Social Organization Among He Swazi

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The Swazi people, believed to be part of the Nguni people, originated from central Africa and migrated to southern Africa. They speak the Siswati language, originally spoken by the Nguni subgroup of the Bantu family. About five hundred years ago, they settled in Swaziland. From the mid-19th century to mid-20th century, they were under British rule. Currently, Swaziland is a monarchy governed by King Mswati III.

The social organization of the Swazi people, like other African tribes, centers around the homestead. The homestead serves as both the economic and domestic unit for families. The head of the family, known as the Umnumza or headman, is responsible for ensuring the well-being of his wives and children. When sons marry, their wives come to live in the homestead while daughters move to their in-laws’ homes. Along with immediate family members, distant relatives or non-dependents may also be accommodated in the homestead. Consequently, the number of individuals that fall under the economic, legal, and ritual responsibility of the headman can vary based on his status and wealth. A prosperous headman may have multiple wives which increases his overall responsibilities. To acquire more cultivable land or manage difficult wives, it is common for the headman to subdivide large homesteads.

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The homestead is designed based on the relationships among its inhabitants. Typically, the cattle pen and grain storage units, which are flask-shaped pits underground, are located in the center of the homestead. Access to these areas is restricted for women. The living quarters are arranged in a semicircle around the indlunkuku, or the great hut, where the most important woman in the homestead resides – the mother of the headman. In case she is deceased, a substitute mother is appointed. The wives’ quarters are positioned on the sides, each with their own sleeping, cooking, and storage huts. They are enclosed with a reed fence for protection against wind. The hierarchy of wives is not fixed but determined by the headman’s preferences. Although the wives have separate huts and own their own garden land and cattle, it is important to note that the headman’s mother’s house holds a superior position. The children sleep with their mothers until they reach an age where they move to their paternal grandmother’s house. Afterward, they are separated by gender – growing girls remain close to their mother while boys and unmarried men reside at the outskirts of the homestead.

Marriage holds significance for Swazi people as arranged unions, though declining due to women’s increasing independence influenced by Western culture, are still prevalent. Once the bride is chosen, both families engage in formal discussions regarding the payment of the bride price, which is a necessary prerequisite for marriage.

The exception to this rule is the king, who has the authority to forcefully choose any girl he desires (quoma). The bride price typically consists of cattle. The amount varies based on the status of the women; commoners request 100 cattle, while princesses ask for 200 cattle or more. Swazi marriage ceremonies are intricate and encompass various religious rituals. However, this tradition is declining as most Swazis have converted to Christianity and prefer to marry in church settings. The bride is sent off from her home with blessings from her ancestors and presents from her future in-laws. Initially, she must appear hesitant and resist the welcoming demonstrations organized by her prospective in-laws. Eventually, she enters a cow pen where she pleads with her brothers to rescue her. Ultimately, she accepts her fate, and her future mother-in-law smears red clay on her, symbolizing the loss of her virginity. She is then presented with a baby, signifying her role as a mother and wife. Like many other African tribes, polygamy is accepted and encouraged in Swazi culture.

Polygamy in Swazi culture is a practice reserved for wealthy individuals who are capable of financially supporting multiple wives. Women in this society primarily bear children, and it is the husband’s group that has the right to claim any children born by the woman, regardless of biological paternity. If a woman cannot conceive, arrangements are made for her sister to have children on her behalf. In such cases, the bride’s family cannot demand bride wealth as compensation. Divorces are rare under traditional Swazi law and are only recognized if there is violence from the husband towards his wife. Both families aim to maintain unity between the bride and groom because the groom’s family desires custody of the children while the bride’s family wants to retain possession of lobola (bride wealth). The amount of lobola returned depends on how many children the woman has – fewer children result in less lobola being returned. Typically, custody of the children remains with their father.

In Swazi culture, there are different groups that classify kinship, and the terminology used can vary based on the relationship. For instance, a boy may refer to various individuals such as his biological father, his father’s brothers, and his half brothers as “father”. Similarly, a girl may use the term “mother” for different people including her own mother, co-wives, and wives of her father’s brothers. These designations can also differ depending on family hierarchy. One drawback of polygamy is that conflicts between co-wives can arise, which is why some men prefer to have separate homes for their wives. Moreover, disputes may occur among half brothers who aspire to become head of the family after their father passes away and also between co-wives who compete for their husband’s attention and privileges concerning their own sons.

Swazi culture places a strong emphasis on maintaining the lineage of the clan. Power and prosperity are inherited through the male line, but women have a significant role in selecting the successor to the headman. The successor is chosen by a council that considers the claims of the wives and their sons. The chosen successor must be a biological son of the headman. If the headman’s primary wife does not have a male child, her sister’s son is adopted instead. Once appointed, the successor remains in his position until his mother passes away, at which point a substitute mother is assigned. The headman’s first wife enjoys numerous privileges during her husband’s lifetime and her son is entrusted with important responsibilities by his father, advising the heir on various matters.

Children hold great value among the Swazi people. They are raised in a strict atmosphere, where the threat of physical punishment exists, though it is rarely administered. As they mature, the severity of their discipline increases. Girls are instructed in domestic chores, while in line with many other African societies, it is the responsibility of males to care for the livestock. Boys are educated in tending to the cattle and their grazing. Women’s duties primarily entail household chores and field labor.

Puberty, a phase of development, is considered a private matter within families. In the past, it was necessary for boys to undergo circumcision prior to marriage. However, this tradition ceased many years ago. Following puberty, it is anticipated that both boys and girls will seek romantic partners and engage in sexual activities that exclude intercourse.

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Social Organization Among He Swazi. (2018, Sep 26). Retrieved from

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