Beyond the king's harem

Percy Zvomuya

An incomplete history of Swaziland gives the royal court too much credit for its own decline.

Right royal shambles: A new film about Swaziland seems seems to suggest that King Mswati III's regime is atrophying of its own record. (Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters)

At the rate at which Simon Bright is churning out films about African rulers, the filmmaker might soon get the moniker of "chronicler of power". After his 2011 documentary, Robert Mugabe … What Happened?, Bright has moved down south to Swaziland.

That small, landlocked country presents something of a conundrum. What exactly is it? Is Swaziland just a feudal state? Or a feudal state that's also a kleptocracy, a monarchy, an autocracy – as well a democracy?

The word "democracy" right next to Swaziland should surprise most people. But, if casting ballots is a primary requirement of a democracy, then Swaziland has a fighting chance. Ever so often the Swazis do vote, as they did recently did on September 20. But, whichever way they vote, the outcome is the same: King Mswati remains the sole ultimate authority.

Bright's latest film, The King and the People, is a portrait of Swaziland and a chronicle of its history. It begins with the days of King Sobhuza and nationalism (when you take a look at the monarchical mess presided over by Mswati, it's difficult to think of a moment when the nationalists were in ascendancy) and goes right through to the present, where Aids and poverty are ravaging the population.

It features some great archival footage of the young Mswati, innocent and baby-faced. The youthful king is a great contrast to the bloated monarch of nowadays – the serial husband forever marrying improbably young girls.

In the movie, there are gritty, frenetic close-up shots of activists on strikes and state thugs beating them up. The grit is placed side by side with the rather drowsy shots of talking heads: an academic, a teacher, an activist and a politician deconstructing the crisis.

It's not just the usual voices as ordinary peasants are also interviewed. As is to be expected of a country with such startling and scenic topography, there are the usual long, panoramic shots of the mountains and valleys.

But connecting all of this is a sad story of a country (or half a country?) presided over by an elite that controls the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, business and the media. A scene in which the king is seen having "consultations" with his subjects gives new meaning to the phrase bootlicking.

As a member of the audience said during the question-and-answer session that followed the screening of Bright's movie last weekend, more could have been said about solidarity from South Africa. 

The ending of The King and the People is somewhat discouraging. It seems to suggest the regime is atrophying of its own accord, denying agency to the forces of democracy that are forever challenging the status quo.The youthful king is a great contrast to the bloated monarch of nowadays

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