Mswati III, King of Swaziland

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Mswati III, King of Swaziland



King Mswati III is one of the last absolute monarchs in the world, and the last in Africa. He rules over Swaziland, the second smallest country on the continent with a population of just over one million. The kingdom has the world's highest prevalence of HIV and AIDS with 40 percent of the population suffering from the disease. Despite the plight of the country's population, the King often gains the attention of the international press when choosing a new wife, notably when in 2004 he chose sixteen-year-old Miss Teenage Swaziland, rather than acting in the best interest of his people.

The youngest of King Sobhuza II's three hundred or so children, Mswati III was born on April 19, 1968, to one of the king's younger queens, Ntombi Tfwala, and named Prince Makhosetive, meaning "king of all nations." Almost a year before his birth to the day, the flag of Swaziland had been raised and preparations were being made for the country's independence, which was finally declared a few months after the prince's birth on September 6, 1968, and it was for this reason that he was named Makhosetive.

The Story of a Prince

The prince grew up at the Etjeni royal residence where the sister of his mother acted as his nanny. According to a biography produced by the Swaziland National Publishing Company to inform the nation about their king, the young prince, at the tender age of four, persuaded his father's aide to allow him to join the Royal Swaziland Police and Royal Palace Guard, and a year later the Defence Force, where he apparently took his military training very seriously. The prince received his primary education at Masundvwini Royal School, established by his father to teach the royal guards, and his secondary education at Lozitha Palace School established in 1979 to educate the royal children and the younger of the King's sixty queens. He excelled at sibhaca, a traditional Swazi dance, and organized a sibhaca dance team that competed at various occasions and festivals including at the University of Swaziland. In 1982, the prince completed his Swaziland Primary Certificate Examination with a merit in Mathematics and English before leaving to boarding school in Sherbourne, in the South of the United Kingdom where he studied English, mathematics, business studies, geography, physical science, and economics.

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. 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 studying abroad 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.

At the age of 18, the prince was flown back to Swaziland and crowned King Mswati III after a famous warrior king on April 25, 1986. 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.

Holding onto Power

Though Swaziland is most commonly depicted as an absolute monarchy, it is perhaps more accurately described as a modified traditional monarchy with executive, legislative, and limited judicial powers vested ultimately in the king. The judiciary is generally independent, but a dual legal system—one with a basis in Western law, and the other based on uncodified traditional law and custom—means that Mswati III is able to circumvent the regular judiciary. In 2002, judges of the Court of Appeal and High Court resigned in protest at attempts on the part of the monarchy to undermine their decisions by royal decree, and it was another two years until the appeal judges resumed their work, thereby bringing an end to the rule of law crisis. The parliament is partially elected and legislation which it passes is dependent upon the assent of the king to become law. When the parliament is not in session, Mswati III can rule by royal decree.

Mswati III's rule can be characterized as a struggle to hold onto power, for not only has the king had to contend with factional conflict within the royal ruling alliance, but he has also had to face challenges from beyond that alliance. The campaign for democracy encompasses broad societal interests, from labour to business, and there are two opposition parties, one Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC) which stood against Sobhuza in the country's first elections and headed by Obed Dlamini a former prime minister, and the other the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) established in 1983 out of protests against government human rights violations. While there is consensus amongst these two illegal parties on the need for change, they are divided on the best means to achieve this. The NNLC has opted to work with the government, and PUDEMO, by contrast has chosen to work underground. The labor movement in particular, with the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions taking center-stage, has been instrumental in the campaign to convince Mswati III of the need for constitutional reform. In 1994 it called for strikes and stoppages and presented to the government twenty-seven demands, which covered issues not only pertaining to labor, but also human rights, the economy, freedom of the press, and gender. The Swaziland Democratic Alliance (SDA)—a coalition of diverse groups encompassing trade unions, students, religious groups and human rights organizations, united by the belief that reform is a necessity—was formed in 1999 and its Mpumalanga Declaration issued in the same year called for, amongst other things, a repeal of Sobhuza II's 1973 decree which put an end to Swaziland's constitution and banned all political parties including the king's own. The 1990s saw a number of strikes, stoppages, demonstrations, and even fire-bombings of government buildings, intended to build the pressure on Mswati III for reform.

At a Glance …

Born Prince Makhosetive on April 19, 1968, Swaziland; married 13 wives; children: 24. Religion: Christian.

Career: King of Swaziland, 1986–

Addresses: Office—Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PO Box 518, Mbabane, Swaziland.

Mswati III has responded by convening a series of commissions to make recommendations for the country's future. The Mahlalenganemi Commission, established in 1992, proposed a written constitution, paving the way for a further commission, the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) established in 1996 to draft a constitution for the country that had been without one since 1973. Though all the commissions were subject to criticism for being unrepresentative, for employing an exclusionary process when it came to soliciting opinions, and for failing to engage with the public, the criticisms directed at the CRC were particularly forceful, and a number of members resigned. It was meant to submit a final report after two years, but that date was postponed a number of times, and it did not issue a report until 2001, declaring that the Swazi people were satisfied with the status quo and did not want a multiparty system. The following year the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) was established, and in 2004 the High Court threw out a case brought by the SDA contending that the drafting process was undemocratic and manipulated by royalists.

While the king's brother and minister of justice and constitutional affairs, Prince David Dlamini, described the new constitution, issued in 2005, as a document that "will light up the path to transform Swaziland to a better country," quoted by the International Crisis Group, pro-reform groups were less sanguine, arguing that it made only token gestures to democracy and further cemented the king's hold on power. Although the constitution removed the king's freedom to rule by decree, he retained ultimate authority over parliament, and while it granted freedom of assembly and association, the legal status of political parties remained uncertain.

No Stranger to Controversy

Continuing in the footsteps of his father before him, Mswati III has a number of wives, chosen usually at the annual reed dance. The king's marital affairs, though traditional, have not made him a stranger to controversy. Most notable has been Mswati III's failure to comply with his own law on chastity in order to marry his eighth wife and the alleged kidnapping of his tenth wife. As a response to the escalating AIDS crisis the king revived a traditional law on chastity in 2001 banning girls from having sex until the age of 21 and stipulating that they should wear tassels indicating their virgin status. Any man who contravened the chastity rule would be fined one cow or the equivalent of $152. In the face of demonstrations held by women outside the royal palace when Mswati III chose as his eighth wife an under-age girl, just weeks after invoking this traditional law, the king fined himself a cow and proceeded with his choice. The law was meant to be in place for five years but was revoked one year early to face a mixed response from the Swazi population.

When eighteen-year-old Zena Soraya Mahlangu was selected as Mswati III's next wife in 2002, her mother accused the king of abduction under common law. The case was unprecedented, as never before had the family of a prospective Swazi queen taken legal action against the king. Royal representatives maintained that the matter fell under the jurisdiction of tradition, and the case is thus illustrative of the way in which the king invokes tradition to legitimate his use of power. According to tradition, however, she should not have been eligible to marry the king because she has a twin brother and because of her lineage could not be taken without familial consent—which was not forthcoming. Her mother eventually agreed to indefinitely postpone the case, arguing that she would continue with it subject to the level of treatment her daughter received as the king's wife.

In a country where a staggering 40 percent of the population are afflicted by the AIDS epidemic, a quarter of the population are dependent upon food aid, and where the health budget is about $15 million, the king's lavish spending has been the target of harsh criticism both at home and abroad. In 2002 his parliament voted by 25 to 16 to refuse him permission to purchase a $50 million luxury plane, and on this occasion Mswati III said that the final decision would lie with parliament. In 2004 he sought to build a palace for each of his wives, and a year later bought a BMW for each of them.

Swaziland is one of the countries most severely affected by the AIDS epidemic sweeping across Africa. Life expectancy has plummeted from 54 in 1990 to 35 in 2004, and over one in ten households are headed by children. The king, however, was slow to respond, and it was not until 2004 that he declared a national emergency. The establishment of a National Emergency Response Council on HIV/AIDS (NERCHA), funded by government and international aid, to coordinate the government's response to the disease was widely hailed as a step in the right direction—especially in light of the king's earlier lack of understanding demonstrated by his invocation of a traditional chastity law. The king's commitment continues to be questioned nevertheless; in 2005, for example, the international press reported that instead of attending AIDS day events he was engaged with royal functions.

The pro-reform movement does not call for an end to the monarchy, but for a clear demarcation of the king's powers and responsibilities. Mswati III's reluctance to cede any control and his abuse of his position serves only to frustrate that movement. Only time will tell whether Mswati III's tenacious grip on power will ultimately spell his downfall.



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