As King Mswati III Jets into the country on his $20million Private Jet, it is imperative to highlight the failing state of the tiny African nation. Swaziland is Africa’s only absolute Monarchy, and it is in a state of decline. The decline can be attributed to a combination of 43% chronic poverty, a life expectancy just above 50 years, and an HIV prevalence of 26 percent—the world’s highest rate— and the kingdoms problems of hunger sits in conspicuous contrast to the Mswati’s lifestyle.
The Arab Spring marked the end of some of the longest running Monarchies in Africa. Leaders who had christened themselves as leaders for life such as Muammar Gaddafi were overthrown. The only monarchy to survive was that of Swaziland. The main difference being the Kingdom is founded on a well-preserved traditional African society that seems stuck in a forgotten past. The country has a non-existent political system and the King still has absolute power over all social, judicial, economic, and political systems is the country.
This has turned out to be the main source of Economic and Social stagnation of the country. To be fair, their GDP per capita of $6,220 is almost twice that of Kenya, but with a population that is about a quarter that of Nairobi, Swaziland should be performing much better. According to the latest ranking of the richest countries in the world, it was clear that the smaller the country, the more likely it will have a living standard that is far above those of countries that have large populations.
In spite of having the ninth highest GDP per capita in Sub-Saharan Africa, critics contend that all official GDP figures mask an economy dominated by a searing inequality that is often biased by the dominance of the royal family. Aside from controlling the country’s land, Mswati owns Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, a national Swazi investment fund with stakes in real estate, breweries, minerals, and agriculture—including controlling more than half the local sugar industry.
Lavish Lifestyle of King Mswati III
The Swazi people initially didn’t mind their kings having a lavish lifestyle (King Sobhuza II had 125 wives over his 82 year reign), but over the years King Mswati’s excesses have become too much for such a tiny and poor African nation. Most of Swaziland’s 1.1 million people love their monarch. God gave the country to the king, many of the Citizens say, and the king was given to the people by God. The Kings farther, Sobhuza II, had been especially admired. He was more frugal than his son, transporting the royal family in buses instead of BMWs. Many Africans often complain about the salaries of their leaders, however, It is a rarely known fact that King Mswati III is in fact the highest paid leader in Africa, far surpassing the measly $272,ooo annual salary paid to Jacob Zuma – the SA president. In a recent NY Times article, the King is called out on his lavish spending that is often sporadic and too much emphasis is placed on furnishing his lifestyle, abandoning all economic sense and forgetting the nations failing economy. In 2014, the King set aside $61 to furnish his and his wives expenses. The truth about the King’s spending has been consistently hidden from the Swazi people, his budget is never debated in parliament, and audits of the budget are only presented to the King.
The Kingdom is a perfect reminder of our previous African culture, and it is probably the only country that has managed to retain a large part of its authenticity over the centuries. One of Swaziland’s greatest and well-preserved traditions is the annual Reed Dance, when colorfully adorned, bare-breasted and very young women — all proclaiming purity as virgins — parade before the royal family and others. In recent years, the ritual has acquired additional excitement, for the king often selects his next queen from the throng of dancers.
However, change is an inevitable aspect of our current century and Africa will not be left out. Polygamy is fine in an African cultural setting, and I don’t think there is any issue with a person having two or three wives – even Jacob Zuma can be forgiven by his country for his various puzzling endeavors over the years. On the other hand, this turns into a burden on the nation when the King/Leader has 15 wives and continues to pick another 18-year old virgin every other year. Moral values aside, the King has turned this tradition past its time into an encumbrance on a belligerent nation. The Swazi Leader has been known to treat himself and each of his wives lavishly wasting millions from his county’s budget on supporting his excesses. The King has been rumored to spend millions each year sending his queens for lavish shopping trips to Europe, Las Vegas, and Middle East and everywhere across the worlds on chartered jets. Since 2002 the king has tripled his personal budget from around $20million to its current $60million which will continue rising even when the country cuts back on spending in other areas.
The King owns more than 60% of the land in the Kingdom, and the people even sing songs about the control he has over all the land. This confines 70% of the country’s population to live on pieces of land that are held in trust by the King. The plots are maintained by an elaborate network of chiefs who have the power to evict their tenants without recourse. This is one of the means through which the kingship has been able to maintain his hold over his kingdom for very many centuries. Lacking title deeds, Swazi peasant farmers are commonly displaced to make way for royal family investments, and the majority are prevented from investing in basic agricultural improvements.
Democracy is unheard of and the king reigns supreme and unquestioned in the country. Political parties are banned from taking part in the election and the King chooses the government. Only parliamentary elections are held in the country, but only for 55 of the total 65 seats in the assembly. However, the parliament has no real powers and is widely considered outside the Swazi kingdom to be a fig-leaf to protect the king from criticism on how he runs the kingdom. To top this up, the election results for a widely criticized unfair 2013 election are yet to be released 2 years later.
HIV/AIDS and Poor Living Standards
Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world in spite of their population. Reports estimate that (25 – 35) % of the population is affected by HIV/AIDS, and the life expectancy is a low 50. Further, Statistics from WHO in 2002 revealed that close to 64% of all deaths in the country were directly related to HIV/AIDS, and 38.8% of tested pregnant women were infected with HIV in 2004. In comparison, the HIV prevalence rate in Kenya is around 5.6%, and 0.6% in the US. A majority of the citizens live in abject poverty, and lacking even the most basic needs.
Growing Calls for Change
Urban and rural Swazis complain that the king is increasingly out of touch with his subjects, and a growing network of pro-democracy activists warn that Mswati’s resistance to change will not succeed for much longer. Even the US is secretly worried by the leadership of King Mswati III. Leaked communication between the US embay in Swaziland and Washington reveals the dropping lack of confidence in the current leadership by the US, labeling King Mswati III as ‘imbalanced’, ‘not intellectually well developed’ and ‘is not a leader’.
The country has some hope for the future. Cracks are starting to show in the King’s tyranny in the country. Human rights activists and opposition leaders that were arrested and imprisoned for over a year have recently been released. The king has also acted against one of his most famous pawns – the former chief Justice – who acted swiftly and aggressively against the most minor of opposition towards the King.
‘One police officer came with a plastic bag and put it over my mouth and nose, and pressed very hard so that I couldn’t breathe. I could have died at any moment,’ says Bheki Dlamini, looking at the camera, close to tears.’
This is a scene from a documentary that highlights the human rights abuses and the fight for democracy and socio-economic justice in the country. This is growing sign that the tiny African nation is continuously moving towards democracy and socio-economic justice that the rest of the world is either fighting for or enjoying.