Swaziland is Africa’s last remaining absolute monarchy and has been under a state of emergency since 1973. Public criticism of the monarchy is extremely rare, but a journey to Europe and the Middle East by eight of King Mswati III’s 13 wives, their children, maids and bodyguards, in a specially chartered aeroplane, has provoked outrage.
Sources in the royal family said they needed to go shopping to prepare for the country’s “40-40” celebrations next month, which will mark both its 40th anniversary of independence from Britain and the 40th birthday of King Mswati, who was educated at Sherborne school in Dorset.
“The queens have to look radiant and that is why they have to go and buy quality for the big day. They were being spoiled,” said a source.
The demonstration in the capital Mbabane was organised by the Women’s Coalition of Swaziland, whose spokesman Ntombi Nkosi pointed out that by some estimates the country has the world’s highest HIV rate at almost 40 per cent, and condemned the trip as a waste of money.
“Those given the money do not even contribute a cent to the money they are looting,” she said.
Siphiwe Hlophe, of Swaziland Positive Living, a co-organiser of the march, added: “We are against the idea of public funds being used in a questionable way by people who are not employed and do not bring any revenue to the country’s coffers.”
The sprawling royal family is a major drain on the landlocked country’s limited resources. King Mswati’s polygamy is a mere fraction of that of his father Sobhuza II, who had 70 wives, 210 children, and more than 1,000 grandchildren by the time of his death in 1982.
Nonetheless in a traditionally deferential society public protest is rare, and Jim Gama, the governor of the Swazi royal capital Ludzidzini, condemned the women’s march as “un-Swazi”.
“I have never heard of women marching,” he said. “All I know is that a woman has to seek permission from her husband to register her disagreement with whatever was happening in society but not for her to march. That is un-Swazi.”
Swaziland’s Queen the Inkhosikati, one of King Mswati III’s 13 wives.
Tens of thousands of chanting, bare-breasted maidens have paraded before the King of Swaziland, many of them hoping to catch his eye and be picked out to become his 14th wife.
The annual Umhlanga, or reed dance, which finishes today at the royal residence in Ludzidzini, is a magnificent display of national tradition and pride in one of Africa’s smallest countries.
Officials claimed that 100,000 unmarried girls and women, almost 10 per cent of the entire population, presented the Queen Mother, or Indlovukazi—Great She-Elephant—with newly cut reeds to act as a windbreak around her compound.
As part of the ceremonies, Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch, is entitled to choose a new bride from among the maidens to add to his current 13 wives. It is an honour that cannot be refused.
“Our culture and the reed dance is my pride and joy,” said Nothando Nhlengethwa, 21, who was acting as the Indvuna, or leader of the maidens.
“If you take pride for yourself, you can always do it for your country. It helps us to know who we are and the people we should look up to, the King and princes. He is a great king to us.”
But despite her protestations, not all Swazis feel the same way, and frustration is growing.
Around 70 per cent of the population live on less than 50p a day, in stark contrast to the wealth and opulence of the royal family. Six weeks ago the country saw its biggest general strike in a decade, demanding, among other things, multi-party democracy.
Political parties were banned by King Mswati’s late father, Sobhuza II, in 1973 on the grounds that they were divisive, after three opposition MPs were elected.
The current monarch, who acceded to the throne while a pupil at Sherborne School in Dorset, appoints the prime minister and cabinet, all judges, two-thirds of the upper house, 15 per cent of the lower house, and is commander in chief of the armed forces.
“Here we have a problem: the King has all powers vested in him,” said Jan Sithole, secretary-general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions. “We want the King to reign but not to rule.”
Elections are due next year but a new constitution, proclaimed last year, explicitly states that assembly members are to be elected on the basis of “individual merit”.
Last month King Mswati, 39, insisted: “I want to stress to you that political parties remain banned up until the people of Swaziland say so.”
Mr Sithole said a multi-party vote was “the only way we believe that the voices of the voiceless will be heard”. “Just like apartheid was lawful in South Africa but it was an unjust system, our system continues to undermine and deny the rights to self-determination of the Swazi people,” he said.
Mario Masuku, president of the banned People’s United Democratic Movement, Pudemo, has been arrested several times and faced charges of high treason and sedition.
“We don’t want a benevolent dictator,” he said, pointing out that the King had sought $45 million (£22 million) to buy a private jet at a time when hundreds of thousands of people needed food aid. “That’s his weakness, he likes women and he likes money, irrespective of the obtaining economic conditions.”
But while donors and investors have expressed concern about the slow pace of democratic reform, it is difficult to estimate the true extent of opposition in Swaziland, particularly outside urban centres.
The dancers far outnumbered those who went on strike a few weeks ago, although opposition figures say rural families have no choice but to send their daughters to participate, as they can be fined a cow if they do not.
Ntombi Nkosi, president of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress Women’s League, described the reed dance as the apex of a patriarchal system that contributes heavily to Swaziland’s devastating HIV/Aids epidemic.
The country is believed to have the highest rate of infection in the world, with two in every five pregnant women carrying the virus. Life expectancy has halved, to just over 30, since 1999. A baby born in Swaziland today has almost a 75 per cent chance of dying before 40.