Why you should care
Size doesn’t matter when it comes to authoritarian regimes.
A fleet of luxury cars, a dozen mansions and 15 wives. Mswati III has a lifestyle that would make hip-hop stars blush. Oh, and he’s also the absolute king of his own country. And while he may look the epitome of African kingliness — with his colorful Swazi dress and British boarding school manners — the “Lion” is a ruthless ruler. No interest in democracy here, and no patience for dissent.
Countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa are marching toward democracy, and while the road is often rocky, it’s fair to say that Mswati’s Swaziland hasn’t even started on the path. It’s the last absolute monarchy on the continent, and Mswati its last ruling king. The short and sturdy 46-year-old has ruled since he was 18; his father had banned all political parties a decade earlier. That was a nice legacy. It gave the boy the chance to rule with an iron fist and enjoy a cartoonishly extravagant lifestyle that Swazis don’t usually criticize. Many are too poor to agitate, and those that do are quashed.
Little-Known Dictators: The first in a series of three profiles.
To be sure, Mswati has managed to protect the tiny nation’s peaceful autonomy and idiosyncratic customs, which otherwise might have been watered down by neighboring South Africa or other foreign influences. Mswati has preserved a traditional chief system that Swazis respect, says Chris Vandome of the Africa program at U.K.-based Chatham House. “Swazis have a very strong cultural identity, and he’s helped preserve it.”
And there are elections. It’s just that Mswati decides the outcome. (Truthfully, he doesn’t need to all that often, because the opposition can’t contest.) There are no trade unions. Members of the main opposition group, the “People’s United Democratic Movement,” are regularly arrested, peaceful demonstrators beaten up and journalists sent to jail.
The king, who did not respond to numerous interview requests, seems a real-life caricature of a despot. He buys luxury cars worth 61 years of Swazi wages, takes trips to Las Vegas on private jets and picks a new virgin wife every couple of years. Polygamy is legal in Swaziland, but his love life seems more like a Mexican telenovela. His sixth wife fled to South Africa, alleging years of domestic abuse, and the 12th was forced out of her palace after she was caught cheating on him with the country’s justice minister. Many of his subjects live grim lives: Swaziland is the seventh-hungriest country in the world, 63 percent of its citizens live below the poverty line and more than 1 in 4 adults (aged 15–49) have HIV/AIDS.
How does Mswati get away with all this? Political quiescence, for starters: Especially in the countryside, most Swazis are too busy trying to feed their families to start a revolution. “The majority aren’t screaming for democracy because they are not educated,” says Nhlanhla Msibi, the Swazi author of The Delayed Revolution: Swaziland in the Twenty-First Century. HIV has wiped out “muscle,” too, he says: “There’s [sic] only young orphans or old people.” But in the cities, a democratic movement is challenging Mswati’s rule. “It’s a rotten, pathetic, undemocratic and corrupt system,” says Philani Ndebele of the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, a coalition of organizations demanding multiparty democracy in the country.
For Western nations that promote democracy abroad, Swaziland lacks geopolitical significance. While there are some exceptions — South Africa rescinded $207 million after Mswati refused to make basic political reforms, and the United States booted Swaziland from the African Growth and Opportunity Act over human rights concerns — few countries care much about that small patch of green next to South Africa. “The problem is that Swaziland is not Zimbabwe. There is no extreme humanitarian crisis and it has no oil or interesting natural resources,” says Vandome.
What it does have is sugar — the country’s main export — but it can’t compete much with producers like Brazil. Mswati hasn’t done much to diversify the agricultural industry. Budget cuts have become so severe that teachers are not getting paid and schools can’t open their doors, yet Swaziland spent about $478 million over the past four years on defense, and the king’s annual household budget is $61 million. “If things continue like this, the country will soon be depending on humanitarian aid and eventually collapse into a failed state,” warns Msibi.
As the country’s economy sinks — GDP growth is negative and unemployment is at nearly 23 percent — public disaffection is on the rise. Several mass protests have taken place since 2011. There’s even a @SwaziLeaks Twitter account to expose the king’s lavish lifestyle. Though opposition movements are ridden by internal strife, and the media are muzzled, some believe change is just around the corner. “Transformation is inevitable,” says Ndebele, citing the Arab Spring. “No matter how despotic, brutal and indifferent a regime is, it can be toppled.”
Indeed, reform is not impossible. Lesotho, southern Africa’s other small, landlocked kingdom, is now a stable constitutional monarchy after years of political chaos. Mswati’s critics may have cause for hope. But Msibi says hope is the problem: “Swazis are too optimistic for their own good. He will never change.”