By Mbono Mdluli | 2019-10-10
ABOUT six gunshots were allegedly fired at LaMgabhi Etiyeni, as nearly 500 residents from the area were caught up in a fight with members of the Umbutfo Eswatini Defence Force (UEDF) stationed at the same area.
The alleged shootout is said to have happened early in the morning, at around 6am.
The bone of contention, according to the residents, is a wattle forest which is within and outside the UEDF camp situated at LaMgabhi, under Chief Mabhedla Hlophe. The soldiers are said to have denied the residents access to the forests.
This publication found the residents in a meeting a few metres from the UEDF (MP II) camp. The purpose of the meeting was to map a way forward, now that the soldiers had denied them access to the forests.
The residents, who did not want to have their names mentioned, said they wanted to harvest some wattle trees within the forests for commercial purposes.
The residents said they could not believe it when the soldiers denied them access to the forests and told them that they were the ones guarding these.
The residents said they tried to reason with the soldiers, telling them that they only wanted to use the forests to fend for themselves, as most of them were unemployed.
The soldiers, according to the residents, would hear none of that and chased the residents away.
The residents furnished the soldiers with a letter from the area’s royal kraal (umphakatsi), in an effort to use something tangible to reason with the army.
The letter was signed by LaMgabhi Indvuna Alfred Maseko. However, that could not bear positive results, as the soldiers are said to have told the residents that the letter was out of order because the forest was not meant for commercial purposes.
The residents said six shots were fired and they did not understand why this was necessary, as if they were violent.
The residents said all they wanted was to fend for themselves through the forests, as that had been the case before.
They wondered if it was ethical for soldiers to fire shots, six times, at unarmed individuals, who only wanted to fend for themselves.
One resident claimed that the soldiers dragged him to their camp, with an intention to beat him up.
The resident said the soldiers assaulted him such that one of them told him to relocate to another area because he would make the resident’s life difficult.
The residents said they would soon convene a meeting with the umphakatsi and report that the soldiers denied them access to the forests up to a point of being scared off with gunshots.
UEDF Public Relations Officer Lieutenant Tengetile Khumalo said nothing had been reported to their office.
“Nothing has been reported to the office of the public relations. With that said, I can only be able to comment from an informed position,” Khumalo said.
LaMgabhi authorities are shocked by the incident between the soldiers and residents.
This was said by LaMgabhi (Etiyeni) Indvuna (Headman) Alfred Maseko.
He was reacting to the incident where the residents had a misunderstanding with soldiers on harvesting the wattle forest.
Maseko said he was shocked by the incident because the youth of LaMgabhi had approached umphakatsi for a permission to harvest the trees for commercial purposes.
Maseko said normally, the forests would be harvested only if a letter of consent was obtained from the umphakatsi.
He did not understand why the soldiers refused to let the residents have access to the forests. He said the issue was sorted with the top brass from UEDF. He wondered why such happened.
Maseko said they wanted to find ways of convening meetings with the army and the youth of LaMgabhi so they could move forward, amid the differences that exist between the parties.
to an investor
The wattle forest, which is now the centre of controversy, is leased to an investor who wants to do farming.
This was said by Hhukwini Member of Parliament (MP) Nkhanyeti Ngwenya. He was reacting to the incident between LaMgabhi residents and soldiers stationed in the same area.
LaMgabhi is under the Hhukwini Inkhundla. Ngwenya said the forests were in a farm that belonged to the ministry of agriculture.
The legislator said the preparations to lease the farm to the investor by the agriculture ministry were at an advanced stage.
Ngwenya said as the inkhundla, they were aware that the forests which were guarded by the soldiers were helpful to the residents of LaMgabhi.
It was for that reason the MP approached the ministry of agriculture to find out what would happen to the forests, now that the farm has been leased to the investor.
“We want to find a way in which the residents can continue to use the forests even if the investor has started working,” Ngwenya said.
The lawmaker further said it was important for the investor to have a good understanding with the community of LaMgabhi, as he worked on the farm. He also stated that they would find a way for the residents of LaMgabhi to be employed at the farm.
History surrounding the forests
LaMgabhi residents claim that the forests guarded by soldiers at the area have always been used by the community.
The residents said before the camp was given to soldiers back in 1981 by King Sobhuza II, an agricultural project was being undertaken right where the camp is situated now.
The project was a tea production project, hence the referral of the place to etiyeni (the place of tea production).
Residents had to vacate that area to give way to the project to take place.
According to the residents, the tea project failed and the army was allowed to use that place.
They were allowed by King Sobhuza II, according to the residents. The residents further narrated that each homestead, before the tea project, had some wattle trees, which were multiplied to make a huge wattle forest after the tea project.
The forests are said to have multiplied further even when the soldiers were allowed to set up their camp there. The soldiers were allowed to use the agriculture offices that were built during the time of the tea project and only the intelligence officers from the UEDF were allowed to work from there because the area was already in the wattle forest and was considered to be private.
The intelligence officers were allowed to work there because the nature of their job was considered to be secretive. The main camp was at Mdzimba.
The residents said King Sobhuza pleaded with the soldiers to live peacefully with the residents of LaMgabhi because they would need to use the forests from time to time, because that was their source of livelihood.
As time went on, the late Chief Mabhedla Hlophe realised that the forests were harvested by people from as far as Mahlanya and Ezulwini and that was not good in his sight because the forests had to benefit the people of LaMgabhi.
The residents said the chief pleaded with the soldiers to guard the forest so that no one harvested the trees in any way.
The chief is said to have told the soldiers that a letter from the umphakatsi would have to be produced by anyone that wanted to use the forests.
As time went on, some residents did not go via the umphakatsi because they were nearer to the forests and were known to most soldiers. They would be allowed to use the forests without the letter.
The residents said the UEDF would change its personnel from time to time at the LaMgabhi camp and some soldiers were not well versed with procedure. Some soldiers, according to the residents, thought the forests were theirs because permission was asked from them.
The residents said when the soldiers sold the trees for the first time, they got permission from the chief because they wanted to set up a canteen and do other projects.
The residents said when the soldiers sold the trees for the second time (in 2014), they did not get permission from the umphakatsi and this did made the residents to revolt because the forests were harvested by one business person.
The residents wanted to know the beneficiary of the proceeds from the sale of the forests.
The residents said the matter was even reported to the Hhohho RA and this office stated that the residents were allowed to use the forests and the soldiers were only tasked with the responsibility of guarding these.
They stated that even the present Army Commander Lieutenant Jeffrey Tshabalala allowed the LaMgabhi residents to use the forests.
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