“A king is a mouth that does not lie.”
The next pro-democracy uprising in Africa may take place in Swaziland, the small landlocked nation surrounded by South Africa. There, King Mswati III has ruled for decades, amassing wealth while his people struggle to survive.
Like protestors in Tunisia and Egypt, Swaziland organizers used Facebook to plan the “April 12 Uprising” rally to demand an end to Mswati’s monarchy. Demonstrators selected the date because it was on that day in 1973 that the king’s father, Sobhuza II, declared a state of emergency that banned political parties and allowed him to assume full control of the government.
Mswati’s government cracked down on protestors, arresting leaders and stopping buses filled with demonstrators before they could reach the staging area at the commercial center of the city of Manzini. Police used tear gas and water cannons against about 1,000 teachers and students who were marching to the protest venue, while other police stationed at the center rounded up anyone who arrived.
Two thirds of the population in Swaziland lives below the poverty line while the king is said to possess a Rolls Royce, 13 palaces and 14 wives. And recently he gave himself a pay raise.
In my book Tyrants: The World's 20 Worst Living Dictators, I included a chapter about King Mswati III. Here is an excerpt from that chapter with some background about his father, King Sobhuza II.
THE NATION—Africa’s last remaining absolute monarchy, Swaziland is smaller in size than New Jersey and has a population of 1.2 million. It shares a seventy-mile border with Mozambique, but is otherwise surrounded by South Africa. On a map, Swaziland appears like an ingrown polyp inside the body of South Africa.
The majority of Swazi citizens are peasant farmers who live on $1 a day. Swaziland has the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest rate of HIV/AIDS: 26%. By 2005, the estimated average life expectancy had dropped to 33 years. Ten percent of Swazi households are headed by children. The government euphemistically refers to these households as “sibling families.”
Swaziland’s main export, sugar, is subsidized by the European Union, although the northern mountains produce marijuana that is bought by South African dealers and shipped to Europe.
In 1894, the Dutch-descended Boers declared Swaziland a protected dependency of the South African Boer Republic. The Boers were not pleasant colonialists, and they imposed a hut tax on the Swazis in an attempt to force farmers to switch to cash crops or be driven into the labor market. When Great Britain won the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), the British reluctantly took control of Swaziland. Swazi King Bhunu died during the war and the Swazi royal family chose one of Bhunu’s widows, Lomawa, to be queen mother and her baby boy, Mona (Jealousy), to be the future king. Born July 22, 1899, he was renamed Sobhuza II.
KING SOBHUZA II—To this day, Sobhuza II is the longest reigning ruler of any country in the world since the death of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary in 1916.
While Sobhuza II was a minor, one of the nation’s co-regents was his grandmother, Labatsibeni. She had seen her people subjugated by the Boers and the British and, after a lifetime of studying white people, she concluded that their power derived from money and books. She established a campaign to buy back Swazi land from the whites, and she introduced formal education to the country, including a school for princes. When Sobhuza II was sixteen years old, Labatsibeni convinced the council of princes to allow him to study abroad. Along with eight other Swazi boys and three girls, he was shipped off to Cape Province in South Africa, where he spent more than two years at Lovedale, a school run by the United Free Church of Scotland. Back in Swaziland, he was finally crowned king in 1921.
By the time the age of colonialism was coming to a close and the prospect of independence was spreading to every corner of Africa, Sobhuza II had been in power for four decades and he had learned a lot about dealing with the whites. In the first half of 1963, there were a series of labor strikes in Swaziland. The British Resident Commissioner asked Sobhuza II to enforce law and order, but the Swazi king refused to use force against his own people. The British flew in 600 soldiers from Kenya. Again Sobhuza held back his troops, this time rejecting the use of force against the foreigners. The British broke the strike and jumped to the conclusion that Sobhuza II was satisfied to be a powerless, ceremonial king, just like their own royals. Sobhuza II demanded that a referendum be held so that the Swazi people could vote for or against having him rule the country. The British authorities thought the idea absurd, but it fit in with their rhetoric about promoting democracy in their colonies, so they allowed the referendum to go ahead.
Because 75% of the population was illiterate, Sobhuza II convinced the British to put animal symbols on the ballots instead of words: a lion to represent the king’s position and a reindeer to represent the British position. What the British apparently failed to take into account was that the lion was considered a symbol of Swaziland, while the reindeer was seen as a foreign animal. When the referendum was held in January 1964 the lion won 122,000 votes, and the reindeer only 154. Three months later, an election was held for the newly created Legislative Council. All of the seats reserved for the whites were taken by a pro-South African, anti-United Kingdom party. Sobhuza II’s party, the Imbokodvo National Movement, won all of the Swazi seats.
As independence came closer, another legislative election was held in April 1967. The Imbokodvo gained 79.4% of the votes and swept all of the seats. The whites, who owned 43% of nation’s land, began to worry about expropriation. For quite some time the South Africans had considered annexing Swaziland, but they gave up the idea because they were able to use Swaziland to set up subsidiaries of South African companies and thus get around the international anti-apartheid boycott against them.
On September 8, 1968, Swaziland declared its independence. Economically it remained dependent on South Africa. Even now, more than four decades later, Swaziland depends on South Africa for all of its oil and 85% of its consumer goods. There were also more Swazis living in South Africa (many of whom worked in the gold mines) than there were in Swaziland. Sobhuza II was careful with his foreign policy. He condemned apartheid and praised freedom fighters in Rhodesia and Mozambique, but he refused to let these rebel movements use Swazi soil for military staging grounds.
Domestically, Sobhuza II tolerated the Western concept of democracy until 1972, when an opposition party managed to win three seats in the House of Assembly. Although Sobhuza’s party still held an overwhelming legislative majority, Sobhuza II had had enough. At a public meeting on April 12, 1973, he announced that he was repealing the constitution. Mincing no words, he declared, “I have assumed supreme power in the Kingdom of Swaziland. All legislative, executive and judicial power is vested in myself.” He dissolved all political parties, banned public political meetings and demonstrations, and declared that suspects could be held without trial for sixty days and that such detention could be renewed indefinitely.
In 1977, Sobhuza II abolished the parliamentary system altogether and announced that the nation would be ruled by traditional institutions. However, the following year, bowing to the international mania for democracy, he created a bicameral parliament, although he retained the right to appoint ten of the fifty members of the lower house and half of the members of the upper house. The names of the candidates, four for each seat in the lower house, were not announced until the day of the election. Each voter was asked to line up in front of the candidate of his or her choice. Forty-five percent of the registered voters did not show up at the polls, apparently taking the position that this public display would earn them three enemies and only one friend. Actually, the whole procedure was pointless anyway because King Sobhuza II retained the right to veto permanently any bill that the parliament might pass.
Sobhuza II died on August 21, 1982. He had been king for so long that there was confusion about the protocol regarding his burial because no one involved in his father’s burial was still alive. He left behind about sixty-five wives from thirty-two different clans, although estimates of his lifetime total of wives ranged as high as 120. He was survived by 110 children, including 40 sons. The royal family ordered a period of mourning to last three moons, during which all plowing and other work-related activities were prohibited. Because the nation was in the midst of a drought, cattle died and food was scarce for months afterwards.
KING MSWATI III—Ntomi Tfwala lived in the queens’ quarters as a handmaiden to one of Sobhuza II’s youngest and most Westernized queens. Sobhuza II picked her out to be a queen herself and, on April 19, 1968, she gave birth to a son. Conceived when Sobhuza II was sixty-eight years old, he was named Makhosetive (King of All Nations) because he was born in the year that many foreign leaders visited Swaziland to celebrate its independence. He was educated at the local Masundvivini Royal School and then sent off to the Lovedale Mission School in South Africa, just as his father had been more than sixty years earlier. Aged fourteen, he was off hunting when Sobhuza II died. It came as a surprise when the royal council chose him to become Swaziland’s next king because he was the second-youngest of Sobhuza II’s dozens of sons. Five months after being designated heir to the throne, Makhosetive left Swaziland to study at the Sherbourne School in Dorset, England. In September 1983, he returned home during a school holiday and was displayed publicly to a curious citizenry. His mother, in the meantime, had taken over as regent.
Ordinarily, Makhosetive would not have been crowned king until his 21st birthday. However, because of political instability in the country, he was enthroned three years early. On April 25, 1986, at the age of eighteen, he was designated King Mswati III.
IT’S GOOD TO BE KING—Because Mswati III was young, had lived in England, and had been exposed to the modern world, there was hope among the educated class of Swazis that he would lead the nation to more up-to-date and democratic ways. However, the traditional perquisites of being king were too much for him to resist. One tradition that Mswati III found particularly appealing was the annual Reed Dance in which thousands of girls and young women dance topless before the king, after which he is allowed to choose a new wife from among them. In recent years, King Mswati III has taken advantage of modern technology to study video recordings of the dancers to help him make his decisions. In 2002, his choice actually precipitated a governmental crisis. In September of that year, after the Reed Dance, he picked out a seventeen-year-old named Zena Mahlangu. Zena’s mother, Lindiwe Dlamini, was a telecommunications executive who was furious that the king had “secured” her daughter. Dlamini filed suit against the king, claiming that he had abducted Zena. The nation’s judiciary branch, already annoyed by Mswati III’s interference in their regular work, eagerly took on the case. Mswati III sent government officials to speak with the three judges in charge of the case and to order them to dismiss the lawsuit or resign. The conflict was resolved when the king presented Zena publicly and announced that she had agreed to become his tenth wife.
Mswati III’s choice of Zena Mahlangu created another problem. A year earlier, the king had responded to the alarming rise in HIV/AIDS (33% among girls aged fifteen to nineteen) by instituting a chastity law that prohibited men from having sex with teenage girls for the next five years. When Mswati III himself defied the ban by marrying Zena, he was forced to pay the price: a fine of one cow. Later, he ended the ban one year early, on August 22, 2005. That year he chose as his 12th wife, a Miss Teen Swaziland finalist.
IT’S GOOD TO BE KING: LIVING BIG—Mswati III has included Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton among the guests at his birthday parties. For his 36th birthday in 2004, he threw a party for 10,000 guests that cost $612,000. But that was a minor expense in comparison to his outlays for cars. That same year, Mswati III purchased a $690,000 Maybach 62 luxury sedan and ten BMWs. Because, at the time, the Swazi unemployment rate stood at 40%, he prohibited the photographing of his Maybach.
But even the Maybach was not Mswati III’s greatest extravagance. In 2002, while half of Swazis were living in homes without running water, the king announced that he planned to buy a private jet that was worth $44.6 million, an amount that was double the annual health budget for the entire nation. The Swazi parliament cancelled the order, but Mswati II overruled the legislature and purchased the jet anyway. The speaker of the house, Marwick Khumalo, was forced to resign his post because he protested the plane purchase too vigorously.
In February 2002, Mswati III flew to Hollywood to celebrate MTV’s “Rock the Vote!” campaign. The fact that his own citizens are not allowed to take part in free elections seemed to have no effect on his conscience.
WOMEN—In the siSwati language, the word for woman means “one who dies without speaking of what she endures.” According to tradition a woman in Swaziland cannot own property. She also cannot apply for a passport or enter into a contract without the consent of her husband or, if she is unmarried, a male relative. Wives are legally treated as minors and in case of divorce, the children belong to the father. These last restrictions can be overlooked if the couple prepared a prenuptial agreement, but in a nation where 80% of the population are peasant farmers, such agreements are rare.
Women who have been widowed less than two years are not allowed to appear in public. In 1998, Mswati III made an exception to this prohibition so that widows could join in the celebrations honoring the 30th anniversary of both independence and his birth. However, that same year he used the prohibition to prevent widows from running for office or even voting. Many Swazi women escaped the restrictions at home by becoming nurses and finding work outside the country. But in July 2004, Mswati III put a halt to this practice by blocking overseas employment agencies from obtaining the foreign currency necessary to continue doing business.
DEMOCRACY NO—In April 2003, the League of Churches in Swaziland hosted a forum on “The Disadvantages of Multi-Party Democracy.” With the king in attendance, Rev. Khayeni Khumalo summed up the government position bluntly: “Presidents are power-hungry people who are like rapists: they break in and rule….There is not a single verse in the Bible which says there should be a president ruling a country. When the people are given the right to choose, they always choose evil.”
King Mswati III first dissolved parliament and ruled by decree when he was only twenty-four years old. Swaziland has continued to hold legislative elections since then, but because the king has the right to overrule anything the parliament does, these elections are nothing more than elaborate publicity stunts and their results are meaningless. When half of the nation’s labor force went on strike in 1997, Mswati III simply made strikes illegal.
FREEDOM NO—In response to the fact that Swaziland had been in operation without a constitution for 30 years, the government announced a new draft constitution in August 2003. Another two years passed before Mswati III signed it into law, and it finally took effect in February 2006. However, the new constitution was no document of civil rights. Among its clauses it:
· allowed the death penalty for any criminal offense
· reintroduced debtors’ prison
· banned political parties
· rejected the concept of habeas corpus and supported the existing practice of holding suspects for five to ten years without trial
· prohibited investigations into “any matter relating to the exercise of a royal prerogative”
and for good measure
· gave King Mswati III the right to overrule any rights that were granted elsewhere in the constitution.
There is no protection of freedom of speech or freedom of the press and no public access to government documents. The government has also been known to refuse to release imprisoned suspects even though they have paid bail.
According to both Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department, Swazi prisoners have died in custody after being tortured and suffocated to death. The Swazi authorities have a preference for two particular forms of interrogation. Tube style interrogation involves suffocating the prisoner by putting a rubber tube around his face and mouth. Victims of Kentucky interrogation have their arms and legs bent and then tied with rope or chain, after which they are beaten.
IN HIS WORDS:
“Democracy is not good for us because God gave us our own way of doing things.”
On human rights:
“What rights? God created people, and he gave them their roles in society. You cannot change what God has created.”
May 30, 2003
“The Bible says, ‘curse be unto a woman who wears pants.’”
May 30, 2003