Wednesday, April 10, 2024


The African Canute: As revolution sweeps through Africa, (North Africa) how long can the continent’s most autocratic monarch survive?

British-educated King Mswati III wears leopardskin loincloths, has 13 wives and is feted by crowds of bare-breasted virgins

In Swaziland nearly one-third of children are orphaned and life expectancy has crashed from 60 to just 33.

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 III 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. 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.

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.

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