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By Peter Kenworthy, Communications- and Project Officer
Swaziland is an absolute monarchy run by King Mswati III, who has the authority to appoint the Prime Minister, members of parliament, and the judiciary, and according to the constitution he also has the final say in executive, legislative, and judicial matters. Regardless of the increasing brutality of the Swazi regime, the King is also to a large degree still popular throughout Swazi society, at least symbolically if not in person, and no political party openly declares that it wishes Swaziland to become a republic.
Many see the King as a figure and symbol of cultural significance, binding together the Swazi nation. Cultural events such as the Reed Dance, however, are also good examples of how the monarchy and the King use culture to retain absolute power. “The Reed Dance is not a neutral cultural event”, says Wandile Dludlu, president of SWAYOCO. “The King uses it to show other heads of state and the people of Swaziland that many are behind the King”, and numbers attending the Reed Dance and other culturally significant events are thus consistently overrated by the regime. Taking the attendance of the Reed Dance to equal support for the King is a deliberate misinterpretation, however, as people attend these cultural events regardless of how they feel about the monarch, both because it is seen as a culturally significant event and because they are more or less forced to do so. “This is because culture and politics are intermingled in Swaziland”, says Mduduzi Gina, Secretary-general of SFTU. “If you do not participate in the Reed Dance you will e.g. not receive a scholarship for tertiary education. The approval of such scholarship rests with the chiefs [and thus ultimately with the King] and upon participation in traditional events such as the Reed Dance”.
The reason for the alleged popularity of the King is therefore not necessarily that people respect the King, as they did his father Sobhuza II, but that they fear the power he can weld. “The recent sex-scandal shows that even his closest friend, the Minister of Justice [who was revealed to be having an affair with the King’s wife number 12], doesn’t respect him. The King does not have the respect that his father commanded. The King is very powerful and many people depend on this power. He is for instance the largest employer in Swaziland”, says Wandile Dludlu. “But the King’s advisors seem to be pulling the strings of the King. He is not a good speaker as his father was. The speeches of the King are not printed in the newspapers, as is customary in other African countries and this is probably to hide the fact that he is not all that bright”. People near the King are manipulating him to serve their own purposes, and the King is becoming increasingly paranoid, even of his closest advisors and friends. “Too many people around the King have too much to loose if any change occurs. The King is scared, especially after the 2008 bombings. The King also is having a hard time trusting anyone after his best friend betrayed him. The government just do what they are told – they are a bunch of clowns and are probably selected because of this”, says The Nation editor Bheki Makhubu. He has met with the King and those near him on several occasions and believes that the King is tiring of the difficulties of being a politician as well as a King. “I believe that the King is removing himself from politics and is content to live out his life in extreme luxury without worrying about the poor, and I think he doesn’t really care what his people think of this”.
This article is based on meetings with the following people between 1. and 5. September 2010: Wandile Dludlu, SWAYOCO president; Bheki Makhubu, The Nation editor; and Mduduzi Gina, SFTU secretary-general.