Lessons from Swaziland

by James Tayler

Savings Groups

By Noah Schermbrucker, SDI Secretariat

“When the NGO disappeared it was like a shepherd looking after the sheep and the sheep were scattered…that is what I was picturing. To my surprise we found that all the people we found last time were still here and it gave us more courage to emphasize our support.”- Rose Molokoane

Recently a team from South Africa visited Swaziland to meet with the communities aligned with the Swaziland Low Income People’s Organisation (SLIPO). The team was made up of South African community leaders and a member of the SDI secretariat.   While professional and leadership processes in Swaziland have stuttered over the years, the exchange team learned that many of the Swazi savings schemes and communities remain committed.  Infighting amongst leadership and a lack of clarity about the core SDI rituals and how to implement them remain significant challenges. The core purpose of the exchange was to assess and re-invigorate the Swazi process and leadership, albeit with the pledge of sustained support from South Africa; in the words of Rose Molokoane “Swaziland will become like South Africa’s baby”. Although SDI’s presence in Swaziland is small, the exchange visit raised a number of issues and examples that speak to much broader and diverse challenges within, and beyond the SDI network. These came up in the nightly reflection sessions conducted by the exchange team.

Dealing with issues of Leadership:

“Lets take our caps down and say we have volunteered as the leaders to make this country better for the poor. We do not use elections we ask who is good at what! All of you come together, assess yourselves and see who is good at what.” – Rose Molokoane

One of the core issues hampering the Swazi process was a lack unity amongst the leadership on the way forward. The South African team emphasized unity of purpose and mapping a clear way forward in their engagements with the Swazi leadership. What struck me was the manner in which the South African leadership engaged their Swazi counterparts. Social movements are complex organisms, comprised of individuals with divergent opinions who simultaneously need to present a united front. Negotiating internal community dynamics involves listening, assessing and intervening in a supportive but decisive manner without undermining individuals. It involves walking a line and speaking a language unique to community members who have faced similar challenges. The anecdotes, similes and comparisons that comprise this rhetoric avoid personal antagonism while making powerful points about unity of purpose.  It is unlikely that a professional will ever understand these dynamics; drawing out points which are important but may seem irrelevant, the manner in which to listen and hear what people say, how to suggest changes subtly, using metaphors to build collective unity of purpose, cutting to the core of the issues which are hidden below the surface and learning from the engagements instead of just “teaching” others. 

“We learnt that we must find a good way to solve problems. Fighting is not the way – we must come together and talk and look at the way forward. The mistakes are there to teach us lessons and give us power. From our mistakes it should make a strong way to make SLIPO strong. We have to come together and work together.”- SLIPO member 

The lesson here is about the way in which communities speak to and engage one another, what they see differently and how they use practical experience to define such engagements. The Swazi engagement illustrated firsthand what is gained when capacitated community members engage each other on their own terms and in their own language, a learning engagement that is very different to those mediated by professionals. 

Sustainable Processes?

SLIPO Office

A topic of discussion that emerged amongst the exchange group was the long-term sustainability of the Swazi process. Despite various interventions made over the years to re-invigorate the process, SLIPO remains unable to leverage resources or move towards internal sustainability. This begs the question of how long external funds can be used to prop up social movements. Is the withdrawal of funding a disservice to the urban poor? Should leaders be doing more to make the movement sustainable since donor funding is never guaranteed in perpetuity? What dependencies emerge when donors continue to fund movements that do not have the capacity to be sustainable or leverage significant resources from government? And do such dependencies ultimately weaken communities and leaderships who continue to rely on external assistance rather than deepening their own capacities?

These questions speak to much broader themes within the SDI network and the development world. The importance of communities being involved in their own development processes is magnified when that involvement implies some form of contribution (whether financial, technical or through sweat equity). The very basis of the entire SDI network, female centered savings groups, stresses savings as a means for enabling communities to bring something to the negotiating table. The process is not merely fiscal, as it builds capacity and a collective agenda alongside a financial basis for negotiation. If a process is truly built from the bottom-up it is these savings schemes that are the building block for leveraging further resources and funding – their sustainability rooted in the social capacities that develop alongside them.

Urban or Rural?


Initial impressions of Mbabane were not of a large bustling urban center but of a town somewhere between rural and urban. While some factories and warehouses dot the road to Manzini, Swaziland remains largely rural.  Can countries like Swaziland, Lesotho and Botswana, were SDI has begun to establish a presence, really be considered urban in the same sense as Kenya? Not that any two pictures of urban poverty are the same but different dynamics are certainly at work. Communities still retain strong rural ties and layouts could be considered peri-urban-a form of urbanism that is evident in many countries in which SDI works (e.g. Malawi, parts of South Africa). The long history of Swaziland as a “labour reserve” for South African industry (especially mining) has created a large migrant labor force undoubtedly affecting the dynamics of communities and urban poverty in cities like Mbabane.

As the SDI network expands it needs to develop varied responses to different cities along the continuum of urbanization. Informality in dense, urbanized and rapidly growing cities is very different to that experienced in Mbabane. Recognizing such dynamics and learning from how they play out at a community level is imperative to deeper and more insightful engagements, not just in Mbabane but also in similar cities across the SDI network.

Way forward for Swaziland:

“The federation in Swaziland is very much alive because even though they have been informed late yesterday about the meeting their attendance did not reflect this.”- Emily Mohohlo

The exchange team ended their visit by drafting, in close conjunction with the Swazi leadership, a work plan. The plan aims to re-invigorate savings schemes, draw Swaziland into the Southern African Regional Hub, capacitate leadership through mentorship by the South African process and complete construction of the SLIPO office so that the federation can have a place to meet and store records.  In the final reflection session, conducted with the Swazi leadership, the team stressed unity of purpose and the strength of local savings groups as key to the way forward.

“Now we have a proper program we can bring back the image of the Swazi federation. We have to become a strong united front. Change can happen if you as an individual can become the change – you have to be the change that you see. You have to build the unity amongst the leaders – there are many issues that are pending and through unity you can move forward with this. For all these days that we have been together we are not doubtful that we have seen progress and that this will bring positive results and positive reports to the Southern African Hub and the entire SDI family.”  – Excerpts from reflection session