First published online by David Smith in Mbabane.
Culture and tradition are big selling points for Swaziland. Tourists looking for “the real Africa” are encouraged to see the big five wild animals on safari, visit villages or witness the annual Umhlanga (reed dance), in which more than 20,000 bare-breasted young maidens hope to catch the eye of the king, should he wish to add to his present tally of 13 wives.
“A tiny country with a big heart and warm, friendly people aptly describes Swaziland – a country that is the only absolute monarchy in Africa and which embraces and upholds its own unique and ancient traditions,” says the national tourism authority. “These are carefully guarded and faithfully celebrated and are just one aspect of the kingdom that makes it a very special place to visit.”
What few admirers of the mountains, forests and valleys hear are the voices of discontent: those who call King Mswati III a despot and dictator; the allegations of extrajudicial killings and torture; the civil society activists who live in fear of tapped phones and snooped emails; the journalists and judges who toe the line of state control; the suffering of a people, 63% of whom live in poverty and 26% of whom are HIV positive; the protests planned for Thursday, the 39th anniversary of absolute rule; and the whispers of revolt that could emulate the Arab spring by toppling the king.
These voices portray a darker side of Swaziland’s “unique and ancient traditions”. They call Mswati an African Nero fiddling while his country burns, an arrogant playboy relishing banquets, fast cars and private jets while many of his million subjects go hungry.
They blame rituals, in which old men take child brides and celebrate promiscuity, for helping spread Aids. They say the “old ways” do not justify fascist tendencies and the evisceration of human rights.
“Dictator is a fair word,” said a spokesman for the lobby group the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations, who did not wish to be named for fear of recriminations. “This is not a totalitarian regime. This is an authoritarian regime. It doesn’t have an ideological purity like North Korea or like what used to be in Cuba.
“The king is interested in more money, more power, more women. The regime has normalised abnormality.”
Swaziland gained independence from Britain in 1968 under Mswati’s father, King Sobhuza II, whose nominal reign of almost 83 years was a world record; he had 70 wives and 218 children. On 12 April 1973, he repealed the constitution and banned political parties, making himself absolute ruler. One right the king does not enjoy is the choice of his successor from his plethora of children.
After Sobhuza died in 1982, Mswati was steered into power by his canny mother, and he performed the ceremonial ritual of slaying a lion to inherit the throne.
In the years since, he has become ever more anachronistic on a democratising, economically vibrant continent.
One of the wealthiest kings in the world, with a fortune estimated at $100m (£63m), he reigns over a country that was once an oasis of peace surrounded by anti-apartheid protests and civil war in South Africa and Mozambique – but now is the sole country in the region that does not at least pay lip service to multi-party voting.
Elections are held but the king appoints the prime minister, cabinet and a portion of parliament, supported by powerful local chiefs in a system known as tinkhundla.
“We hear nothing and understand nothing about Magna Carta in Swaziland,” said one legal expert. “The judges of the high court once said: ‘Democracy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.’”
Insulting the king is legally defined as an act of terrorism. Among those who have felt the regime’s wrath is Maxwell Dlamini, 22, a pro-democracy activist and president of the Swaziland National Union of Students. In April last year he was stopped near the South African border, pushed into a police van and quizzed over his role in a planned “uprising”.
“In the interrogation room they assaulted me with fists and open hands and kicked me,” he said last week.
“It was the time of the Arab spring so there were a lot of worries in the region. They said I had brought weapons and explosives from South Africa to bring about an armed insurrection. They made me strip and lie on a bench and wound rope around me. A police officer almost suffocated me with a plastic bag.”
After an ordeal lasting five hours, Dlamini said he was taken to a faraway police station where he was held in darkness with no food or water. At 11pm he was taken to an interrogation room and tortured again in a similar manner. He added: “I still have the after-effects. I’m traumatised, I hallucinate. I can’t stay in my room on my own.”
Dlamini was charged with possessing explosives and spent 10 months in jail. “It was hell. Sometimes I was kept in isolation for a week. There were insects: you just have a rash on the first day, but they eat you. There were 68 people in a small cell with two toilets and no running water. The food is very poor.”
Dlamini had been sentenced to 32 months but was released on 50,000 lilangeni (£4,000) bail – a national record. He has vowed to continue the struggle.
“I want the people of Swaziland to live in a democratic dispensation and my children to enjoy fundamental human rights,” he said. “If death, arrest, torture is necessary for the accomplishment of this just cause, then let it be.”
Frustration with the king’s autocratic rule, and the prospect of economic ruin, triggered unprecedented public demonstrations on 12 April last year.
The state responded with a brutal show of force involving riot police, teargas and mass arrests. Another protest is planned for the anniversary on Thursday.
Most campaigners are not necessarily demanding a republic. “We are not wanting to wipe away the monarchy,” said Wandile Dludlu, national co-ordinator of the Swaziland United Democratic Front.
“There are many European countries that still have them today. But when they consistently resist change, history shows that they have tended to be wiped away. Here, if the monarchy proves an impediment to democracy, it will have to face the wrath of the masses. If the king stands in the way of progress, we’ll push him out.”
Dludlu described the king as a “gallivanter” who recently added a Rolls-Royce and Mercedes to his car collection and enjoys a hedonistic whirl of cocktail parties, “orgies” and shopping trips to Dubai.
“It is daylight robbery, using taxpayers’ money. The king is extravagant. He doesn’t live in this world. He’s setting a problematic trend, encouraging everyone to be more excessive right beside naked, abject poverty. Swazis are being strangled by a mafia.”
Others tell of a sinister culture of state surveillance, including plainclothes operatives. Thulani Maseko, a member of Lawyers for Human Rights, said: “We all feel that whatever you say to someone on the other side of the phone is being recorded. So you do feel a sense of insecurity from time to time.”
Not everyone is a dissident, however. Three in four Swazis live in rural areas, where loyalty to the king runs deep. Children are told stories of his magical powers such as the ability to induce rain, turn himself into a cat or make himself invisible to his enemies.
In the national language, the words for chief, king and god are similar. To criticise the king can be seen as an abomination. “The king is the mouth that tells no lie,” one saying holds.
The king and queen mother have shored up their popularity by distributing free food and blankets to villagers, who typically blame politicians for their troubles instead. Local chiefs, who have the power to confiscate land, also help to preserve the status quo.
Mbabane, the administrative capital, has a population of about 100,000 and is the country’s largest city.
A half-hour drive away, at a clinic in the village of Gilgal, Ncamsile Mkhwanazi, 36, said: “The king is a very good leader. I wish I was one of his wives.”
Martha Sibande, 72, who runs a medical practice, said: “I don’t trust democracy in Africa. We had an influx of Mozambicans here: they ate all the goods and said they were fighting for democracy. This country has been ruled by kings for over 400 years. You can’t come and tell me democracy is right.
“If Swazis say they want democracy, they must show us, where is Gaddafi? Look at Iraq as well, the leader slaughtered. If they want democracy, they must leave the country. In Swaziland, if you plough the field, you get food. If you work hard, then you live well. You don’t kill.”
Political activists say such views are largely attributable to propaganda from TV and radio, which remain tightly state-controlled. The government recently announced a crackdown on Facebook and Twitter and the country’s two daily newspapers fare little better. In January, the chief editor of the state-owned Swazi Observer was fired after publishing interviews with banned pro-democracy groups; he fled to South Africa saying he feared for his life.
Last month, the Swazi Observer published a routine report taken from the international newswires concerning the king’s friend, President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea. A week later it was forced to print a prominent apology for appearing to “undermine the person and integrity” of Obiang.
But Bheki Mahubu, editor of the independent monthly magazine the Nation, who was jailed in 1999 for criminal defamation, believes the media should be bolder. “I think we’re living through that period of ‘Let them eat cake’ except that we haven’t reacted to it,” he said.
“There’s a lot of bullying that goes on in Swaziland. If we journalists were to speak out for ourselves more strongly and say, ‘This is unacceptable,’ they would probably change.
“There is a lot of acceding to government demands when it’s not necessary. Any bully becomes accustomed to getting away with it. Swaziland is like an abused woman who says, ‘I started it – he’s a loving guy.’”
The Swazi royal family is celebrated as a fixed point in a changing world, a bulwark of African heritage against the march of modernity and globalisation. But opponents argue that “culture” and “tradition” are used as a convenient figleaf and indulged by the international community, which has been slower to condemn Mswati than other autocrats such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
Musi Masuku, Swazi programme manager of the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa, said: “I want Swaziland to be seen as a blot in the region, which is a sea of democracy: every country around us is trying to hold on to the democratic ideal.
“Sometimes we see Zimbabwe as much better than us because at least political parties are the norm – at least Mugabe has to renew his mandate with the people.
“The belief is everyone is treating this government with kid gloves because they like the exotic story and every year they see the girls dancing and the king wearing animal skin robes. They seem to want to preserve the traditional culture. I am traditional. But I want democracy as well: they can exist side by side.”
The Swazi government, however, says the country is already a democracy. “Very much so,” insists Percy Simelane, its press secretary.
“To say that Swaziland is democratic is an understatement. People don’t understand our elections. Me and you at grassroots level can vote for someone who goes straight to parliament, as opposed to a situation where the electorate votes for a political party who imposes candidates on them. I’m still to come across a situation where the king dictates to his people. In Swaziland nobody has a concentration of power.
“The people report to the government, the government reports to the king, the king reports to the people. It’s a cycle and everybody participates. I have no reason to say this is a dictatorship.”
Simelane also rejected criticism of the king’s luxurious lifestyle in one of the world’s most unequal societies. “I’ve never seen a poor king anywhere in the world. All kings and heads of state are above their subjects.
“In September 2007 I was London and walked from Buckingham Palace to the Guard House and I came across beggars. Poverty has no nationality – there are gaps all over the world. It’s not unique to Swaziland.”