Posted on February 17, 2005

Absolute Excess: How a Playboy King Revolted His People

Basildon Peta and Daniel Howden, Independent (London), Feb. 16

There will be 10 cars and, according to the critics, each one is a German “sculpture in metal”. All are BMWs, from the top of the latest “5” range.

The sumptuous vehicles will arrive in Swaziland, one of the poorest countries in the world, next week. With an appropriate fanfare, they will then be driven past a disbelieving populace. Bought for the 10 wives of King Mswati II, they are the latest purchases of the continent’s last absolute monarch, the most fecklessly self-indulgent in the world.

When you are king of Swaziland, finding a new wife is not hard, although keeping them happy may require the odd outlandish expenditure.

The passing of each summer in the capital of Mbabane is marked by the Umhlanga, or reed dance. At that point, young virgins are summoned from all over the country to participate in a five-day festival held, naturally, in honour of the King.

Dressed in short, beaded skirts decorated with bright fringes and buttons together with anklets, bracelets and necklaces, and colourful sashes, the bare-breasted girls, some as young as nine or ten, dance for the monarch.

Giving the dance its name, the young maidens gather reeds from specially designated areas. Each sash has appendages of different coloured wool streamers that denote whether or not the maiden is betrothed. Each group has their own dance step or song to mark their respect for the monarch and his mother. Tradition dictates that Mswati’s only task is to sit back, enjoy the show, and pick a new child bride.

The contrast between such parties for the King’s pleasure and the grim everyday reality of his country’s inhabitants could scarcely be starker.

Beyond the palace walls, the landlocked kingdom of Swaziland is sandwiched between Mozambique and South Africa. It is a country in crisis, in the grip of an Aids epidemic. Last year, it surpassed Botswana to register the highest rate of HIV infection in the world.

More than two-thirds of the 1.1 million living here survive on less one dollar a day. According to the World Food Programme, nearly one-third of the population is in need of food aid. The life expectancy for Mswati’s subjects has plunged into the low 30s.

As the death toll rises, the average age has dropped to 18. But, to the growing outrage of his people, the lavish entertainments of the King appear to multiply each year.

The reed dance was not the only party last year. An event to mark the King’s 36th birthday was so large in scale and pomp that it had to be held in a football stadium — the only place big enough to fit the 10,000 guests. Conservative estimates put the costs at close to half a million pounds.

One day a year is at least marked by royal abstinence. On the fifth day of the yearly Incwala, or Kingship festival, King Mswati sits in seclusion in the great hut. No one else enjoys themselves either. A horde of royal enforcers, known as the bemanti (water people) roam the royal capital in daylight hours, enforcing the rules of the day: no sexual contact, touching water, wearing decorations, sitting on chairs or mats, shaking hands, scratching, singing, dancing or jollity.

Nor are the King’s whims purely concerned with new acquisitions or new women. King Mswati is worried about the spread of Aids in Swaziland, and with good cause: nearly 40 per cent of Swazi adults are HIV positive. The King’s response was autocratic and somewhat unrealistic.

To fight the virus, he revived an ancient chastity law. For five years, via courtiers, it was announced that virgins would be barred from so much as shaking hands with males. They would also be expected to wear traditional blue and yellow tassles to warn Swazi men not to touch them.

Enforcing the sex ban has proved difficult. Some maidens complain that if they have to wait five years before marrying, they will be too old to attract a husband. And some Swazi men have had trouble curbing their urges, as Mswati’s own story illustrates.

Zena Mahlangu was one of the dancing virgins clutching reeds and duly caught the roving eye of the King. A month after taking part in the reed ceremony, she was sitting in a classroom at school when two palace aides burst in and abducted her. She was told to prepare for betrothal and her new life as Mswati’s 12th wife.

The King made compensation in the traditional manner by surrendering one of his enormous herd of cows to the village where his fiancée lived. The beast was roasted and eaten amid much rejoicing. Her mother, Lindiwe Dlamini, was still not satisfied. A storm was subsequently provoked in the Kingdom when she challenged the King over the kidnapping. The case went to court in the capital.

In an unprecedented hearing, palace aides told the three-judge panel that the girl had gone willingly, after having engaged in courtship conversations with the King on a mobile phone.

There is no legal basis for these abductions, not even in Swaziland. But then, no country has a monarch like King Mswati.

Matters rarely work against the King and and palace aides wheeled out a bemused looking Zena to tell the nation that she was now a happily married woman and had no desire to return to a life of poverty in her mother’s village.

But finally, after years of flagrant, garish and hugely expensive pomp and ceremony, it appears that the episode of the 10 BMWs may have provoked genuine popular protest.

A lone mother and her brave act of defiance are not the only opponents that the big spending Mswati now faces. Swaziland’s trade unions and are considering a major blockade of the tiny southern African country’s borders in protest at his notorious extravagance.

The Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) convened a relatively successful two-day strike action against the King last month. There is a new mood of determination to rein in the free spending monarch.

“It’s either the King listens to us — his subjects — or face an escalation of mass protests. We will not hesitate to blockade the borders as part of these protests, Jan Sithole, the SFTU’s secretary-general, said yesterday.

Mr Sithole said his federation was soliciting help from fellow regional trade unions whose members would be asked to help in blockades if the King refused to accede to the federation’s demands for democracy.

A draft constitution due to be passed next month, maintains a 1973 ban on political parties and empowers the King to rule by decree making his word final and not subject to judicial review.

Mr Sithole said the SFTU would be left with no option but to embark on more blockades for prolonged periods of time unless the young King reforms.

Swaziland is almost wholly surrounded by South Africa except for a small strip of border it shares with Mozambique. If the blockade were to go ahead, the country would be brought to its knees. Protesters would bar goods from being moved in and out of the country. Immigration and customs officials, who belong to the trade union movement, would refuse to process visas and permits for inward and outward movement of people and goods.

Although King Mswati rules by decree and ruthlessly crushes any forms of dissent from his subjects, the unions are determined not to back down.

“We are in this struggle because we believe it can be won. You don’t start a struggle to throw in the towel before it is won,” said Mr Sithole. “Who believed that apartheid (in South Africa) could be defeated? It had to go because the will of the people had to prevail.”

Almost half of Swazis are unemployed. Of those who were in employment, 66 per cent were earning poverty level wages. There is no social safety net in the mountain kingdom and the old must fend for themselves.

Nyamuziye Khumalo’s plight is typical of many of many of his coutnrymen.

He was forced to quit his job last year after falling ill regularly — a consequence of contracting HIV in the late 1990s. His Chinese employer, part of a new wave of textile firms who have been welcomed by Mswati’s puppet government has no reason to offer sick leave and fires anyone not able to work.

If he had had early access to anti-retrovirals drugs, he believes he could have remained at least fit enough to continue working and fend for his seven children and two wives. But upon visiting one of the main state hospitals in Mbabane, the capital city, he was told no such drugs exist.

“I was told my best defence would have been not to contract Aids in the first place. They said the government is willing to help with anti-Aids drugs but it just hasn’t got the resources to cater for the many Aids sufferers in this country,” said Mr Khumalo.

Mr Khumalo, like almost half his sexually active countrymen, will likely die soon and leave orphans with no one to fend for them. But King Mswati’s government has no programme to cater for these orphans.

Even with work, life was still tough for Mr Khumalo. His monthly wages of £15 did not pay the bills and had to be supplemented by sending his two wives into the country to try to get free food from the World Food Programme.

International donors have yet to pull the plug on the spendthrift King even when the latest splurge on luxury cars comes at a cost equivalent to the daily wage of the entire working population.

The British and American governments are regular donors to a basket fund used to fund WFP programmes aimed for the poor in Swaziland.

There is little sign that the King is listening. If and when the BMWs arrive in the royal garage they will take their place next to the most expensive car in the world, a Maybch 62, made by DaimlerChrysler and retailing at a half a million dollars before customisation. It came complete with silver goblets, widescreen televisions and seating for the whole Mswati clan.