Hall of infamy: King Mswati III
JOB: The King of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland)
REPUTATION: Spoiled autocrat and Africa’s only absolute monarch
It must be kind of fun being the king of all you survey. Not just the title but the real deal monarch able to marry whoever your little heart desires, buy whatever fancy car you like, or build whatever new edifices that royal prestige demands. This is the case with King Mswati.
And, if your subjects prove difficult or critical, there are always the most recent in repressive technologies to be deployed by your constabulary (the Swaziland Royal Police) to keep them in good order.
Mswati is a royal sort of prodigy – he gained the throne at 18, making him the world’s youngest monarch at the time. This was after a period of four years trusteeship by two of his aunts, after the death of his father Sobhuza II (who had up to 125 wives during his reign of 82 years) when Mswati was just 14. When he turned 18 he was called back from his public school in the UK so he could ascend the throne, on 26 April 1986.
And hasn’t he had a good time? He is an absolute ruler in the sense that he gets to appoint Eswatini’s Prime Minister and other top government and traditional posts. But like many feudal monarchs (think of that delightful Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman), Mswati has reinstated Eswatini’s toothless parliament (shuttered by his father) but intervened more in the life of his subjects, banning such sins as miniskirts and divorce.
The pervasive influence of Christian fundamentalism hasn’t stopped Mswati from having 15 wives and 36 children. One was a high school girl who disappeared without her mother’s knowledge and another, a 17-year-old, made a ‘royal fiancée’, despite Mswati’s ban from 2001 to 2005 on girls under 18 having sex, in a bid to curtail HIV rates.
The poor king fined himself a cow for this violation.
Of course there is no shortage of naysayers who complain about massive inequalities – but it’s all a question of maintaining a decent royal lifestyle. Mswati’s fleet of 19 Rolls Royces and 120 BMWs might have cost some 19 million dollars – but who’s counting? (Some 59 per cent of the Eswatini population live in poverty, with about 29 per cent below the extreme poverty line. In 2019, inequality was very high with a Gini coefficient of 0.51).
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to discourage grumblers – Mswati banned photography of his automobiles after being criticized for owning luxuries such as a $500,000 Daimler Chrysler Maybach 62.
Allowing no independent media and no legal political parties makes for a good start in preventing unseemly outbursts of democratic discord. Freedom of speech, assembly and association are after all privileges – not rights – under divine kingship. But sadly, sometimes more extreme measures are necessary.
Back in 2021, when the students and others were out of hand, it was necessary for the ‘terrorists’ and ‘vandals’ to be dealt with harshly – Amnesty International put the death toll at over 80. Tough love needs to be dealt out also to critics such as Thulani Maseko, a well-known Swazi human rights lawyer, gunned down in front of his family this January by unknown gunmen. Mswati reportedly said in an address the previous day that those calling for democratic reforms would be ‘dealt with’.
But it is best that such acts be accomplished anonymously, avoiding unwelcome publicity. A wide range of troublemakers needs to be monitored and kept in line. These include the LGBT community, union leaders, and activists against child labour, among other groups. Compliant courts can be counted on generally to ignore the occasional official (and entirely justified) abuse of power.
LOW CUNNING: Mswati and the royal regime have found it advantageous to peddle themselves as the Switzerland of Africa – an island of stability in a sea of continental chaos. The royal system is contrasted to the crime and violence that democracy in neighbouring South Africa is said to generate. The promise of stable autocracy has proved a successful lure for foreign businesses (whose only concern is the ‘right’ to turn a profit) whose investments have increased tenfold over the last two decades. But as resistance grows, Mswati’s ‘stability’ teeters on a knife edge.
SENSE OF HUMOUR: Decidedly whimsical. Mswati woke up on his 50th birthday (April 2018) and without notice, without informing parliament, without debate, decided to change the name of the country from Swaziland. The name Eswatini invokes (at least in the King’s mind) a pre-modern monarchical state of bliss.
Sources: The New York Times; The Mail and Guardian; The Conversation; The Harvard Political Review; US State Department; Al Jazeera.