Swaziland’s King Mswati III

MBABANE, Swaziland: Every day, King Mswati III and his retinue of 13 wives face tough choices. Should they drive the BMW or the Rolls-Royce? Which plush palace to sleep in? Jet off to Dubai for a shopping spree or to Las Vegas to play the tables?

Doris, a 35-year-old nurse who lives in the capital of this tiny kingdom, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, faces a different set of choices: do her four children need new school uniforms, or can they be repaired for another term? How much chicken should she put in each night’s dinner, given she can afford only one chicken a week on her pay of about $300 a month?

”I can’t afford beef any more,” said Doris, who did not want to give her surname for fear of reprisals from her bosses. ”I can barely afford beans.”

The seeming double standard of a life of luxury for the king, along with fat pay cheques for his top officials, while the middle class and poor make do with less, has unleashed a torrent of rage. The country’s teachers have been on strike since June. Public servants are also on the picket line, bringing government administration to a standstill. A wave of protest has convulsed this peaceful kingdom, prompting the government to call up prison guards to help the police force counter the unrest.


Last month, Doris and her fellow nurses joined the teachers and the government workers on the picket lines to demand a 4.5 per cent salary increase. The government, fresh from a fiscal crisis brought on by plummeting revenue amid the global slowdown, has pleaded poverty. A new consumption tax of 14 per cent has plumped the treasury but further pinched the wages of ordinary people.

But the government has not practised the austerity it preaches. In 2010, just before the fiscal crisis began, top government officials gave themselves big rises, retirement packages and allowances. The prime minister is entitled to a payout of almost $200,000 when he leaves office. While two-thirds of the population live on $2 a day, the government raised the salaries of MPs to $2400 a month.

Protesters say they have nothing against the monarchy, which is a powerful symbol of Swaziland’s culture. But they argue that the country needs change and that the king’s unchecked power has no place in a modern nation.

”The Prime Minister and his cabinet have clearly failed to deliver services and make the economy work,” said Velaphi Mamba, of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. ”The Swazi people clearly have the right to turn them out of office if they wish. But they cannot, because the only one who has that power is the king.”

Swaziland, with 1.3 million people, is pocketed between South Africa and Mozambique. It won independence from Britain in 1968, when King Mswati’s father, Sobhuza II, took power as a constitutional monarch. But he soon grew tired of opposition parties, so he banned them in 1973 and dissolved parliament. Mswati has styled himself a moderniser, taking fewer wives than his father and in 2005 signing a new constitution. But political parties remain banned, and the king appoints the prime minister and can dissolve parliament at will, making Swaziland an outlier in an increasingly democratic continent.

The government has responded to the protests by clamping down hard. When nurses at the capital’s main government hospital tried to mount a protest march, they were blocked from leaving the hospital by police who threatened them with cudgels and teargas. The nurses, in red coats, danced and sang protest songs in the car park.

Dozens of parents gathered near parliament on a recent afternoon, hoping to present a petition demanding a wage rise for teachers. The police blocked roads to the building.

”This is a government that is not listening to its people,” said the Reverend Zwanini Shabalala. ”It shows there is no democracy, no respect for people’s rights.”

As he spoke, his fellow parents sang and stamped their feet in unison. ”Why are you scared?” they chanted at the politicians, who could neither see nor hear them. ”Your time is coming.”

The New York Times