Ascot meets Africa at Mswati's party

Africa’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III of Swaziland, feted his 37th birthday on Tuesday with a million-dollar-plus bash amid criticism that his extravagance was bleeding the poverty-stricken and HIV/Aids-afflicted nation dry.

The free-spending ruler, at the helm of the Southern African kingdom since the age of 18, told a crowd of at least 20 000 people packing a stadium in the commercial hub of Manzini that his country had been blessed since the year of his birth and its independence from Britain.

“God has been watching over us since we became independent 37 years ago, which is the time I was born,” the king said, speaking in a rich baritone.

Describing his birthday as an “important national event,” Mswati—dressed in a red and gold tunic and mustard trousers—claimed that his subjects overwhelmingly wanted to “uphold the monarchy and for the king to continue to lead the nation in every respect”.

The ceremony at the stadium was marked by colour and pageantry and was to be followed up at the Engabezweni palace, one of the numerous royal residences dotting the tiny mountain kingdom, with a private party for VIP guests.

The entertainment line-up at the stadium included energetic dances by warriors and barebreasted young girls, a 21-gun salute, several hymns and a military band which played an hour-long eclectic medley teaming up Happy Birthday to You and the 1970s hit Congratulations with traditional English ballads such as Greensleeves and the more martial Colonel Bogey’s March.

But many Swazis shunned the ceremony.

“This guy is spending more and more money while people are dying of hunger,” said taxi driver Jubal Dlamini.

Pro-democracy activist Lucky Nhleko said the festivities always involved the “fattened corrupt calves who surround the king” and lamented that the extravagance was “used to justify as upholding tradition and uniting the Swazi nation”.

Mswati is no stranger to controversy, mainly over the lavish lifestyle that he and his 11 wives and two teenage fiancées lead.

Monday’s celebrations will cost about R10,5-million, according to figures presented to Parliament during the Budget session.

In December, he bought a $500 000 Daimler Chrysler flagship Maybach 62 as his debt-ridden country battled crippling poverty. The United Nations Aids agency has also said Swaziland has the world’s highest HIV/Aids infection rate at close to 40%.

More than 65% of Swaziland’s 1,2-million inhabitants live on less than one dollar a day and about 200 000 people depend on food hand-outs to survive in the kingdom.

The festivities were a riot of colour with many male guests sporting traditional leather shields, wooden clubs, lion or leopardskin loincloths, beads and talismans while women wore bright wrap-around sarongs and beaded tassels.

The king’s half-brother and some members of the royal entourage turned up in top hats and tails, prompting a bemused Western guest in the VIP gallery to proclaim : “Wow, this is Ascot meets Africa.”

Although Mswati entered the stadium in an open four-wheel drive, one of his latest toys—a seemingly unending Mercedes stretch limousine emblazoned on both sides with a gold lion—followed to transport the ruler back to the palace.

Mswati’s official title is Ingwenyama, or the Lion.

Swazi Prime Minister Themba Dlamini compared the king to India’s independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, who was known for his ascetic lifestyle and his lifelong work to uplift the poor and suffering.

Dlamini said Mswati was like Gandhi who had once famously said that he would not rest until “he had wiped every tear from every eye”.

The king referred to poverty and HIV/Aids in his birthday speech, conceding they were major problems but added that the incidence of HIV/Aids among youths was on the decline. - Sapa-AFP