The Beautiful Kingdom… a tyranny dressed up as a democracy?

The Kingdom of Swaziland is one of three remaining absolute monarchies in the world, the other two being Oman and Saudi Arabia. The difference between these is that Swaziland has managed to pass itself off as a democracy with the international community; Oman and Saudi Arabia are widely regarded as repressive almost tyrannical regimes.

The Previous King, Sobhuza the Second, is still held up by his nation as an icon. A King who was a King of the people, who didn’t abuse his position and most importantly didn’t flaunt his wealth. His successor however is regarded somewhat differently. King Mswati the Third who was crowned in 1986 has been accused by many members of the global media of ruling through violent means for purposes of self interest. The documentary by American film maker Michael Skolnik called ‘Without the King’ 1(2007) explores the polarization of those living in the landlocked southern African country, and illustrates with some clout, why a monarchy cannot and should not be regarded as a democracy. After spending some time in the country and hearing different views first hand, after viewing Skolnik’s work and alternative writings on the subject, I have also come to the conclusion that Swaziland would be better off without the King at the centre of power.

The national emblem for the King is the lion… King of the Jungle AND top of the food chain. This is in itself an apt metaphor for how the Kingship work in Swaziland.  In 1973 under King Sobhuza the second, five years after the country gained independence from South Africa through the help of the United Kingdom, political parties were banned and the King continued to rule by decree.  To this day political activity is strictly limited in the country and the leading left wing group ‘PUDEMO’ (People’s United Democratic Movement) often suffer clashes with the royal police force whilst peacefully protesting for greater democracy. They believe that this exists in the form of a multi party system and a reduction in oppression of the Swazi people under the current Tinkhundla rule. The documentary showcases an array of local people who share the view that “Swazi politics is crowded with tradition” and that the monarchy has fabricated a “home grown democracy” to suit their own agenda. But the youth of the kingdom are starting to mobilise. King Mswati claims that he has a “big public gallery to discuss issues” with the people, and that “they are an important part of the decision making process” – the problem is, people are afraid to address the biggest issue at such meetings, for fear of being shot once they have left the building. In Mbabane the ‘Red Marchers’ went to pay a visit to the Prime Minister, who on his website states he has an ‘open door policy’ – the marchers were surprised to find a police guarded gate. Priests agree that the people are being “forced to worship” the King under oppression. Even though a new constitution was drafted in 2005, political parties still remained banned and the King still appoints the Prime Minister, the Executive, the Judiciary, and one third the Legislature, the other two thirds of which are elected from a choice of ‘suitable’ candidates. This ensures that tax revenue is redirected into the private offshore bank accounts of the royal family, and not to the 69% of people living on less than a dollar a day in the townships.  This is exactly the reason why many feel that an avalanche of a revolution is just round the corner in the mountainous state.

‘Without the King’ presents an ironic case point in the King’s first born child; Princess Sikhanyiso Dlamini. The staple gluing the king to his thrown is the cultural traditions adored by his Nation, as pointed out by the princess, as the footage snaps to Sikhanyiso rapping in her uncanny American accent.  The film maker uses the princess as a route around the lavish lifestyle littered with Americanisms that is experienced by those in the King’s family whilst juxtaposing it with the gritty poverty that stretches from border to border. It provides an emotive message. However the princess does seem to have her head on her shoulders, she acknowledges that it is going to be up to her generation to turn her country around, and this is how she justifies her private jet to school in Calafornia; “if we don’t go to good schools and get the knowledge that the international people have how can we help Swaziland?”. Maybe she has a point, maybe if the King put his money used for his private jet and luxury cars into the education system, rather than leaving the task of educating his population up to NGO’s, the whole population of Swazi children would be able to help Swaziland? Education should be a right for all, not a privilege for the few2, and the majority of parents in the African continent are struggling to obtain this for their primary school aged children. The Princess is a true patriot, and has the right idea about children being the future of the world; she has just been indoctrinated by her father to believe that culture and the absolute monarchy are inextricably linked. The UK proves that actually states can transfer from monarchical power to democracy whilst retaining a strong sense of identity. The British case allows the monarch to retain all cultural and symbolic functions whilst leaving the real business of running the country in a representative and legitimate manner to the freely elected government. By no way am I suggesting the British model is perfect, but I am suggesting it provides a balance between staunch supporters of the absolute Swazi monarchy, and the new generation who need a bigger more autonomous forum to air their voices. It is of the belief of groups in Swaziland that if power was devolved; local initiatives such as building of crucial infrastructure such as water systems could actually get underway.

The King does not shy away from the international stage, with highly publicized meetings with influential figures such as Fidel Castro, Tony Blaire, and the Pope. So why with such connections and publicity has the Kingship not been challenged, why has the fact that the majority of public education is funded by international NGO’s been overlooked? The United Nations has however recognised the country has one of the worst rates of AIDS in Africa at the rate of around 42.6%, this statistic in no doubt worsened by the fact that Swazi’s have traditionally been encouraged to have polygamous relationships. King Sobhuza had over 150 wives, and King Mswati at the moment has 14, the last one taken at last year’s Reed Dance Ceremony3 in August. Although King Mswati took this wife in secret, after coming under pressure from the international community and women’s rights groups to condemn polygamy and promote monogamous marriages. More hypocrisy was displayed by the King when he passed a law banning men from having sex with teenage girls, after which he took on another two teenage wives, and so fined himself as ‘punishment’ – no two guesses for where the fine money goes?

It seems that the monarchical system is outdated and naive to the new age of liberation that exists in the 21st century.  The King is viewed by the silent majority as a dictator who uses violent political arrests to secure his reign and who as his daughter pointed out, is aware of the possibility of revolution. There is the fear that revolution will start a long civil war – Swaziland is one of only a few African countries that have avoided a civil war since the time of independence (so far). Protesters are already risking their lives to demonstrate against the regime, and when people start to believe a cause is worth the loss of their own life, revolution is inevitable. As said on the documentary, one day those who guard him will be the very ones who turn against him, and as a local protester stated: “A knife only costs R20”.

1’Without the King’ is banned in Swaziland. Those found with it in their possession would be immediately arrested or worse. If its content isn’t in the slightest close to the truth as suggested by the royal family, what is the King so scared of?

2American company KFC are currently running an ‘offer’ with their family meal deal to be entered into a raffle to win school fees for one child. Blogpost to follow.

3The Reed Dance is a hailed as a celebration of Swazi virgins, and claims to promote abstinence before marriage. Therefore is held up as a forum for AIDS prevention. In fact the boy scouts who also attend the ceremony to witness the girls do their traditional dance in traditional costumes (including bare breasts) actually sneak into the girl’s campsite after hours.


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