30 June 2011
Bare-breasted opulence wears thin in Swaziland
THE royal ritual that allows him to select a new wife each year from the ranks of eager, bare-breasted virgins gathered before him thankfully remains intact and is set to take place again in a few weeks.
But otherwise the outlook is grim for one of the world's last absolute monarchs, 43-year-old King Mswati III of the small southern African landlocked nation of Swaziland, as political and economic pressures threaten to drive him from his throne.
In a sub-Saharan echo of the way autocratic rulers have been ousted in the Arab Spring, Mswati is facing calls to democratise or go, and though Forbes Magazine rates him one of the world's richest royals, with a personal fortune in excess of $100 million, it is the impoverished Swazi economy that is threatening to end the fairytale rule of the British-educated monarch.
In a stunning contrast to Mswati's attendance at the wedding of William and Catherine in London, when he and his entourage of 50 travelled in a private jet and feasted on gold-leafed truffles, Swaziland, a country of 1.5 m people, has had to plead with neighbouring South Africa for a bailout of several hundred million dollars to save itself from looming bankruptcy after being turned down by the IMF and the African Development Bank.
South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, under pressure from powerful trade unions and churches, as well as some members of his cabinet, is playing hardball.
His ANC government, fed up with Mswati's personal profligacy and civil unrest in its troublesome neighbour, has made it plain there will be no money unless there are immediate moves towards democratic change, including an end to emergency rule, human rights abuses and the unbanning of political parties. South Africa has the spendthrift ruler over a barrel.
The Swazi economy is in dire straits, with a budget deficit estimated by the IMF to be of Greek proportions at 14.3 per cent of GDP. Following a 60 per cent drop in customs revenues resulting from a slump in global trade, Swazi foreign exchange reserves have been declining for 17 months, shrinking to $523 m, enough to cover only two months of imports.
Unpaid government bills total $180 m, public servants are not being paid, the finance minister has estimated state coffers are losing $11 m a month in corruption alone and the central bank has stopped lending to the government.
The IMF has said the king must raise taxes, cut the bloated public service and implement austerity measures, but Mswati has done nothing to comply.
And, after months of civil unrest, there is little sympathy for an absolute monarch who lives in opulence while the people in his kingdom, which suffers the highest rate of HIV/Aids in the world, are largely impoverished, existing on 60c a day. The powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions speaks of the crisis as a "man-made disaster, the result of a few royal elites who have milked the country dry (after) years of extravagance, corruption, parasitism and poor management".
The Catholic Bishops of Southern Africa have demanded any bailout money must not be used to fund the monarchy's excesses and instead promote a new democratic order.
Austerity is not something that the comes easily to the king. He is well short of the achievements of former king King Sobhuza, who boasted 70 wives, 210 children and 1000 grandchildren. So far, Mswati has just 14 wives and 23 children.
But each wife has a palatial home and a retinue of servants.
An indication of the gravity of the crisis is seen in his abrupt cancellation of celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of his reign.
But the annual dance at which thousands of bare-breasted virgins line up for his delectation is going ahead as usual.