In this extract from an article published by the Daily Maverick, J BROOKS SPECTOR reminisces about King Mswati III and how he and others guided the education of the young king – from economics, to the latest American dance crazes.
Swaziland, a kingdom desperately needing to enter 21st century
When the king and the country were both in their twenties (he was born in 1968, the year the nation ended its colonial status) it was easy to imagine Mswati would follow in his father’s low-key development-orientated ethos. This approach also aimed to protect the traditions of the nation – its Reed Dance and Incwala festivals, the tribal fabric that governed everyday life and its general obeisance to old values. The occasional cynic would sometimes mutter that a wily King Sobhuza had carefully parsed the work of anthropologist Hilda Kuper and consciously modelled his reign on the ancient traditions she wrote about - even as they were already dead or dying out in the 1930s and 40s - as a way of building a new national and anti-colonial imagination in Sobhuza’s kingdom. While Mswati was better educated than most of his siblings, with that period at his British boarding school, he still had a rather limited acquaintance with the ideas of contemporary governance. Eventually, we discovered that a small group of local high school teachers and instructors from the university were quietly tutoring the king in the modern niceties of government, economics, law and literature.
Eventually we were asked if we could somehow assist. We brought in an early version of the Sim City computerised economic modelling software to give him a chance to experiment with what happens when you tax or regulate a country too much (the most entrepreneurial inhabitants emigrate elsewhere). We ordered an airmailed subscription to a newspaper and couriered it to him as quick, easy reading on the week’s international news. When we received the occasional high-level visitor, or even a mid-level one, we often videotaped a guided conversation with the person on whatever topic they specialised in and delivered it to him as well. When the king let it be known that he was interested in America’s newest dance styles, we ordered videos on them too. And we even had Ronald Reagan offer a videotaped speech of congratulations to the king and country on their concurrent 20th birthdays as a special gift to the nation. It played on local TV for days.
The king would occasionally send a royal runner to seek us out at home in the evenings and “ask” us to drop by for a chat, perhaps to ask for videos on a new topic that had piqued his interest. Eventually we even obtained a jersey autographed by one of his favourite American musicians and, in return, a set of springbok hide-covered cushions arrived at my home one day as an anonymous “thank you”.
Looking back, however, it seems clear the lessons of Sim City wore off – or perhaps never really took hold deeply enough. As the king added new wife after new wife and royal residence upon residence, maybe the more traditional side of his upbringing – abetted by those in the royal circle whose privileges were most threatened by change - overtook a broader interest in the development of the nation as a whole.
The new king maintained the ban on political parties that had been instituted by his father in 1973 to keep anti-monarchist political behaviour in check, but that also restricted media freedom and union organising activity. Add to that the relative collapse of manufacturing in Swaziland after South Africa rejoined the world economy, shrinking aid budgets, the pressure of dealing with the country’s HIV/Aids epidemic, the economic stresses of the country’s rapidly growing population and the roots of Swaziland’s current tensions come into sharper focus.
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