Swazi king has little reason to celebrate

Emeka Nwandiko

What do you wish for on your birthday if you are a king? Loyalty from your subjects, an end to years of industrial unrest, constitutional reform, more foreign investment to keep your kingdom, the size of Gauteng, afloat?

The list goes on for King Mswati III of Swaziland, who will celebrate his 31st birthday next Thursday.

King Mswati is expected to address and award honours to his loyal subjects. But his majesty’s subjects are not as loyal as he believes.

“He is weak and ill-prepared and does not have the inner resources to govern. It is either he is seriously dumb, so we do not deserve him. Or the inner circle [princes and chiefs] have wrapped him so tight and are feeding him the wrong stuff so that he can’t do anything,” says a member of the royal clan that has ruled Swaziland since its independence in 1968.

The king is accused of deliberately isolating himself from the plight of ordinary Swazis. But despite this splendid isolation, reports filter through to his people that he spends his time (when not on official business) listening to kwaito CDs and entertaining kwaito stars at one of several royal palaces. At night he can be found in the company of women.

Diplomats are worried about the lack of leadership of the king, who ascended the throne in 1986 at the age of 18. “Regional leaders have expected him as head of state to make decisions and lead the country, and they have offered him help,” says an exasperated Southern African Development Community diplomat.

“He consults on how to run the country, but royal advisers contradict the advice. People around the king feed him with half- truths.”

A royal insider revealed that the king “has accepted multi-party politics in mind, but is under pressure to satisfy competing interests. He has to work with traditionalists, who are conservative, and royalty, who are powerful and influential. He also has to satisfy the demands of progressives and trade unionists.”

Central to gaining the soul of the Eton- educated king is the issue of constitutional reform. Progressives want him to relinquish his absolute powers and become a constitutional monarch, and to do away with the tinkhundla system which elects local chiefs into office.

There is no secret ballot. The majority of parliamentarians in the upper house are appointees of the king, as well as the Cabinet. Progressives also want the repeal of the April 1973 decree, which banned political parties and suspended the Constitution.

In a bid to address the issue of constitutional reform, the king appointed a 29-member Constitutional Reform Committee (CRC) in 1996. So far the committee has come up with nothing that suggests reform is in the air. Rather it is seen as a tool by royalists and traditionalists, who form the bulk of the committee, to hinder reform. Forming about 7% of the almost one million population, royalists and chiefs have the most to lose if constitutional reform becomes a reality.

Hoping to add a sense of urgency to the CRC, King Mswati decreed last week that it must submit its findings to him by the end of the year.

King Mswati has another headache. The economy has been moving sluggishly, with growth for the past two years hovering at 2,5%. Unemployment currently stands at 40%. But there appears to be little sign of new investment in a country that has been plagued by industrial unrest for the past three years.

“We are not getting the investment we are asking for,” said a member of the Federation of Swaziland Employers. “We have explained to [potential] investors that on the shop floor relations between employees and employers are very good. The strikes are a political issue.”

The diplomat said the young king did not have the advantages of his father, the late king Sobhuza II, whose advisers were younger than him and “could not inhibit his capacity to make decisions”.

But many Swazis disagree. They wish their king would grow up and lead their country into the next millennium. Many wonder if he wishes the same.

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Maya Fisher French
Guest Author

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