Extravagance of a king

2008-11-17 00:00

Swaziland has been under martial law for 34 years. Political parties have been outlawed since 1973. The country’s absolute monarch, King Mswati III, runs the tiny kingdom like an ancient despot. Opposition leaders are either in prison, driven to exile or clubbed into silence. Earlier this month opposition leaders, including Mario Masuku, the president of the People’s United Democratic Movement, and Thabile Zwane, the general-secretary of the Swaziland Youth Congress, were arrested for merely delivering a petition to the prime minister calling for democratic reform.

In September, the country held parliamentary elections for a 55-seat National Assembly that reports directly to the king, which only the most partisan supporters of the monarch did not dismiss as a sham. Subsequently the king hand-picked a subservient prime minister, Sibusiso Dlamini, who ridiculously claimed that introducing democracy would “destabilise” the country. The king owns all public property, assets and companies and has shares in most of the significant private ones. In August 2008, Forbes Magazine listed Mswati among the 15 richest monarchs in the world.

In the same month, eight wives, children, maids and bodyguards of Mswati chartered a private jet to do shopping in Europe and the Middle East. The extravagant shopping spree, which sparked national outrage, came ahead of an opulent 40-40 national celebration, which cost more then $60 million, to mark Mswati’s 40th birthday and 40 years of independence from Britain. He has built grand palaces for each of his 13 wives. He drives a $500 000 luxury sedan, while his country is mired in debt and poverty. For the occasion of the 40-40 celebrations he bought 20 new BMW luxury cars. Mswati demanded “donations”, including cattle, from the local business and farming community, to fund his jamboree, claiming “since time immemorial” farmers have been “obliged” to set aside a part of their crops for the king. Those who didn’t offer gifts knew that they were likely to have government trade licences revoked.

Swaziland has the world’s highest rate of HIV/Aids, with 40% of the population infected, and has the lowest per capita income in southern Africa, with more than half of the 1,1-million population living below the breadline, a third of whom rely on food aid and 40% of whom are unemployed.

“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,” says Mswati spokesperson Percy Simelane.

During the 40-40 celebrations people took to the streets to register their outrage over the king’s extravagance, calling for the introduction of democracy. Hiv-positive women also took to the streets protesting the lack of availability of treatment.

Jim Gama, the governor of Ludzidzini, the Swazi traditional capital, claimed a march by women was “unSwazi”.

“All I know is that a woman has to get permission from her husband to register her disagreement with whatever is happening in society, but not for her to march,” Gama says. Many of the discriminatory so-called “traditional” ways of doing things are often relatively new. The Swazi king has a special name for his brand of despotic rule. He says it is “traditional African”, calling it the Tinkundla system. Some Western powers appear to find the Tinkundla system exotic. They have said little about the lack of democracy there. It has helped that Mswati has positioned himself as an ally of the United States in its war on terror. He regularly accuses perfectly legitimate critics of “terrorism” before carting them off to jail.

The “Liqogo” committee that advises Mswati has proposed introducing a law that will detain suspected “terrorists”, a euphemism for legitimate critics of the regime, for up to 60 days without trial. Local peers of Mswati, most of them similarly tyrannical, have predictably also said nothing about his excesses.

In the southern African region, Mswati was appointed this year by his peers, which included Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, as chairman of the Southern African Development Community’s (the regional body) powerful secretariat responsible for overseeing politics, defence and security in the region.

In this role, Mswati has astonishingly hosted the failed negotiations to broker a deal between Mugabe, who stole the elections from the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, and the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai.

Swaziland, Lesotho and to a lesser extent Morocco, are the only African countries where a traditional monarch or paramount chief has gained such absolute power over life and death. They fear introducing substantial democratic reforms because they believe it will erode their power.

Traditional systems in Africa can clearly not be wished away. Yet, if traditional institutions are going to survive, they will have to adapt to democratic norms and social change. They will have to be accountable. Citizens must have the ability to get rid of despotic rulers. Strong codes, compelling traditional leaders and monarchs to be accountable, responsive and inclusive, must be introduced in all African countries where traditional systems still exist. Gender equality must be at the heart of any changes in traditional custom, including allowing women to become chiefs or monarchs. African traditional systems have both democratic elements but also autocratic tendencies, such as discrimination against women, which should be done away with.

For African countries to finally establish workable indigenous democracies they will have to discard the elements of traditional systems that curtail liberty, retain the democratic aspects, such as the idea of inclusive debate before decisions, and combine that with the best elements of democratic governance.

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