LOBAMBA, Swaziland—It's fast approaching dusk at the Ludzidzini Royal Compound when King Mswati III makes his long-awaited entrance.
For hours, the royal stadium has been a spectacle of song and dance, as thousands of young women and girls from across the Kingdom of Swaziland, dressed in beaded skirts and colorful sashes that expose their thighs and breasts, performed for the guests assembled.
It is the last Sunday in August, the penultimate day of Swaziland's week-long Umhlanga ceremony, or Reed Dance, an annual event in which girls from the age of five to their early twenties—known as maidens—gather at the Swazi royal residence in Lobamba in an expression of tradition, chastity, and independence.
Although the show begins long before Mswati's arrival, the crescendo is reserved for the polygamous 46-year-old monarch, who descends from his seat in the luxury box with a regiment of bare-chested men, all dressed in patterned skirts, beaded sashes, and leopard-skin loincloths.
Soon, the king and his entourage are jogging through the lines of teenage subjects, occasionally pausing for the balding, soft-around-the-edges monarch to bow. Eventually, after weaving through all the maidens—while keeping an eye out for would-be wives for the king—the group returns to a red carpet at the edge of the grandstand, where Mswati, wearing a diamond-studded watch and carrying a gold scepter, poses in the twilight.
"This land is for the king," the maidens shout in Siswati, the national language. "And people must not distribute it without his consent."
In Africa's last absolute monarchy—a Connecticut-size kingdom sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique—where 60 percent of the land is effectively owned by the king, the song is no exaggeration. Under Swaziland's dual land tenure system, roughly 70 percent of its 1.2 million citizens live on plots that are held in trust by the king, who imposes his authority through a network of local chiefs with the power to evict their tenants without recourse.
Essentially a form of 21st-century feudalism, the system is one of several vehicles that critics say have enabled Mswati to accumulate a striking amount of wealth at the expense of the Swazi population. Lacking title deeds, Swazi peasant farmers are commonly displaced to make way for royal family investments, and the majority are prevented from investing in basic agricultural improvements—one reason that roughly two-thirds of Swazis, according to U.N. data, are unable to meet their basic food requirements.
Combined with a 43 percent rate of chronic poverty, a life expectancy at birth of just 54 years, and an HIV prevalence of 26 percent—the world's highest rate—Swaziland's problem of hunger sits in glaring contrast to Mswati's playboy lifestyle. With 15 wives, 13 royal palaces, fleets of top-of-the-line Mercedes and BMWs, and a $17 million private jet known to turn up in London, Las Vegas, and Dubai, Mswati, though the leader of one of Africa's smallest countries, spends as lavishly as any head of state on the continent.
Despite this embrace of Western consumerism, Mswati and the monarchy he heads are still upheld by many Swazis and foreign visitors as links to a bygone era, before Africa was carved up into colonies and, later, nation-states, with the continent's kings relegated to ceremonial figures. Many in the country remain proud to be ruled by a monarch, but there are signs that tolerance for Mswati's excesses may be waning.
Although tourists attending the Reed Dance wouldn't guess it, urban and rural Swazis complain that the king is increasingly out of touch with his subjects, and a growing network of pro-democracy activists warn that Mswati's resistance to change will not succeed for much longer. With the country set to lose thousands of jobs when its removal from a preferential trade agreement with the United States takes effect at the end of the year, analysts foresee a coming economic crisis that could easily result in widespread civil unrest.
For now, though, Mswati has a stadium full of bare-breasted teenagers to relish.
A Monarchy Intact
The Kingdom of Swaziland dates its origins to the mid-18th century, when a powerful Bantu-speaking clan inside present-day Mozambique began to conquer rivals to the west. During the second half of the 19th century, however, the kingdom was caught in a regional power struggle between the British and Transvaal Afrikaners. Eventually, after Britain's 1902 victory in the Anglo-Boer War, a much diminished Swaziland emerged as a British protectorate.
Britain did not include the kingdom—or fellow protectorates Lesotho and Botswana—in its 1909 act of Parliament that established the self-governing Union of South Africa, and the British would rule Swaziland indirectly for the next 60 years through a Pretoria-based high commissioner.
With little interference from colonial officials, the monarchy maintained an active presence in Swazi life, and King Sobhuza II, who had ascended the throne in 1921, emerged as a widely admired leader when Britain granted the kingdom its independence in 1968.
Under Swaziland's new British-style constitution, though, which established a multiparty parliamentary democracy, Sobhuza felt his power under threat. In 1973, in an act derided by critics as a coup, he issued a proclamation that revoked the constitution, outlawed political parties, exempted the monarchy from legal accountability, and granted himself supreme authority over the executive, judicial, and legislative arms of government.
Today, despite evidence that Sobhuza's proclamation was enacted at the advice of the apartheid government in South Africa—which feared a democratic Swaziland could be used as a base for the outlawed African National Congress—it remains celebrated by many Swazis as a victory of tradition over the legacy of colonial arrogance.
"Our king was made a little nincompoop in the British eyes," says Walter Bennett, a prominent businessman and former Swazi senator, noting that the 1968 constitution was forced on a Swazi people who had no tradition of—and were not prepared for—multiparty politics.
"Thank goodness [the constitution] showed its incompatibility with the Swazi way of life," he tells me from his office in Mbabane, the country's administrative capital. "Now we are with our king. And they call us Africa's last absolute monarchy? Call it whatever. It makes us tick."
The Money-Loving Son
If Mswati were a bit more like his father, it is possible Sobhuza's removal of democracy might have different legacy. Although the former monarch, who ruled until his death in 1982, accumulated as many as 70 wives, he was regarded as a man of the people and eschewed a lavish urban lifestyle. Under Sobhuza's post-independence leadership, Swaziland was an island of stability between a war-torn Mozambique and the crumbling system of apartheid in South Africa, and its economy hummed along thanks to significant foreign investment, including Coca-Cola's largest manufacturing plant in Africa.
Today, with an economy built on industrial sugar and revenue from the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), Swaziland is classified by the World Bank as a lower-middle-income country, with a per capita GDP, calculated on the basis of purchasing power parity of $6,220, that is the ninth highest in sub-Saharan Africa.
Critics contend that such figures mask an economy defined by a searing inequality that is distorted by the royal family's dominance. Besides holding 60 percent of the country's land, Mswati has direct control over Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, a national investment fund with stakes in minerals, real estate, breweries, insurance, and agriculture—including more than half the Swazi sugar industry—and assets worth an estimated $2 billion.
King Sobhuza declared that the fund would be a vehicle for national development, but P. Q. Magagula, a professor of political science at the University of Swaziland, says Mswati has tapped it for royal expenditures and divested parts of it to use for personal investments, including a 10 percent stake in Swaziland's only telecom provider, MTN.
This behavior, Magagula says, has undermined the Swazi economy by stifling investment in industries such as telecoms, in which the king has private interests, while fueling a personal accumulation of wealth that Forbes estimated in 2009 to be $100 million.
Though arguably small by the standards of a monarch (the king of Thailand topped Forbes's most recent list of the world's richest royals, with a net worth of $30 billion), this figure does not include the assets of Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, other opaque family trusts, or the taxpayer-funded $34 million annual royal budget. Although the Swazi treasury, faced with a sharp drop in SACU revenue, nearly went bankrupt in 2011, Mswati has since acquired a luxury MD-87 jet; funded a hundred-plus royal entourage on a multimillion-dollar tour of the Asia-Pacific region; and constructed, in the face of industry objections, a $280 million airport in Swaziland's remote northeast, widely considered to be a vanity project.
"He is really filthy rich," says Wandile Dludlu, coordinator of the United Democratic Front, a coalition of pro-democracy groups. "We always laugh when the South Africans complain that Jacob Zuma has built himself a $23 million palace," he adds, referring to an ongoing controversy over publicly funded renovations to the home of the South African president. "Our king has 13! They must come to Swaziland to see what it really means for a leader to live a lavish lifestyle."
For Dludlu and other activists, speaking out against the king can be dangerous business.
On the day we meet for coffee in Manzini, Swaziland's largest city, Dludlu is worried about his imprisoned colleague Mario Masuku, president of the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), the country's largest opposition group, whose health is said to be deteriorating. Arrested in May on charges of terrorism after delivering a speech critical of Mswati, Masuku is one of several high-profile Swazi political prisoners, a list that includes a prominent newspaper editor and a human rights lawyer who were recently convicted for contempt of court after publishing articles critical of Swaziland's chief justice.
Dludlu, who says he's been arrested and tortured several times, tells me that freedom of expression in Swaziland is "getting worse by the day." It's a sentiment echoed in a recent open letter to King Mswati signed by South African Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu and more than 50 civil society and human rights groups. The letter draws attention to a "deterioration of the rule of law" and "abuses of judicial independence and media freedom" and argues that the "absence of a democratic system of governance and rampant abuse of state resources are combining to cement the subjugation of the Swazi people."
According to Dludlu, the king's growing crackdown on dissent is a sign that Mswati may feel vulnerable.
"His Majesty is quite afraid of change and cannot deal with a Swaziland where he does not wield the power that he wields," he says. "Democracy is a threat to [the royal family] because they will no longer have this unlimited power, which gives them unlimited access to state resources. Basically under the status quo they are semi-God."
The Royal Accident
When trying to understand Mswati's behavior, the period of transition that followed his father's death is not a bad place to start. Under Swazi custom, kings do not appoint their successors; instead, a queen mother, selected from among the king's senior wives, assumes the role of regent upon her husband's death until a new king, often a young child, is chosen and groomed by the Liqoqo, the royal council of advisers.
When Sobhuza died in 1982, his most senior wife, Queen Dzeliwe, assumed the regency, though in a break with tradition the Liqoqo soon had her dismissed, feeling threatened by a probe into corruption and a series of attempted reforms that had been initiated by Dzeliwe's prime minister. In her place the Liqoqo appointed Queen Ntfombi Tfwala, the mother of one of Sobhuza's younger sons, the 15-year-old Prince Makhosetive, who was summoned from boarding school in England and introduced as Swaziland's king-in-waiting. In April 1986, upon reaching his 18th birthday, Makhosetive was crowned King Mswati III.
Although treated today as blasphemy, it's an open secret inside Swaziland that Ntfombi, who continues to hold the powerful post of queen mother, was never married to Sobhuza during his reign. She was a teenage maid in the house of one of his favorite wives, and was banished from the royal household when she became pregnant in 1967—a scenario recounted by Swazi elders to the civil liberties watchdog Freedom House and corroborated to me by multiple sources inside and outside of Swaziland. Sixteen years later, seeking to replace Queen Dzeliwe with a successor they could control, the Liqoqo found Ntfombi in a working-class Manzini neighborhood. In a highly usual ceremony, they staged a marriage between Ntfombi and Sobhuza's corpse and installed her as a ruling figurehead until Mswati's coronation.
Today, the consequences of this bizarre sequence of events are many. Never intended to be king, Mswati was not properly prepared for the role of monarch, says Mandla Hlatshwayo, who dealt routinely with Mswati as the president of Swaziland's chamber of commerce and is now a prominent critic-in-exile. Unlike Sobhuza, who was groomed for the position from birth, Mswati was raised with "no expectation that he could be anything," Hlatshwayo tells me via telephone from South Africa. Despite being sent by the royal family to a boarding school in England, Hlatshwayo says, he never developed crucial skills of diplomacy or proper respect for Swazi traditions.
Owing his position to others, moreover, Mswati assumed the kingship with the understanding he would need to please his many senior princes—a situation critics say has facilitated high-level corruption, stretched the palace budget, and resulted in cabinets filled to an unprecedented level with members of the royal family. This concentration of royal power, says Sipho Gumedze, a Manzini-based human rights lawyer, has also diminished the influence of local chiefs, who live among the masses and are therefore better positioned to advocate for the needs of average Swazis.
"When you have a chief that comes from a hard-hit area who will be honest and sincere—that is the voice that Mswati is not getting," Gumedze says.
The feeling of neglect Gumedze speaks of is visible in Maphilingo, a collection of arid settlements in Swaziland's eastern, sugar-growing region of Lubombo. With a hot, dry climate, unlike Swaziland's temperate Highveld west, Lubombo is home to both lush, irrigated plantations and struggling peasant farmers who, due to an extended drought, can no longer grow maize, their former staple crop.
Although unwilling to give their names on record, several Maphilingo residents told me that shortages of food and water are common and note that neither their chief nor member of parliament has done anything to help. Most are less critical of Mswati, whom they say doesn't know their needs—in part, they believe, because he is deliberately misled by officials afraid of being blamed for lack of progress.
Still, among younger residents I spoke to, there is also a sense that esteem for the monarchy is slipping. "This king hasn't done anything for us either," one 20-year-old man tells me. "People our age, we think he's just a useless guy."
However, the prevalence of such views may be of less concern to the king than one might think—due in part to his belief in supernatural forces. Like many Swazis, Mswati is said be a firm believer in muti, an ancient system of charms and potions that can be used to bewitch any would-be threats to power. According to Hlatshwayo, the monarchy considers muti to be Mswati's "first line of defense," more important to national security than the army or police.
To learn more, I seek out an inyanga, or medicine man, who invites me to his home in the boulder-strewn hills above Mbabane. Muti, the inyanga tells me, is all about communicating with ancestral spirits, who point the way to herbs and other remedies that can be used to help a client find a job—or even compel a person to commit suicide. Before any important ceremony, the old man says, the king calls on multiple inyanga to perform rituals that foretell of any coming dangers, which can then be thwarted through the occult.
Like all Swazi kings, however, Mswati also believes that muti can be used to kill him, a notion that underlies several peculiar customs, including prohibitions on shaking the king's hand and a requirement that he always sit above his subjects. This fear of muti, the inyanga tells me, has also compelled Mswati to rely increasingly on inyanga from neighboring Mozambique, and even purge the muti powers of any Swazi inyanga he doesn't trust.
"They invite you to the royal palace, and you cannot refuse," the inyanga tells me in Siswati through a translator. "Once you arrive, your powers vanish."
A Looming Crisis
The king's belief in supernatural powers notwithstanding, one undeniable fact about his kingdom is that Swaziland, unlike many African nations, has never experienced a significant episode of violence. Over the past decade, Swaziland has seen several strikes and demonstrations, most notably in 2011, when trade unionists and pro-democracy activists initiated a wave of Arab Spring-inspired protests after the government announced plans to cut civil servant wages amid a narrowly averted fiscal crisis. Riot police responded with tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd and arrested several labor leaders and journalists.
Still, the country has managed to avoid both large-scale civil strife and the waves of urban crime that have infected post-apartheid South Africa.
It's a point stressed by Timothy Mthethwa, the 90-year-old governor of Ludzidzini Royal Palace, who speaks to me from the sidelines of the Reed Dance. Mthethwa, who was Swaziland's first black police commissioner in the 1970s, has been close to the royal family his whole life, and effectively serves as the guardian of the monarchy, settling family disputes and acting as Mswati's gatekeeper. Mthethwa, who carries a wooden club and wears a thin strip of leopard skin around his forehead, both symbols of authority, argues that the monarchy's most enduring characteristic is stability.
"Wherever there are republicans, there is always a power struggle," he says emphatically. "Look around Africa. Wherever they left kingships, there is bloodshed every now and then. With our kingship, with our monarch, there's peace."
While the governor may have a point, he neglects to mention that struggle for power can also occur within monarchies—a state of affairs that has long been present in Swaziland, and may again be coming to a head. As Mswati's extravagant lifestyle has accelerated, multiple sources inside Swaziland tell me, a number of senior princes have grown despondent, leading to rifts within the royal family. Critically, according to Magagula, the University of Swaziland professor who's frequently in touch with members of the Liqoqo, the king no longer listens to many of his key advisers—including some that played a role in installing him as monarch—preferring to consult his loyal prime minister, Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini.
"They are really frustrated," Magagula says of the Liqoqo. "I think if they had an alternative, they would have removed him. But they don't see any alternative. If they remove him, then what? The institution of the monarchy would probably be killed."
Although Mswati's position as monarch may still be reasonably secure, both Swazi activists and independent analysts warn of a coming economic crisis that could result in unprecedented protests against his rule. As of January 1, 2015, Swaziland will no longer be eligible for preferential trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), U.S. legislation enacted in 2000 that allows duty-free access to certain U.S. markets, contingent on upholding various human rights and labor practice standards.
In June, after a lengthy review, the U.S. government withdrew Swaziland's AGOA eligibility, citing the country's "use of security forces and arbitrary arrests to stifle peaceful demonstrations, and the lack of legal recognition for labor and employer federations."
Thanks to AGOA incentives, Swaziland has developed a $100 million garment industry, almost exclusively reliant on U.S. exports, which has generated employment for approximately 17,000 workers. With the loss of AGOA, however, analysts predict the industry will collapse, with dire repercussions for the Swazi economy, where unemployment already tops 40 percent. The Brookings Institution, a U.S. think tank, warns the economy is likely to be "severely injured."
Gumedze, the Manzini-based human rights lawyer, predicts the country will begin to feel a significant hit in April, as job losses accumulate, workers fail to pay their rent, and hundreds of Manzini minibuses—which ferry workers to the factories outside of town and are operated by young men with a history of rioting—go idle. Although Swaziland has experienced protests in the past, he tells me, this time will likely be much worse.
"Before, although there were protests as a result of discontent, they were not a product of people losing their livelihoods," he says. "Now we are talking about them actually losing their livelihoods, where you are pushing them into a corner: a life or death kind of situation.
"We might have people getting really angry at the monarchy," he adds. "When they eventually realize that the monarchy has not been honest, they might even say 'let's do away with this thing.'"
There is perhaps no better distraction from the uncertainty that lies ahead than Umhlanga, the annual Reed Dance. Adopted in the 1840s from a neighboring, Zulu-speaking clan known as the Ndwandwe, Umhlanga is the most public of Swaziland's cultural traditions and is now marketed to foreign tourists in an effort to boost the country's image as peaceful throwback to precolonial Africa.
Lest visitors be unnerved by the requirement that the maidens go topless, officials are quick to stress that the girls attend voluntarily, and that an emphasis on their virginity (which several Swazis tell me is no longer a strict requirement) is part of a national effort to combat the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Yet according to Colani Hlatjwako, acting national coordinator of Women and Law in Southern Africa, a regional advocacy group, the event is as much a cultural festival as it is about politics. Although many of the girls attend freely, she tells me, some communities levy fines on parents whose daughters are absent, largely out of a desire to please the monarchy, which in turn uses the event—featuring songs that praise the king and reject the idea of democracy—as a subtle form of indoctrination.
"When these young girls go back to their villages, they'll be singing the same songs," Hlatjwako says. "Getting them at that tender age, influencing them, they'll probably end up believing that they don't want political parties."
It is in the context of Mswati's own behavior, though, that the Reed Dance is most susceptible to scrutiny. Although supposed to be a model for the nation, Mswati's treatment of his wives—several of whom he spotted at Umhlanga—has been the source of controversy.
Since 2000, at least three of Mswati's wives have fled the country, with the most recent, Angela Dlamini, who left for South Africa in 2012, citing a long history of emotional and physical abuse. Another wife, Zehna Mahlangu, made headlines in 2002 when her mother filed a lawsuit alleging Mswati's aides had kidnapped her from school and forced her to join the royal harem. Yet another, Nothando Dube, who was chosen to marry the king at the age of 16, has reported being abused by palace guards and kept under house arrest.
Mswati, who is not known for publicly responding to critics, generally has remained tight-lipped in the face of such allegations, and several requests to speak with him were ignored by the royal palace. Yet when asked by another reporter during our meeting whether women and girls are allowed to refuse the king's request for marriage, Mthethwa, the palace governor, lets out an extended guttural laugh.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I'm not going to answer that one."
Although aware of the king's transgressions, most of the girls I speak with at Umhlanga appear to be enjoying the experience. Hours before Mswati's arrival, I stop to chat with several groups of maidens as they stand outside the royal compound, clinging to bunches of dried reeds that are meant to symbolize their chastity. Over the previous days, they've cut the reeds from far-away riverbanks, ferried them to the palace on the backs of trucks, and are now waiting to deliver them to Queen Ntfombi, who will use them to make repairs to the traditional houses and fences that make up the royal compound.
Although many of the girls tell me they're tired of dancing, most say they're excited to be spending the week with friends, away from cooking, sweeping, and other toils of daily life at home. Yet when I ask about Mswati—and the idea of becoming a royal bride—most emphatically dismiss the prospect.
"If you marry the king, you can never see your family," one 16-year-old maiden tells me. "You just stay in his palace until you die. If he chose me, I would run like a rabbit."
Jonathan W. Rosen is a journalist based in Kigali, Rwanda. In June, he reported on the shooting of Emmanuel de Merode, chief warden of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Virunga National Park.