In destitute kingdom, ruler lives like a king
LUDZIDZINI, Swaziland: Once upon a time, a young and handsome king ruled over a land of mountainous splendor near the southern tip of Africa. He liked to marry, and as the years passed he took 13 wives, each of them a great beauty.
His countrymen wanted His Majesty to be happy, but some also thought so many spouses were an extravagance for a poor, tiny nation. After all, the king, Mswati III, often provided these wives a retinue, a palace and a new BMW.
A great event was soon forthcoming ? on Saturday, in fact. To prepare for the day ? the 40-40 Celebration, so-named to honor the king's 40th birthday and the nation's 40th year of independence ? a 15,000-seat stadium was built and a fleet of top-of-the-line BMW sedans was ordered for the comfort of visiting dignitaries.
Once again, some people wondered how the kingdom, Swaziland, could afford the expense. Some 1,500 of them grumpily marched in protest through the capital after news reports said that several of the queens and their entourages had gone on an overseas shopping trip aboard a chartered plane.
Indeed, as the big day neared, other protests drew thousands more into the streets of the country's two biggest cities. "The king spends our money and is not answerable to anyone!" complained Mario Masuku, the head of an outlawed political party and a familiar figure of Swazi discontent.
The rowdiest of the demonstrators flung rocks, looted goods from sidewalk vendors and even set off a few small explosions. Others made impromptu placards with torn up cardboard. "Down with 40-40!" read one, while another demanded, "Democracy now!" A few protesters chanted things meant to make rich people feel guilty: "My mother was a kitchen girl. My father was a garden boy. That's why I'm a Socialist."
The angriest of them went so far as to insist that the nation had little to celebrate. Yes, Swazis have enjoyed decades of peace and are proud of their culture. But poverty has entrapped two-thirds of the people, leaving hundreds of thousands malnourished. And these days death casually sweeps away even the strong. The country has one of the worst rates of HIV infection in the world. Life expectancy has fallen from 60 years in 1997 to barely half that now. Nearly a third of all children have lost a parent.
"How can the king live in luxury while his people suffer?" asked Siphiwe Hlophe, a human rights activist. "How much money does he need, anyway?"
That question was as confounding as it was impertinent. In the government's latest budget, about $30 million was set aside for "royal emoluments."
But surely the king's income exceeds that, people said. The royal family also controls a corporate business empire "in trust for the nation," investing in sugar cane, commercial property and a newspaper. Forbes.com recently listed Mswati III as the world's 15th wealthiest monarch, estimating his fortune at $200 million.
But is this not the way of the world? The king, after all, is the king. The poor, after all, are the poor. Percy Simelane, the government's spokesman, was quoted by Agence France-Presse last week as saying: "Poverty has been with us for many years. We cannot then sit by the roadside and weep just because the country is faced with poverty. We have made great strides as a country that gives us pleasure in celebrating 40 years of independence and the king's birthday."
Indeed, most of Swaziland's 1.1 million people love their monarch. God gave the country to the king, many of them say, and the king was given to the people by God. Mswati III's father, Sobhuza II, had been especially revered. He was more frugal than his son, transporting the royal family in buses instead of BMWs. But he, too, liked to marry. It was said that he took 70 wives, though some put the number as high as 110.
Sobhuza II was king when the nation shed the yoke of colonialism, finally free of Britain yet left with a British-style Constitution. The esteemed monarch did not abide by this document for long. In 1973, he dissolved Parliament and rid himself of the annoyance of political parties.
In the years ahead, political reformers, primarily city people, pushed for democracy. Mswati III succeeded his father in 1986, and in 2005, after much give and take, signed a new Constitution. But it was a peculiar document, guaranteeing individual liberties with one hand and preserving the absolute monarchy with the other. The king would continue to appoint the prime minister and members of the governing cabinet and the judiciary.
Under this arrangement, it was hard for an outsider to tell where the monarchy ended and the government began. But most Swazis see things entirely otherwise. As a local saying goes, "A king is a mouth that does not lie." The government is bad, people tend to conclude, but the king is good. "Others in authority abuse their power, not the king," explained Ncoyi Mkhonta, the acting chief of the village of Mahlangatsha.
Corruption is bleeding the treasury, but His Majesty's exalted status has complicated the work of law enforcement. The finance minister has publicly estimated that $5 million ? and maybe as much as $8 million ? is siphoned off each month. Various anti-graft bureaus have failed to exact justice.
The latest corruption-fighting commission is headed by H. M. Mtegha, a retired judge from Malawi. He is not optimistic: "If we go after someone high up and he says the king told me to do this, what can I do? To be satisfied, I'd have to ask the king himself, and this cannot be done. The king is immune."
Of course, being king is not without its own difficulties. In 2001, faced with the relentlessness of the AIDS pandemic, Mswati III invoked an ancient chastity rite, asking Swazi maidens to refrain from sex for five years. He then violated his own rule by selecting a 17-year-old as his ninth wife. To show the extent of his regret, he paid the customary fine of one cow.
In 2003, an 18-year-old caught the king's eye, and some of the royal aides fetched the young woman from her school. The teenager's mother was unwilling to part with her daughter in this manner and had the audacity to sue the king in a Swazi court. This dispute ended only when the girl convinced her mother that she was happy to become the king's next bride.
With the ways of the royal family so often misunderstood, the king agreed to cooperate with an American filmmaker on a documentary, perhaps presuming a flattering portrayal. Instead, the movie, "Without the King," directed by Michael Skolnik and released last year, juxtaposed the gilded furnishings of a royal palace with scenes of the Swazi destitute eating animal intestines scavenged from a dump site.
In the film, Mswati III acknowledged the poor: "It's always very sad when you see a lot of them sick about their lives, how difficult it is, how difficult they are coping, looking after their families and so on. And then you see sometimes that you wish to help them but the funds are always not enough."
One of Swaziland's greatest traditions is the annual Reed Dance, when colorfully adorned, bare-breasted young women ? all proclaiming purity as virgins ? parade before the royal family and others. This year's ceremony ? last Monday, in fact ? took place in the Ludzidzini Arena with the Mdzima Mountains as a jagged backdrop and a record 60,000 dancers performing on the grassy field.
It seemed an inspiring display of Swazi pride, and yet there have been critics of the king who consider such festivities a manipulation of culture for political gain. "As people challenge the monarchy, demands increase to show that the king remains popular," said Musa Hlophe, leader of a coalition of civic groups. "Thousands of girls are transported by the government to the Reed Dance as if it were a referendum on the system itself."
In recent years, the ritual has acquired additional excitement, for Mswati III sometimes selects his next queen from the throng of virgins.
Cinsile Maseko, a 13-year-old from a village 50 miles away, did not suppose the choice would be her, but she fantasized anyway about a marital transformation from poverty to plenty, becoming a queen dressed in stylish clothes and traveling the kingdom in a fancy automobile.
She relished the idea for a few seconds and then added one more joyous thought. "You'd be with the king," she said.
More Articles in World » A version of this article appeared in print on September 6, 2008, on page A1 of the New York edition.