gifts like healings and speaking in tongues, they also have a strong emphasis on traditional customs and practices.

The endemic AIDS situation has not only decimated the population and created a social crisis, but commentators also reflect that it has called into question the moral foundations of the people of Swaziland.

Related Profiles and Articles on the Site
The Xhosa of South Africa

For more on the Swazi (Swati) People

Swati Language — Ethnologue
Swaziland AIDS Crisis; Radical Approaches
Swazi AIDS Orphans
Swazi People and Language — Wikipedia
Swaziland — Encarta


Bonner, Philip.  Kings, Commoners and Concessionaires.  Johannesburg:  Ravan Press, 1983.

Froise, Marjorie.  Swaziland Christian Handbook.  Johannesburg:  Christian Info, 1994.

Johnstone, Patrick.  Operation World.  Grand Rapids, USA:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1993.

Matsebula, J S M.  A History of Swaziland.  Cape Town:  Longman, 1987.

Nxumalo, Sishayi.  Our Swazi Way of Life.  Mbabane, Swaziland.  Swaziland Printing Co.  Ltd.  No date.

Swaziland:  A Nation with a Proud Heritage.  Johannesburg:  Lorton Communications.  No date.

Were, Gideon:  A History of South Africa.  London:  Evans Brothers, 1974.

Orville Boyd Jenkins
First written January 1997 by C W Sweatman, Serah Kamande and Orville Boyd Jenkins
Revised and first posted 7 February 2008

Copyright © 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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