|Over 70 per cent of Swazis live on less than a dollar a day and 25 per cent are infected with HIV or AIDS – the highest rate in the world [EPA]|
Swaziland – a bewitching, verdant and mountainous little kingdom in southern Africa – has lately been more troubled than usual.
Last week, trade unions and activists banded together to challenge the absolute monarchy here.
King Mswati III has responded to their demands for greater political freedom, less corruption and more transparency in government with despotic crackdowns on their leaders.
The landlocked country of 1.4 million citizens, which is bordered on three sides by South Africa and on the east by Mozambique, gained independence from Great Britain in 1968.
King Mswati III was born four months before independence and inherited the mantle of authority from his father in 1986, eighteen years later.
Today, Swaziland is Africa’s last absolute monarchy. Royal partisans dispute this characterisation; they point out that the King shares power with his mother, according to custom.
The past twenty-four years have seen the King develop a reputation for profligacy, ostentation, corruption, and petty self-indulgence in a country where thirty per cent of the people are unemployed, and seventy per cent subsisting on less than one dollar a day.
Royal birthdays are celebrated in a football stadium, and during every Reed Festival, tens of thousands of young women present themselves to the King in hopes of becoming his next bride.
To date, he has fourteen wives and twenty children.
Mswati’s estimated net worth of $100 million and trusteeship of a $10 billion fund are not quirky informational tidbits like the dollar value of the UK’s Crown Jewels; the King’s wealth has had a tangibly negative impact on the lives of ordinary Swazis.
The World Bank has classified the country as “lower middle income”, which means that Gross National Income per capita is between $996 and $3,945 (the actual number is $2,470).
That designation disqualifies Swaziland from engaging in a variety of foreign aid partnerships. In reality, the King’s enormous fortune acts as a statistical outlier and skews the national average upward. The effect is felt exclusively by the Swazi poor.
Mswati’s absolute power extends to the press as well. When he was famously cuckolded by his own justice minister, he placed his 22-year-old wife under house arrest, imprisoned his former friend and banned media coverage of the story.
Likewise, when a photograph of a new $500,000 car purchased by the King emerged, Mswati banned photography of his vehicles.
Beyond poverty, royal absurdities are nestled in the context of an especially horrifying reality; twenty-five per cent of Swazis are HIV positive or have AIDS – that’s the highest rate in the world.
Far from being sensitive to their plight and an activist on their behalf, Mswati has lobbied for their ostracism. In a parliamentary debate in 2000, he said that HIV-positive people should be “sterilised and branded”.
It is no wonder then that the King is now witnessing the beginnings of a challenge to his power. Those challenges have been propelled by the uprisings in northern Africa and a nation-wide fiscal crisis.
Swaziland relies on the Southern African Customs Union for up to sixty per cent of its funding, and sixty per cent of that revenue has evaporated with the global recession.
The International Monetary Fund has recommended that the country implement austerity measures in order to avoid insolvency.
The Swazi government mandated a ten per cent cut in civil servant salaries while simultaneously approving a larger annual allowance for the King – from $24 million to $30 million in 2011.
In response, protests erupted last week on the 18th of April. Political parties – which are banned here – made use of the occasion to present the Mswati-appointed prime minister a petition calling for the resignation of the government.
The government responded by arresting prominent leaders and ejecting journalists from the country. Those moves succeeded in stymieing the protests for now, but opposition groups are planning renewed protests in May.
Swaziland is a country with abundant natural resources and a youthful population, thirty-eight per cent of whom are under the age of 14 (although life expectancy is only a shocking 46 years).
It faces many serious challenges, perhaps the most dire of which are poverty and HIV/AIDS infection rates. The country’s progress and ability to tackle its problems are being hampered, however, by a rapacious King.
If Swaziland is to prosper, Swazis must rid themselves of the parasitic elements of the monarchy – something they’ve already undertaken to do.
As in the rest of Africa and the Middle East, autocratic rule is being challenged by young people clamouring for opportunity and self-governance.
The King may or may not be listening to their voices, but they don’t appear to be willing to wait.
Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American freelance journalist based in Cairo.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.