British-educated King Mswati III wears leopardskin loincloths, has 13 wives and is feted by crowds of bare-breasted virgins.
Last weekend, it was hard to think of anywhere in the world where the scenery could have been more beautiful or life felt more serene than in the mountain kingdom of Swaziland.
The sun was a burning red orb as it slid over the horizon behind purple-blooming jacaranda trees, while a gentle breeze rippled through lush sugar-cane fields on the king’s estate.
We had just passed impala grazing in the bush and gangs of turkey scavenging for food beside the road. All around was the buzz of excitement as families headed into a music festival at Simunye Country Club.
Children, their faces painted in Spiderman patterns and wearing feather-rimmed tiaras, laughed as they ran around the funfair. Students sat in circles, taking swigs from cans of beer.
Everywhere people were smartly dressed, smiling and friendly. It felt timeless, the mood one of gentle enjoyment. It was difficult to believe we were in a country on the edge of revolt against the last absolute monarch in Africa.
For such peaceful scenes are no longer the typical image of this tiny nation that was, for so many years, such an oasis of stability surrounded by civil war, unrest and apartheid that it styled itself ‘the Switzerland of Africa’ (only in name).
Instead the middle-aged monarch — famed around the world for his leopardskin loincloths, his 13 wives and traditional ceremonies at which thousands of bare-breasted teenage virgins vie for his attention — rules over a land in turmoil.
The British-educated King Mswati III seems increasingly like a throwback to a medieval monarch, a profligate potentate trying — and failing — to keep the modern world at bay like an African Canute.
He clings onto antiquated traditions that promote rampant promiscuity in a land ripped apart by Aids, where elderly princes take child brides under the cloak of culture, corruption is rife and fawning courtiers feud for favours as their country falls apart.
Swaziland has the world’s highest HIV rates and lowest life expectancy. The economy is collapsing so fast even pensions have been stopped while poverty is so extreme people have resorted to eating cow dung.
Such is the King’s arrogance and incompetence, his country is probably closer than any other in sub-Saharan Africa to the sort of uprising we have seen sweeping the north of the continent this year.
‘We are in meltdown,’ said Bheki Makhubu, editor of The Nation newspaper. ‘It’s a terrible pity. There is a huge disconnect between the King and his people. He is on another planet.’
Visiting the kingdom, it appears outwardly calm. The shops seem prosperous, the streets spotlessly tidy and there are none of the wretched townships that scar neighbouring states.
Swaziland is classified as a middle-income country. When I remarked to one activist that the nation was poor, he reprimanded me. ‘We are not a poor country — just badly run,’ he said. ‘I have been to Togo and Ethiopia and seen really poor countries.’
But Swaziland is effectively bankrupt. Already, two-thirds of its people live beneath the poverty line and 40 per cent are unemployed.
Now state spending has been slashed, with street lights switched off, schools closed, benefits stopped, university places cut, courts in chaos, prisoners’ food reduced and even the national football team facing withdrawal from the World Cup.
Incredibly, one in four of those people I passed on the Swazi streets is HIV positive. And these are the official levels — it may be even worse: tests carried out on pregnant women revealed infection rates of 41 per cent, while more than half of factory workers were found to have the virus.
As a result, nearly one-third of children are orphaned and life expectancy has crashed from 60 to just 33 — which, as one person pointed out, made me an old man there.
Everyone you talk to, whatever their age, has lost scores of friends and family to the scourge, and funerals, with their all-night vigils, are commonplace.
Such shocking statistics make the King’s polygamy, promiscuity and profligacy seem lethally irresponsible. Little wonder one of the world’s oldest monarchies is fighting for survival.
‘Sometimes I wish I had a bomb and I would throw it at the King,’ said one of the young organisers of protests against him.
‘We can’t go on living like this. It hurts so much to see the King wasting all our money while we have no work.’
King Mswati ascended the throne 25 years ago straight after leaving Sherborne, the Dorset public school. He was an unexpected choice to succeed his father, the revered Sobhuza II, who had reigned for nearly 83 years — the longest documented rule of any monarch in world history — and oversaw the country’s independence from Britain in 1968.
At the time of Sobhuza’s death he had 70 wives, 210 children and 1,000 grandchildren. Mswati’s mother — rumoured to have been a palace maid who caught the eye of the late king — took advantage of a power vacuum to manouevre her son into power.
It has not, however, been a similarly glorious reign to that of his father. ‘We have created a monster, and it is too late to do anything about it,’ said one royal relative.
Like his father, 43-year-old Mswati has enjoyed the female fruits of office, exemplified by the famous annual Reed Dance. Tens of thousands of Swazi virgins trek across the country to cut reeds for the Queen Mother’s residence, then for two days they dance semi-naked in front of the King, in the hope of catching his eye.
Ten years ago, as the Aids epidemic took off, Mswati invoked an ancient chastity rule and ordered subjects to refrain from sex for five years. But typically, he broke his own edict by choosing a 17-year-old girl for his ninth wife, paying a fine of one cow.
Two years later, a pretty 18-year-old caught his attention and he sent aides to fetch her from school. But in a rare challenge to his authority, he was sued by the girl’s mother. Eventually, she was persuaded to drop her case and the girl became wife number ten.
Another girl from a wealthy family fled the country to escape his clutches. And his 12th wife, a former Miss Teen Swazi, claimed she was under house arrest after being caught having an affair with one of the King’s best friends, a scandal that captivated the country.
Many girls see a fling with the King as a route out of poverty, but women’s groups are fighting back against a culture that promotes promiscuity and female oppression.
One royal prince, however, argued against a landmark bill to outlaw stalking, on the grounds that it was part of Swazi male tradition.
Swazis are brought up to regard their king as a benevolent, god-like figure.
‘Our inheritance is our pride and each Swazi has an obligation to sanctify our royalty,’ Sibusiso Shongwe, a loyalist lawyer, told primary school children at their recent speech day.
‘We are one of the few countries in the world where God still has a say in who rules us.’
But rampant corruption, growing repression and a spendthrift royal family in one of the world’s most unequal societies is changing such attitudes. Although a state of emergency has been imposed since 1973, with political parties banned, there have been more than 30 protests this year, many of which have ended in violence and tear gas.
While most of the 1.2 million Swazis struggle to survive, the royal family flaunt their wealth with fleets of flash cars and flights on private jets for shopping trips in the Gulf.
‘I heard his eldest daughter went to Abu Dhabi and spent $1 million in one weekend,’ said one jobless accountant who joined some of the protests. ‘Think how many unemployed people that could have helped.’ Sobhuza, who used to wear an old blanket and ferry his family around on a bus, was renowned both for frugality and sensitivity to his subjects’ needs.
But his son has ignored calls to cut his own spending, increasing the civil list by 24 per cent while ministries had budgets slashed. Mswati then imperiously told civil servants marching against wage freezes to ‘work harder and sacrifice even more’.
There was particular anger over Mswati’s decision to attend Britain’s Royal Wedding earlier this year, flying to London with a 50-strong party just days after police in his country had used batons and water cannons to quash an attempted uprising along the lines of the Arab Spring.
Now Swaziland’s collapse is so severe that the government is scrabbling around for funds to ensure it can pay its civil servants next month. Failure to do so would not only worsen the economic crisis — each worker has ten dependants on average — but almost certainly spark worse unrest.
The cash crisis was caused by big cuts in revenue from the Southern African Customs Union (a 100-year-old trading agreement between five nations, including South Africa) on which Swaziland relied for two-thirds of its budget, while food crops have been declining over the past decade.
South Africa has offered to bail out the country, but the loan comes attached with demands to introduce democracy. If he can’t find any other sources of income, the King’s only alternative may be to dip into his £125 million personal fortune; he is, after all one of the world’s 15 richest monarchs.
Victims of the economic crash include many HIV patients. A Swazi MP told the country’s parliament he had come across impoverished patients mixing cow dung with water to fill their stomachs before taking anti-retrovirals, which need to be swallowed after a meal to avoid the worst side-effects. One nurse in a major hospital said drug shortages are a growing problem. So when deliveries were late or went missing they had nothing to hand out — while financial shortages were so severe they often ran out of even the most basic items, such as containers for medicines and paper for writing notes on.
‘Every day it is something new,’ he said. ‘You feel so helpless since there are so many people who are ill and you can’t help them. And, of course, all the time you are seeing patients with strange new conditions because of HIV.’
Mswati’s supporters say he has brought in a constitution, but the King remains above the law, appointing all key officials and able to dictate to parliament. A recent inquiry into corrupt land deals by Mswati’s cabinet was thwarted when he ordered MPs to call off investigations.
Real power remains with labadzala (the faceless ones), the shadowy coterie of family members and key advisers who fawn and flatter for the King’s ear, supported by a network of 300 local chiefs who can evict protesters from their homes. Such feudalism would have been familiar to a 15th-century Florentine such as Machiavelli.
Film footage has shown advisers sliding on their knees towards Mswati, while women are not permitted to wear trousers in his presence and must avoid him for two years when in mourning.
One royal prince told me the King was trapped by his position. ‘The problem is all these sycophants surrounding him who grovel in order to get their favours granted. You see the cabinet singing his praises — how does this help him come to make good decisions?’
Others place the blame squarely on Mswati. ‘All the crises revolve around one national question — which is, unfortunately, the monarchy,’ said Mario Masuku, a softly-spoken former banker who heads the main opposition party.
‘There is a dictatorship here, embedded in traditional structures.
‘I have no doubt that if the regime does not embrace change there will be conflict, and that will be dire for us all,’ he added.
Certainly, the King watched the overthrow of his friend Colonel Gaddafi in Libya with horror. He has bought new weapons for his security forces — although Britain refuses to sell him arms for fear they will be used against his subjects — including an attack helicopter, seen bowing to him in the air earlier this month. Soldiers suspected of supporting protests have been sacked, their homes flattened.
Bloody conflict can still be avoided. Mswati’s opponents are calling for a British-style constitutional monarchy rather than a republic. While tensions are rising, this remains a country that feels some way off the situation I found the week before the revolution in Libya or after the uprising in Syria.
But the future of one of the world’s most colourful kingdoms is in Mswati’s hands.
‘He is single-handedly destroying it by not realising how much the monarchy is respected,’ said Bheki Makhubu, editor of The Nation.
Prince Mangaliso, the King’s brother who chairs his advisory council, told me it was far too simplistic to pin all the nation’s problems on the monarchy. But even he admitted no one could ignore events in North Africa.
‘Unfortunately, people have dug into their positions, which is not good for anyone. We need to find one another again. After all, does Swaziland have a choice? We will only survive if we are all together.’
But will the King heed such advice — or will the arrogance of Africa’s last absolute monarch bring about his downfall?
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