A group of media colleagues and I got more than we bargained for on a recent trip to Swaziland. As part of its Women’s Day celebration, Sun International decided to treat some women in the media to a pampered weekend at one of its destinations, the Royal Swazi Hotel and Spa.
And what a charming and quaint place it is, ensconced in lush valleys just outside Mbabane. It’s in an area known as Ezulwini, which in Siswati and isiXhosa means “heaven”, a fitting description because it is breathtaking, with that lazy rustic air that leaves you replete with relaxation almost upon arrival.
We were spoiled with beauty treatments at the spa and luxurious dinners at the hotel, as well as a game drive. With about a dozen women on a bus, there was bound to be lots of giggling and harmless gossip. It had been two weeks since the South African government had announced it would lend its bankrupt neighbour R2.4-billion to prevent the complete meltdown of one of the poorest countries on the continent, the king of which lives a lavish lifestyle.
So our conversation was peppered with tongue-in-cheek references to the timing of our trip and how it could be said we were inspectors going to Swaziland to assess whether South African taxpayers’ money was being put to good use.
Little did we know that it would turn out to be no joke.
While we sunned ourselves and sipped colourful cocktails at the pool deck, our lazy self-indulgence was interrupted by a messenger from the royal house of Mswati with a rather peculiar message.
He asked to see our Sun International minder and passed on an interesting bit of intelligence. One of King Mswati’s sons had heard of the arrival of a bevy of beauties from South Africa — okay, I’m taking liberties here, but he’d heard of the arrival of a busload of South African media personalities — and was seeking a private audience with one of the young women in our party.
The announcement was greeted with squeals of excitement and howls of laughter. The lady in question was shell-shocked. The rest of us had some fun at her expense.
After much debate, the “sisterhood” decided it would be entirely inappropriate for our colleague to go off on a private rendezvous with a complete stranger in a foreign country. The royal emissary was sent back to the palace with the message that the lady would be happy to meet said prince, but he had to come to the hotel where we were staying and the audience granted would most certainly not be private.
Later that evening, the prince descended on the hotel with an entourage of his brothers and cousins. We were asked to join the princes and princelings in a semi-private lounge.
We walked into a roomful of young men, all bearing a striking resemblance to King Mswati III. It was difficult to tell them apart. They were accompanied by so many minders and protocol staff that they took up half the room. Spotting the object of his affection, the prince gave her an appreciative, even leering, once-over and greeted her by yelling: “Yo!”
It was stunningly rude and the poor girl blushed. I tried to dismiss this initial faux pas as the folly of youth. Perhaps I was too much of a fuddy-duddy to appreciate how young people interact, but a part of me believed that a young man of his upbringing might be more refined and well mannered. And it was all downhill from there.
The princes sat around the table, ordered gallons of whisky, which they decanted into glass pitchers and gulped down like thirsty desert nomads. We were told we could order anything we wanted and drinks were on the princes. Really? One of the reasons Swaziland is in financial trouble is that state money has for years been spent on King Mswati, his wives and 25 children.
Watching the unseemly behaviour of these children as they ordered drink after drink left a bitter taste in the mouth. The princes were in their early 20s, but would routinely snap their fingers at their royal escorts and minders, who were much older than them, when they needed attention. They might have been expected to be more respectful towards their elders, even if the elders were the help.
By now, most of us were itching to get away. During this drinking spree, one of our media contingent made an imprudent remark, something to the effect of: “Now we know how our R2.4-billion is being spent.”
I flushed with embarrassment. She’d voiced what many of us were thinking, but were too polite to articulate. Yet there wasn’t a hint of mortification from the prince. He merely shouted in his cocky fashion: “Well, R2.4-billion is nothing, bro, nothing! There’ll be plenty more where that came from.”
So tasteless and shocking was this declaration, that even the most parched among us suddenly found excuses to leave the room.
Was this just the ranting of a spoilt, uncouth and drunk brat desperate to make an impression in a room full of women, or did it reflect the attitude with which the South African bail-out is viewed, as a piggy bank for a rancid king and his family?
To help a country in need is one thing, but to pay the drinks bill of a group of obnoxious children is quite another.