Saturday, April 18, 2020

The power behind the throne? How a teenager became Swaziland’s king

There has been a bit of activity on social media recently with people speculating about how would eSwatini choose a new king if the need arose. You might be interested in reading something I wrote back in 2011 about how King Mswati himself came to the throne

Richard Rooney

Swazi Media Commentary 25 January 2011

King Mswati III of Swaziland must be a very worried man at news that court papers relating to a treason trial held in secret shortly after he came to the throne have come to light after 23 years.

The papers, which were deliberately removed from Swaziland after the trial in 1987 and have been unearthed in Namibia, could contain details about the plotting that surrounded King Mswati’s rise to power. The papers might also remind the King’s subjects that he is really only where he is today because of political intrigue. Put simply, a political group plotting within the ruling elite of Swaziland supported him. Does he owe his position and wealth to them – and who knows, if today that same group wanted to withdraw its support, what happens next?

Unlike in many societies that still have monarchs, in Swaziland the eldest child (often only the son is eligible) of a deceased monarch doesn’t simply become king once the reigning monarch dies. In Swaziland, the king is said to be chosen in accordance with Swazi law and custom. But the part of Swazi law and custom relating to the selection of a successor to a king is unknown to a majority of ordinary Swazi. 

The story of how King Mswati, who was known as Prince Makhosetive as a child, became the monarch goes like this, according to one biography

‘King Sobhuza II had deftly managed to hold rivalling power factions within the royal ruling alliance in check, and so his death in August 1982, left a power vacuum.’

At this time Makhosetive was 15 years old and a schoolboy at Sherborne in England.

‘In keeping with tradition, Makhosetive’s appointment by his father was not publicly announced. Before his death the King had chosen one of his queens, the childless Princess Dzeliwe, to preside over the monarchy as regent until the prince turned 21 years of age. 

‘It was in keeping with tradition that she be childless, so that she would not involve herself in a factional struggle to advance the position of her own son. Factional quarrels broke out into the open, however, in the interregnum period, while the prince was [at school] in the United Kingdom. 

‘Continuing disputes led members of the Liqoqo, a supreme traditional advisory body, to force the Queen Regent to resign. In her stead the Liqoqo appointed Queen Ntombi, Prince Makhosetive’s mother, who initially refused to take up the position.

Further disputes between royal factions led to his coronation as King Mswati III, in April 1986, three years earlier than expected.

At the time, the King was the youngest monarch in the world. 

‘Observers saw the early coronation as an attempt on the part of the Liqoqo to legitimate the usurpation of Dzeliwe and consolidate their gains in power. Prince Makhosetive, now King Mswati III, acted quickly however to disband the Liqoqo and call for parliamentary elections.

Another biography takes up the story. 

‘In May 1986 Mswati dismissed the Liqoqo, the traditional advisory council to regents, which had assumed greater powers than were customary. In July 1986 he dismissed and charged with treason Prime Minister Prince Bhekimpi and several government officials for their role in the ejection of Queen Regent Dzeliwe, though he eventually pardoned those who were convicted.’

Another biography of King Mswati says,‘King Mswati’s first two years of rule were characterized by a continuing struggle to gain control of the government and consolidate his rule.

‘Immediately following his coronation, Mswati disbanded the Liqoqo and revised his cabinet appointments. In October 1986 Prime Minister Bhekimpi Dlamini was dismissed and for the first time a nonroyal, Sotsha Dlamini, was chosen for the post.

‘Prince Bhekimpi and 11 other important Swazi figures were arrested in June 1987. [Prince] Mfanasibili, [Prince] Bhekimpi, and eight others were convicted of high treason. Eight of those convicted, however, were eventually pardoned.

‘In early 1989, rumors circulated to the effect that Prince Mfanasibili had attempted to orchestrate a coup while in prison. Other rumors suggested that Mfanasibili was planning an escape from prison for the purpose of mounting a coup. After Mswati's coronation, royal infighting and intrigue remained very much an aspect of Swazi governance.’ 

According to the Times Sunday, an independent newspaper in Swaziland, the court papers that have just come to light relate to the trial of Prince Mfanasibili, Robert Mabila and George Msibi, three of the men convicted of treason. They are now said to want redress from the present Swazi Government. Mabila had been sentenced to eight years imprisonment and Prince Mfanasibili and Msibi were given 15-year jail terms. They were released after an order from King Mswati III in 1988. 

I doubt if it is entirely a coincidence but on 15 January 2011 Prince Mfanasibili called his family together for a private meeting in which he is said to have given his version of the events surrounding the treason case. Some details of the ‘private’ meeting were reported in the Times of Swaziland yesterday (24 January 2011). 

Until now the treason court judgement has remained secret. If the three men seeking redress from the government press their case, it is difficult to see how the details can remain secret much longer.

See also


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