March 19, 2011

Swaziland Dissent - What Would King Sobhuza II Do?

Swaziland: Government Coffers Are Running Dry, UN-IRIN Report, May 16, 2011
A King At Bay:  Africa's Last Absolute Monarchy May Be Falling Apart, The Economist, July 30, 2011

I lived and worked in the Kingdom of Swaziland, Southern Africa for three years in the early 1980s.  King Sobhuza II, who became Ngwenyama and ascended to the Swazi throne in 1921, was still king in 1980 when I arrived to teach science in a rural government high school.  This was a wonderful experience that greatly changed my life and for which I remain sincerely grateful.

King Sobhuza II (1899-1982)

I attended Sobhuza II's Diamond Jubilee in late 1981 at Somhlolo Stadium and joined all Swazis in mourning following his death on August 21, 1982.  Sobhuza II was a charismatic, beloved leader of his people and led them most ably through most of the 20th Century - the World Depression of the 1930s, World War II, and finally to independence from Britain in 1968.

His greatest strength was his personal leadership and the path of national development he set for Swaziland - adopt the best practices from the modern, Western world and retain the best of Swazi traditions and culture.  He took his stewardship of the nation, its people and Swazi culture seriously.  One result of this was his 1973 repeal of the constitution, dissolving of parliament and assumption of absolute power claiming that the balance between outside influences and Swazi traditions had tipped too far toward Westernization.  A new parliament was convened in 1979.

Sobhuza was educated at a top school in South Africa and embraced his royal duties and responsibilities heartily.  He was fond of speaking in parables and using everyday speech when addressing the Swazi Nation, and often addressed his people in a fatherly manner on radio on a wide range of social and cultural matters.

Sobhuza would occasionally summon the "men of the nation" to his royal residence at Lobamba, and sit with themin one of his huge cattle kraals, and counsel them on contemporary national matters he was most concerned about.  On the one occasion I was privileged to attend at the invitation of my Swazi teacher colleagues, we sat for hours one afternoon in the royal  kraal awaiting his arrival.  Heavy thunder clouds blew in above us through the Ezulwini Valley, the "Valley of Heaven".  The mountain peaks known as Shiba's Breasts could be seen from where we sat.

His Majesty finally appeared through a small opening with a small entourage of councilors.  He wore traditional royal attire - red feathers in his hair, leopard skin about his waist, his chest bare.  He sat on the ground, his back against the kraal's wooden poles and talked for an hour as we watched the clouds thicken and rumble threateningly above.  Then as suddenly as he had appeared he exited the way he came, accompanied by a thundering standing salute from all of us, Bayethe!!!  In the very next instant a downpour began, once again confirming his widely reputed ability to make rain and adding to his mystique and power among his people.  My colleagues and I smiled at each other in amazement as the warm rain poured down.

Sobhuza II's successor, his son, King Mswati III, became Ngwenyama in 1986.  Mswati III's mother, Queen Ntfombi, was not Sobhuza's choice to serve as his queen regent.  His choice among his wives was one of his favorites, the kindly, modest Dzeliwe.  Initially the "Authorized Person" and the Liqoqo complied with Sobhuza's wishes and assented to Dzeliwe as regent.  However, much to the surprise of many Swazis, they very soon replaced her with a younger wife, Ntombi.  Thus, it was Ntombi's son, who became Mswati III at his coronation, not one of Dzeliwe's sons who became king.

Mswati III has ruled for the past twenty-five years.  He has not been without his critics and the latest protests of government workers and calls for democracy are not the first he has faced.  The question is, will King Mswati III be able to continue to hold the kingdom together as his father established it - one foot in the traditional past, the other in the modern world?  Sobhuza II was successful in large part due to his personality and the endearment he generated from his people.

King Mswati III lacks the personality of and affection given to Sobhuza II.  He may, at the urging of the powerful and wealthy members of his inner council, the liqoqo, seek other more forceful means to maintain royal rule and privilege in a world increasingly hungry for democracy.  Hopefully, His Majesty will consent to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy instead, thereby allowing Swaziland to retain the best from its social and cultural past and allow in the best of the modern, political present - democracy.

Recent news on labor and political dissent in the Kingdom:

Swaziland: Protest at pay freeze while king celebrates
Swaziland: Thousands Rally in Mbabane

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the article and for your service to our country.However please do note that Dzeliwe was already a reigning Queen when the King passed on and that Queen mother Ntombi was only apointed soon after that period as Swazi custom dictates. It was only in the manner she was usherd in that was deemed not right and that was a result of the infighting within the royal family.


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