African viewpoint: September's kings

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (L) chats with King Mswati III during the annual Reed Dance at Ludzidzini, the royal palace in Swaziland August 30, 2010. Who is giving advice to whom?

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Zimbabwean filmmaker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers the difference between kings and presidents.

September. How we all love to remember September, or can't get away from her many memories.

Some dates in September refuse to recede into the distant past and keep popping up in one macabre anniversary or another.

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The lion king only has to roar and his police force dutifully arrest and deport trade unionists, journalists and troublemakers”

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Reaching back we can learn that this is the month in which Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in Ethiopia on 12 September 1974; that General Jan Smuts died on 11 September 1950 of a natural old age while his compatriot Steve Biko was brutally murdered on 12 September 1977; that in this auspicious month 16 September saw the abolition of slavery in all French territories in 1848.

But in this 21st Century, September's dominating date is one Tuesday morning when religions collided in two skyscrapers over America's city of migrants. All other dates, for now, must take a back seat.

And so last week was dominated by a man in Florida threatening the mad act of burning the Koran to commemorate the mad act of 11 September 2001.

September is also the month of the birth of the kingdom of Swaziland.

'Exercise in envy'

While most of Africa's kingdoms were felled in the age of colonialism, 6 September 1968 saw the establishment of a tiny kingdom surrounded by rolling hills and ruled over by one absolute monarch whose word was law.

Now 42, the kingdom is run by King Mswati III, also 42.

Two years ago when the kingdom celebrated its 40th anniversary of independence, the celebrations were known as "40/40" - for the young king was the kingdom, and the kingdom the young king.

Such absolute power, say his critics, is out of step with the age of democracy.

The king can appoint the prime minister, he is not overly keen on political opposition and trade unions from within the kingdom and their international colleagues in Cosatu over in South Africa have been constantly denied active space to operate. What is it about the young king that gets democratic forces and human rights bodies so annoyed?

A policeman and boy scouts keep watch as maidens take part in the annual Reed Dance at Ludzidzini, the royal palace in Swaziland August 30, 2010 Swaziland's young girls parade before the king, who can choose one as his wife

Watching the Swazi reed dance the other day, at which the monarch - already married to 13 women - chooses another wife should he want one, it struck me that being a guest at such an occasion must truly be an exercise in envy.

There you are, say, as an 85-year-old Robert Mugabe, special guest to the young royal, watching your 40-something host being presented with the finest specimens of womanhood in all of southern Africa and all he has to do is pick one. Having done so, he speeds off in one of his many BMWs to spend an evening with his new companion or perhaps all 14 of them.

How charmed can his life be?

Jailed for stating facts

And when the so-called forces of change and democracy squeal like the rats they are for more democracy, for the curbing of his authority, the lion king only has to roar and his police force dutifully arrest and deport trade unionists, journalists and troublemakers.

Swaziland's King Mswati III arrives for the annual Reed Dance at Ludzidzini in Swaziland August 30, 2010. Should King Mswati spend more time in a gym?

The king's prime minister, unlike your own, can even publicly declare that such upstarts should be beaten on the soles of their feet and jailed - for as an African, he knows it is better to be ruled by one lion instead of 1,000 rats.

Not for King Mswati III the messy recriminations of a hypocritical world, no sanctions for him, just shopping trip after uninterrupted shopping trip in any city for him and his lovely wives.

How could you not envy such a man? If there is one thing you could criticise, it would be that at only 42, King Mswati III needs to build himself a gym for the good living is beginning to show in his weight, and his own breasts are beginning to compete for the attentions of the cameras with those of his dancing maidens.

Those who question the king's lavish lifestyle complain that the man flaunts his wealth in a country whose 1.1 million people are surrounded by poverty, that he has long been judge and executioner, that his ministers disregard the relentless pain caused by Aids - HIV is reported to affect 26% of the adult population - and consider such figures associated with the disease to be the invention of pharmaceutical companies.

The king's ministers and advisors are princes of the Swazi royal house, they have no qualms in safeguarding the status quo and sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarchy remains absolute because the world's attention is often elsewhere.

Yet those who rule us can sometimes be kings with another name - president seems the 21st Century's favourite synonym for such men of power - and it is possible in today's Africa to find oneself in prison for calling your president an old man, even when nature and fact would agree with you.

And should King Mswati III live to be 50 on the occasion of his country's 50th anniversary eight Septembers from now, you can rest assured that his guests will include all the presidents from the last celebrations, safe in the knowledge that their own "kingdoms" will return them to power too, for democracy can be like God himself saying: "Don't go anywhere, your country needs you".

And so as September rolls on with her heavy memories, what lessons would King Mswati give to the world?

Surely men like him would know how to deal with a troublesome pastor from Florida keen on lighting up the world by torching a holy book?

If Pastor Jones was in Mbabane, how many of us would have protested if the Swazi Prime Minister, Barnabas Dlamini, had taken a pedal with spikes to the souls of Mr Jones' feet?

Any pastor would know how to walk the path of peace then, wouldn't he?

Here is a selection of your comments about this story:

Whereas some African leaders enjoy absolute power and even some life-time presidents, true democracy is in its due course elsewhere. Countries like Ghana can in no way on the same scale as Zimbabwe. Africa is too big and diverse to generalize. As many nations on the continent are working hard to make a difference, it is indeed not helpful to associate the bad example with the good ones. In fact those countries like Rwanda, Liberia and Sierra Leone who are try to rebuild must be praised than being generalized among the likes of R. Mugabe and the King of Swaziland.

Edward, Beppu, Japan

The king should not be blame, for this is the tradition of what he met from his forefather. He should embrace democracy since this has become the norms of all civilisation.

Usman Mohammedan, Kaduna, Nigeria

Whilst I disagree with the act of Monarchy and the situation it breeds, I respect the culture of the people of Swaziland. The last i checked, the majority of the population there love and respect their king irrespective of what we all believe. I also rather find it hypocritical that BBC decides to publish this piece, albeit good a read it might be. The United Kingdom, BBC's home, supports a system of monarchy where citizens and visitors alike (taxpayers) pay for the expensive lifestyle of the 'Royalty' to as much as $59million every year. The Queen (God bless her) refused to cut spending even during the worst periods of the recession in 2009. How then can you say things like "...his own breasts are beginning to compete for the attentions of the cameras with those of his dancing maidens." It's absolute disrespect to the whole population of Swaziland, an apology should be issues. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

Olayinka, Lagos, Nigeria

Nothing seems to aggravate me more than individuals proposing to solve "Africa's problems without an iota of perspective into what exactly the African situation is. Africa is a mine field the solution to our problem cannot simply be solved by "democracy." The African mind is a unique one, such minds are not easily opened to the idea of democracy after all when we analyze history we find that democracy only occurs where the people of that population have been given the opportunity to learn about democracy and appreciate what it brings to society. Until that happens I don't think the African mind will be able to accept it. Thus the suggestion of democracy in Africa, whilst nostalgic, may not be the most effective method to take Africa to where it needs to go; well at least for right now. Democracy might be in Africa's future but not until we first educate the population so when this system is introduced it can be run effectively. because as we can clearly see, democracy in countries were the population is largely illiterate only creates the opportunity for corruption and massive election fraud. today we learn of socialism communism democracy and authoritarian rule but let us not live under the delusion that these are the only systems available to us I think Africa is primed for a new system of governing one that will uphold morals and preserve justice, well at least I hope. I don't know what it will be but it's up to us to find out


Swaziland needs people like President Robert Mugabe who can dictate. All our ministers fend for themselves on the taxpayers' money. The king may be a dictator, but his dictatorship is not doing good for the kingdom.

Wandile Nxumalom, Manzini, Swaziland

Thank you Farai for enlightening and reminding us about the events and issues of the past and present. There is no doubt that this write-up is quiet interesting. Personally, I believe that as a people, we should be moving forward and not backward. For this reason, it is time for the people of Swaziland to embrace democracy and do away with the monarchy system. The king can contest if he choses to be the first president of the country but must move the country towards democracy. By embracing democracy, the best and brightest minds will be able to come together and come up with ways to move the nation forward. On the issue of Pastor Jones from Florida, I consider burning a holy book a sacrilege. It is an abomination. One cannot take such a drastic action because of a few individuals to the detriment of millions of peaceful and loving Muslims. We should learn to accomodate each other's religion.

Omorodion Osula, Boston, USA

Most if not all African leaders are selfish and don't give a hoot about their people or countries. They do not have a vision to make the our lives any better. And we the African people are too passive. This is what is killing the continent of Africa. Sad really.

Tiza S Msimuko, Kabwe, Zambia

First of all, kingship should be past tense. To deny people their rights, to pursue selfish interests is totally unacceptable. However, presidential "kingship" is worse than kingship itself! Presidents pretending to be saviours of their people, just to cover their corrupt practices, are the bane of Africa. Kingship or whatever, that holds back peoples' potential should never be allowed to flourish anywhere on earth. It should be uprooted with the swiftness of a shooting star.

K K Wales, Mombasa, Kenya

I humbly suggest you get your facts right. Swaziland is not an "absolute" monarchy, but a constitutional monarchy. The people of Swaziland opted not to have political parties, and their voices were reflected in the constitution. In your "intelligent" view what is democracy? Last I checked, democracy is following the voice of the majority. What is it that you want Swaziland to be exactly? The people are content with what they have so who are you to question the citizens? The king has been on the throne since 1968, so counting these years the king should now have 24 wives, which is not the case as he only has 12. The Reed Dance is and always has been for young women to show pride in being pure, contrary to popular foreign opinion, this day is not for the king to choose a wife. This tradition dates back many more years back and thus is kept and practiced till this day. Does multiparty governance guarantee democracy and order? History has proven that its certainly doesn't. What is a government supposed to do in a case whereby a certain group of people (less than 100 in a country of 1.2 million) decide to hit the streets with the promise of holding a "peaceful" demonstration and they suddenly don't keep to their word? What would your seemingly perfect state do? Policemen and women have an obligation under oath to serve and protect the country and its citizens. This is true for all legitimate states, thus the Swazi police did just that on these said dates. The West has statues and monuments as tradition, countries like Swaziland don't. Therefore in place of that, the kingdom has the Reed Dance, Incwala Ceremony, Lusekwane which the people pride themselves on, due to the fact that it's theirs and most of Africa has lost its traditions. Most of us (Africans) claim to be too modernised and educated to patake in our own traditions, it's sad and pathetic. The big question then is - if you are African, who are you and what defines you as African. That's where nationalism and patriotism come in.

Maqhawe Mbuli, Swaziland

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