As Britain counts down the days to the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, there comes a reminder from the tiny kingdom of Swaziland in southern Africa of how not to be a monarch. On Tuesday, Swazi King Mswati III, the last absolute sovereign in Africa, unleashed his security forces on pro-democracy demonstrators. Police fired tear gas and water cannon into a small crowd gathered in Manzini, Swaziland’s largest town, and beat anyone suspected of trying to take part in the protest. Other officers detained activists across the country and turned back those heading to the rally at roadblocks around Manzini. Police spokeswoman, Wendy Hleta, told the Associated Press officials were facing an attempt to overthrow the government. “The situation almost got out of control,” said Hleta. The police “were compelled to shoot tear gas canisters to disperse the crowd.” The protest was called for the 38th anniversary of the day, April 12, when Mswati’s father, King Sobhuza II, declared emergency rule and banned political parties.
The world has tended to regard Mswati’s family as it does any other monarchy: engaging throwbacks to an earlier age of castles and kingdoms. Landlocked, bordered by South Africa and Mozambique and small enough to cross in a few hours, Swaziland is known chiefly for the Reed Ceremony held every August, where hundreds of the kingdom’s virgins dance bare-breasted in front of the King and from whose ranks he can select a bride. So far Mswati III has picked 14.
But the charms of polygamy fade when they rub up against the modern scourge of HIV/AIDS: with 29% of the population infected, Swaziland has the world’s highest rate of the disease. Royal rule also loses its appeal when the King abuses it. Last year, the King outraged Swaziland when his 12th wife was caught having an affair with his justice minister and the King (hardly a model of monogamy himself) locked up the minister.
Mswati has stoked most opposition by repeatedly sending in the heavies to deal with reformers. The calls for change have grown louder since a reworking of the distribution of import duties from the multicountry Southern African Customs Union – Swaziland’s main source of income – cut Swaziland’s share from $741 million share to $281 million. The King announced an austerity program, slashing budgets for government departments by a quarter, laying off thousands, even switching off street lights. When thousands protested last month, Mswati told his people: “It helps no one to go to the streets and cause disruption in times when the country is buckling under the pressure of the economic downturn. We need to work even harder and sacrifice even more today for a better tomorrow.” Again, that sounded a little rich coming from one of the world’s wealthiest monarchs, a man who owns a fleet of BMWs and Rolls Royces, whose many wives enjoy lavish shopping trips abroad and who, at the last count, has 13 palaces. “The storms shall pass for sure,” Mswati confidently predicted. Addressed to a population of 1.4 million 40% of whom are unemployed and 70% of whom live in absolute poverty, that’s probably another misjudgment.