I had a home in Africa near the base of the looming Sebibi Rock. The Tropic of Capricorn runs across the Great Escarpment 500km to the north, and our sprawling house on a hillside close to the business district of the capital lay at an altitude of about 1,200m. On a clear day, you often felt near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful and the nights could be cold.
Of course, this wasn’t in Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen’s colonial Kenya, but rather, in Swaziland a generation ago, when I served there as an American diplomat.
Back in the mid-1980s, foreign diplomats were used to offering up the description for the country: “Swaziland, an island of tranquillity amidst a sea of political and economic turmoil”. Given the unsavoury alternatives of a Mozambique in economic near-collapse and its ongoing civil strife between government/Frelimo and Renamo forces or a South Africa with its state of emergency and the UDF and others’ struggles against the apartheid regime and near open warfare between the UDF and Inkatha in the Natal midlands – well, the cliché about Swaziland wasn’t all that far from the truth.
While Swaziland was never one of the Frontline States, it opposed apartheid as a matter of state policy, but also recognised, as a senior government official once told me, “You can choose your friends, but you don’t get to pick your geography or your family”. This understanding of one of Southern African geography’s bigger truths spared Swaziland the depredations of South African army incursions, but it also meant South African Security Forces felt relatively free to operate there – just as long as they didn’t flaunt their presence too obviously. However, when you saw a recent model, white BMW without registration plates and occupied by expressionless, burly men, you braced yourself for what might follow. There was the day, for example, when three such vehicles drove right through the arcades of the Swazi Plaza shopping mall, chasing somebody or some bodies, and scattering unwary shoppers in every direction.
Every once in a while, deep into the evening, one heard the metallic ring of gunshots echoing across the hills surrounding Mbabane – and one knew somebody was no longer part of South Africa’s exile community in Swaziland. The country had an active and visible collection of South Africans living in it – including one Jacob Zuma for a while – and the South Africans in Swaziland came in all political stripes, including the big staff at a very visible SA trade mission in downtown Mbabane.
Simultaneously, the widow of one of South Africa’s most famous anti-apartheid lawyers lived there. The country hosted the world-renowned Waterford-Kamhlaba boarding school founded by South African teachers who wouldn’t accept Bantu education’s strictures and many of Swaziland’s business community leaders and academics at the country’s university were South Africans as well. But besides South African exiles, by virtue of its relaxed, generally tolerant social milieu, Swaziland also became the last place for the quirky flotsam and jetsam of empire to pitch up. It was perfect as the subject matter for a nice indie film, like Richard E Grant’s work, “Wah Wah,” which really does give a pretty good picture of Swaziland back then.
The place had a real collection of unusual, funny, but thoughtful people. There was the world-weary journalist who had been born in Kenya and who had worked his way south until he ended up in Swaziland and settled in for the long haul. There was a Scots architect and town planner who had married a thoroughly Anglophile Singaporean Indian teacher who had set up a popular international preschool. The country’s most effective environmentalist had had a long career as a big-five hunter in Zambia and Zimbabwe, but who had then moved on to Swaziland and gone green with a vengeance. A Dutch building contractor arrived, married an ethnic Swazi and then watched in admiration as she built a thriving business from her hidden resources of fresh trout and exotic fruit and vegetables unavailable in any store in the country. Then there was the son of an English doctor and his headmistress wife who eventually became Swaziland’s only winter Olympics athlete by virtue of his Scottish upbringing and vacation job as a skiing instructor. He never medalled, but he went to the opening ceremony.
Although Mbabane, the capital, was not a big place, it was surprisingly cosmopolitan. The UN had a large presence there with staff drawn from around the world and they made the place interesting. The ethnic Somali who was the UN’s refugee coordinator (and who had to work with both Mozambican and South African refugees) had met his African-American wife on the campus of Brandeis University with its largely Jewish student body. Over a sun-dappled garden lunch one day, as we looked out over the scenic beauty of the Eastern Escarpment (a geological feature that runs for thousands of kilometres to finally connect with the East African Rift Valley), Achmad explained to me on that Sunday how it was that every young, ambitious, third world, would-be intellectual inevitably became a Marxist – at least for a while.
Besides all those UN staffers, Swaziland was also something of a laboratory for the economic development activities of virtually every foreign aid-dispensing country on the planet. The reasons were simple and logical. Swaziland then was small and manageable with a population of less than a million mostly ethnically homogeneous Swazis. The country then was relatively free of major, systemic corruption and it was a pragmatically capitalist society even though there was also a major government presence in the economy as a national development agent. And it wasn’t South Africa or Mozambique. As a result, Swaziland became something of a laboratory for every new idea in development thinking and the aid workers flocked in to try out their favoured nostrums. Sometimes it felt like Swaziland had the highest per capita number of aid workers of any place in the world all jostling for a chance to “set things right”. Paired with the modest boom in light industry and high-quality agricultural commodities such as sugar cane, citrus fruit and juice in the years of sanctions against apartheid South Africa, the Swazi economy looked like it was poised for gradual, but persuasive economic lift-off.
But Swaziland was also a country with an absolute monarch whose contemporary royal family numbered in the dozens and dozens. The newly installed king, Mswati III, was one of the late King Sobhuza II’s regiment of sons. He had had dozens of wives as well. Mswati had been to a British public boarding school for several years, but was still a man caught between modern expectations and traditional ideas. Earlier on, from the 1920s, Mswati’s father had led a campaign for national revival from some pretty dark days, buying back much of the nation’s land from a host of foreign titleholders who had gained it through some pretty dubious dealings, one hectare at a time with funds contributed by Swazi miners working in South Africa. Sobhuza’s government put most of this land in a national trust to prevent it from being alienated from the Swazi nation again.
While this plan effectively reclaimed more than half the country from foreign and absentee ownership, it also set in motion one of the underlying causes of the country’s eventual economic decline. It was very difficult for the average Swazi to gain title to good farming or grazing land since so much of the land was locked in that national trust. The local chiefs could allot it for use by farmers for a set number of years, but they could never leverage any capital for growth by using the land as collateral for loans. When the population was still small, this was less of a problem than it might have been, but the population continued to grow. As a result, farmland became increasingly less accessible to the average Swazi and average income in the rural parts of the country actually fell.
In recent years, Swaziland also became the country with the world’s highest incidence of HIV/Aids. But, back in the mid-1980s, the epidemic was just making itself felt in the kingdom and no one knew much about it – or linked it to the country’s pervasive traditions of concurrent partners, multiple marriages and relationships and a generally loose approach to monogamy.
When the king and the country were both in their twenties (he was born in 1968, the year the nation ended its colonial status) it was easy to imagine Mswati would follow in his father’s low-key development-orientated ethos. This approach also aimed to protect the traditions of the nation – its Reed Dance and Incwala festivals, the tribal fabric that governed everyday life and its general obeisance to old values. The occasional cynic would sometimes mutter that a wily King Sobhuza had carefully parsed the work of anthropologist Hilda Kuper and consciously modelled his reign on the ancient traditions she wrote about – even as they were already dead or dying out in the 1930s and 40s – as a way of building a new national and anti-colonial imagination in Sobhuza’s kingdom. While Mswati was better educated than most of his siblings, with that period at his British boarding school, he still had a rather limited acquaintance with the ideas of contemporary governance. Eventually, we discovered that a small group of local high school teachers and instructors from the university were quietly tutoring the king in the modern niceties of government, economics, law and literature.
Eventually we were asked if we could somehow assist. We brought in an early version of the Sim City computerised economic modelling software to give him a chance to experiment with what happens when you tax or regulate a country too much (the most entrepreneurial inhabitants emigrate elsewhere). We ordered an airmailed subscription to a newspaper and couriered it to him as quick, easy reading on the week’s international news. When we received the occasional high-level visitor, or even a mid-level one, we often videotaped a guided conversation with the person on whatever topic they specialised in and delivered it to him as well. When the king let it be known that he was interested in America’s newest dance styles, we ordered videos on them too. And we even had Ronald Reagan offer a videotaped speech of congratulations to the king and country on their concurrent 20th birthdays as a special gift to the nation. It played on local TV for days.
The king would occasionally send a royal runner to seek us out at home in the evenings and “ask” us to drop by for a chat, perhaps to ask for videos on a new topic that had piqued his interest. Eventually we even obtained a jersey autographed by one of his favourite American musicians and, in return, a set of springbok hide-covered cushions arrived at my home one day as an anonymous “thank you”.
Looking back, however, it seems clear the lessons of Sim City wore off – or perhaps never really took hold deeply enough. As the king added new wife after new wife and royal residence upon residence, maybe the more traditional side of his upbringing – abetted by those in the royal circle whose privileges were most threatened by change – overtook a broader interest in the development of the nation as a whole.
The new king maintained the ban on political parties that had been instituted by his father in 1973 to keep anti-monarchist political behaviour in check, but that also restricted media freedom and union organising activity. Add to that the relative collapse of manufacturing in Swaziland after South Africa rejoined the world economy, shrinking aid budgets, the pressure of dealing with the country’s HIV/Aids epidemic, the economic stresses of the country’s rapidly growing population and the roots of Swaziland’s current tensions come into sharper focus.
The country’s political system had been designed to support the restoration of national honour through the 20th century, but it was ultimately dependent on the king’s ability to hold the loyalty of a largely rural, traditional population that was still close to the rhythms of an earlier era. But Swaziland’s growing urban population, better educated and more aware of developments in South Africa and the rest of the world, now seems unlikely to accept the continuity of that old order. The People’s United Democratic Movement has new leaders and Swazi unions seem more aware of what has happened in the world in the Arab spring – and the possibilities of what that might mean for Swaziland in the future. They are less and less likely to acquiesce into a return the legendary rural idyll of the old Swaziland.
The 21st Century is now 10 years old and the Kingdom of Swaziland needs to adjust to the dramatically new world. For the good of its subjects, for the good of itself, it needs to understand the role of monarchy in this century. The Kingdom has gone, in 20 short years, from the model African country to the last absolute monarchy on the continent. DM
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Photo: A man dressed in traditional attire speaks on a cell phone during the annual Reed Dance at Ludzidzini in Swaziland August 30, 2010. During the eight day ceremony, virgin girls cut reeds and present them to the queen mother. The Reed Dance also allows Swaziland’s King Mswati III to choose a wife if he wishes. Mswati currently has 13 wives. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.
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