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The sad track record of eSwatini’s King Mswati III

eSwatini's King Mswati III attends the opening of the annual Swazi International Trade Fair in Manzini in 2005. File picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/AP

eSwatini's King Mswati III attends the opening of the annual Swazi International Trade Fair in Manzini in 2005. File picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/AP

Published Jul 9, 2021


KING Mswati III set the tone for his reign as king when he ascended the throne in 1986 at the age of 18, and did not continue his father’s active support for the ANC’s liberation struggle.

In 1986, Swaziland was a dangerous place as apartheid death squads were using the country as a hunting ground to murder ANC operatives in the country. The ANC had always been able to rely on the support of Mswati’s father King Sobhuza II. The King used to say that he once told ANC Comrade Moses Mabhida “if ANC cadres cross through Swaziland on the right, I will ask my police to look to the left.”

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After the king’s death in 1982, the Great Swazi Council of State had selected the 14-year-old prince to be the next king. For the next four years, two of the wives of Sobhuza II served as regent while the prince continued his education in the UK.

Mswati attended the Sherborne School before he was called back to ascend the throne at the age of 18, making him the youngest reigning monarch of his time. Armed with a British private school education, Mswati returned to Swaziland with little understanding or commitment to the ANC’s struggle for liberation.

Without the cover that Sobhuza had afforded the ANC operating underground in the country, Mswati’s inexperience and lack of revolutionary solidarity ensured Eugene de Kock’s Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB) and other death squads of the apartheid security apparatus had a free hand to wreak mayhem on the ANC’s political and military machinery.

Ever since this period, Mswati proved himself to be a self-indulgent, extravagant ruler, flaunting his excessive lifestyle while over 65% of his people live on less than US$1.25 a day, and unemployment has soared. In 2009 Forbes listed him as one of the world’s richest royals, reportedly worth $200 million, a figure he has disputed.

The royal budget is not debated in parliament, as the authorities believe such discussions would be seen as challenging the monarch.

In 2014, the Swazi parliament allocated $61 million for the King’s annual household budget. Following criticism of his purchase of luxury cars, including DaimlerChrysler’s flagship Maybach 62 luxury vehicle, he banned photography of his vehicles.

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When Mswati turned 50 years old in 2018, and wore a watch worth $1.6m and a suit beaded with diamonds, a World Bank report estimated that 63% of his subjects lived below the poverty line, and 29% lived below the extreme poverty line.

In 2012 King Mswati made a trip to London to attend Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee which cost Swazi tax payers $794 500. The year prior he attended the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, which cost his subjects $700 000 to hire a private jet to fly him and his party to the UK.

By the end of 2012, Mswati had acquired his first private jet, estimated to cost $17m, and received his second private jet more recently, which according to Swazimedia.blogspot is an A340-300 Airbus, reportedly costing as much as $30m (R432m) after VIP upgrades.

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This extravagant spending came just as the International Monetary Fund criticised Swaziland for diverting money that should have been used on education and health to other spending. As a result of this fruitless expenditure, the IMF withdrew its team that was advising the government on economic recovery.

Given his record since he ascended the throne, such fiscal irresponsibility should hardly have been surprising. What is surprising is that Africa’s last absolute monarch is more entrenched in his position now.

Mswati has ruled with an iron fist, and his security forces have been accused of extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests, detentions and torture. Security agencies allegedly closely monitor personal communications, social media, public gatherings, as well as criticism of the king.

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According to Human Rights Watch, the amendments to the Public Order Act passed three years ago, allow critics of the king or the Swazi government to be prosecuted, and upon conviction to be fined $770, imprisoned for two years, or both for inciting “hatred or contempt” against cultural and traditional heritage.

Repression against the unofficial opposition, trade unionists, the media and civil society groups has been growing in recent years, and exploded over the past week in the wake of pro-democracy street protests. Dozens of protesters died at the hands of security forces who were deployed to crush pro-democracy protests. Police and soldiers used excessive force, including live ammunition to deal with protesters.

The situation continues to spiral out of control, and may evolve into an uprising against a government that is failing to serve its people. Intervention by SADC now is the best hope to move the country in a different direction.

* Ebrahim is Independent Media Group Foreign Editor.