23 September 2011
How Swaziland’s King Mswati is out of step
By Alex Perry
In the week of Swaziland's annual Reed Dance, tens of thousands of virgin girls trek across the southern African kingdom to the Queen Mother's royal residence, Ludzidzini. On the banks of the Little Usutu River, just below the twin chutes of Matenga Falls, the women cut giant reeds into stacks and carry them to the matriarch's cattle corral to lean against the fence as symbolic fortification. The ceremony climaxes in a two-day parade in which the women sing and dance in phalanxes organized according to region. King Mswati III watches from his throne, wearing a leopard-skin loincloth and three scarlet feathers in his hair. Sometimes he uses the occasion to pick a new wife. He currently has 13.
The tourist literature for Swaziland, one of the southern hemisphere's smallest nations, describes the country as the "Switzerland of Africa," a land of noble tradition that is home to one of the world's oldest monarchies. The reality is rather different, and the Reed Dance is a case in point.
For all the color of the ceremony, Mswati's polygamy looks irresponsible next to what is today the world's worst HIV/AIDS epidemic: infection among pregnant women is 41%, Swazi life expectancy is down to 43 years, and 31% of Swazi children are orphans.
Likewise, the King's estimated $200 million fortune and Swaziland's overpaid bureaucracy, bloated with royal cronies, appear less than majestic alongside an unemployment rate of 43% and the fact that 63% of Swazis live on $2 a day or less.(Read "Swaziland: How Not to Be a Royal.")
As one of the world's last absolute monarchs, Mswati, 43, increasingly behaves more as a despot than as the caring father of a nation. He rules with emergency powers that grant him ultimate authority over the government, judiciary, army, police and legislature. Those who oppose him must tread carefully. When the leader of the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), Mario Masuku, suggests we meet at a secluded cafe on the outskirts of the capital, Mbabane, his caution is understandable. Masuku has spent several years in jail, accused of sedition and terrorism.
In 2008, Mswati's government banned Masuku's party, which proposes multiparty democracy and transparent government, and designated it a terrorist group. Scores of PUDEMO members report having been arrested and beaten by police. In May, police arrested a 37-year-old engineering student named Sipho Jele for wearing a PUDEMO T-shirt. He was later found hanged in a cell. The police claim he killed himself, but relatives and rights groups say bruising and other evidence points to murder. Amnesty International called Jele's death "deeply suspicious" and Swaziland a "benighted country [where] a feudal monarchy presides."
Masuku agrees that this dire human-rights record, plus Swaziland's poverty, its epidemic, its corruption and its paltry economic growth, are all the doing of one man. "To heal a disease, you have to look at the cause," he says. "And the cause is an undemocratic system that perpetuates bad governance, rampant corruption and an uncontrollably extravagant monarchy." (The palace didn't respond to my requests for an interview with the King.)
This year, Mswati's arrogance has reached spectacular new heights. In 2009, South Africa slipped briefly into recession and cut revenue to a southern African customs union on which Swaziland relied for two-thirds of its budget. Swaziland's budget deficit skyrocketed to 13% of GDP. Facing widespread calls to cut annual spending on the royal family, Mswati instead raised it by 24%, to $31 million - $8 million more than Swaziland's total annual HIV/AIDS funding. When 12,000 civil servants marched to protest wage freezes in March, Mswati chided them for their irresponsibility. "We need to work even harder and sacrifice even more today for a better tomorrow," he said.
The following month, when hundreds more demonstrators gathered in the city of Manzini to demand reform, Mswati sent in the heavies. Police fired water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas at the protesters and beat and arrested dozens. Mswati's Prime Minister, Barnabas Dlamini, suggested to a Times of Swaziland reporter that the demonstrators' feet be beaten with spikes.
The International Monetary Fund has twice refused to make an emergency loan because Mswati failed to make spending cuts, particularly in the bureaucracy. The King seemed to have won a temporary reprieve in August when South Africa, fearful of another Zimbabwe- style economic collapse on its borders, agreed to a $350 million emergency loan. But Pretoria has not yet paid: the government there faces accusations from its trade-union allies that since the loan only vaguely commits Mswati to reform, South Africa would effectively be propping up a dictator.
Even if the South African money is made available, says Joannes Mongardini, the IMF's Swaziland mission leader, "the government will continue to face severe liquidity constraints." And that's not all that is confronting Mswati. The opposition is determined to keep up protests, with an increasingly antimonarchy flavor. After plunging Swaziland into a debt crisis, Mswati may now be facing another recent global phenomenon, one that has proved particularly perilous to North African tyrants: revolution.