King Mswati & I: The monarch of Eswatini might still need to learn the lessons from SimCity

King Mswati III of Eswatini. (Photo: Reuters / Stringer)

Sometimes you get to know a king and you wonder what he is really thinking. And sometimes you wonder what that conversation would be like years later. Thirty years ago I did, and I still do.


“I know what my people are thinking tonight
As home through the shadows they wander
Everyone smiling in secret delight
They stare at the castle and ponder
Whenever the wind blows this way
You can almost hear everyone say
I wonder what the king is doing tonight?
What merriment is the king pursuing tonight?
The candles at the court, they never burned as bright
I wonder what the king is up to tonight?”
— I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight, from Camelot by Lerner and Loewe.

In 1987, my family and I were returning to Swaziland (now Eswatini) when our time in Japan had drawn to its conclusion. Swaziland had been very good to us a decade earlier. It had permitted my wife and me to get married there in 1976 when South Africa’s laws made it impossible to even attempt such a marriage. 

But right over the border, the Swazi authorities had allowed us to get married although we were not residents, had not posted banns (I never understood what those were, but we didn’t end up doing them), and in spite of the fact that we had selected a wedding date that was a Saturday, when the magistrate who conducted weddings in Mbabane would be at home. The American embassy in Mbabane was also willing to be flexible and they issued my wife-to-be a US tourist visa, even though it was clear she would not be returning to South Africa in the immediate future.

But back to our 1987 return to Swaziland. It was a beautiful country. Although there were no scenic views to rival Table Mountain, Mt Fuji or the Grand Canyon, wherever one looked, the landscape enchanted. Whether it was Sibebe Rock — the formidable granite boulder that was virtually an entire hillside outside the capital — or the view of the escarpment as the highveld suddenly gave way to the lower reaches of the Ezulwini Valley and beyond, or the lusher forests in some of the country’s national reserves and parks, or simply the farms and orchards that stretched into the Lowveld… the place delighted the eye.

Its people were gracious, calm and warm to foreigners. Being on time was rather less important than showing appropriate deference to an older person, and that respect meant, for example, that when two older men, dressed in their traditional garb, met each other, they greeted respectfully, even if they were in the middle of what passed for a downtown street.

As the embassy staffer responsible for educational exchanges, media relations, cultural exchange opportunities, running a small library, and pretty much whatever else came along, together with the inevitable administrative tasks, I tried to understand the networks of political power in the country and how they were exercised. It seemed too glib to accept the notion that since Swaziland was an absolute monarchy, the final say on everything depended on a decision by the king. End of story — or was there more?

King Mswati III had only recently gained full royal authority, following a regency where the institution of the monarchy had been led by one of the late king’s wives, the Ndlovukazi, following the death of Sobhuza II, along with a group of royal elders. 

Sobhuza had ruled his nation for decades and had grown in prestige and authority during his tenure, but as he grew older, it wasn’t assumed that all the loyalty would automatically pass to his chosen heir. Towards the end of Sobhuza’s reign, there were some stirrings among the royal relatives. In addition, there were the efforts of a nascent labour union movement and a small group of political activists who were hoping to overturn the royal system. In response to such rumblings, organised political parties were banned.

While he was usually described as a deeply traditional ruler, Sobhuza II had led his nation with skill and craftiness for many years, much of it through some rather rough waters. He had advanced his personal position from just another of those paramount chiefs in the old British colonial system used in Africa. Instead, he became the internationally recognised king of an independent nation in 1968. 

For years he guided his country away from circumstances where a majority of the arable land was owned by foreigners. Early on, even as Swaziland was still a British possession, he had ordered young Swazi men to go to the Witwatersrand to work in the mines and earn money so they could pay a portion into a fund that would repatriate land from foreign ownership in order for it to be owned by the Swazi nation. However, the repurchased land was put into a national trust-style institution, and the management of that land — and the other investments that evolved from that decision — went to a less-than-transparent body, the Tinkhundla.

Paradoxically, in order to build a modern sense of Swazi nationality, King Sobhuza also mined the writings of foreign scholars of his nation, like Hilda Kuper, for ideas. Kuper had studied early Swazi traditions and the king moved towards reinvigorating old ceremonies such as the Incwala (the celebration of the “first fruits” of the harvest) and the Reed Dance, to unify a nation around such communal events, complementing and competing with the tugs of modernity being felt by Swazis. 

For the Incwala, male regiments would come together to celebrate the beginning of a harvest season, and participants included farmers, small traders and factory workers, but also university lecturers and senior civil servants, all dressed in the country’s traditional garb. Meanwhile, at the Reed Dance, lightly attired, unmarried young women annually came together, en masse, to be viewed as possible brides for the king. (By the time of his passing, King Sobhuza reportedly had more than 80 wives.)  

Concurrently, during his long reign, Sobhuza had not been afraid to make use of more modern approaches to governance. A number of the so-called “white Swazis” — economically prominent individuals whose families had lived in Swaziland for generations — sometimes held important technocratic positions within government. An increasingly lively media was given space to exist, as long as it did not criticise the monarchy. 

There was a national programme to send promising Swazi students to an American university in a small town in the Midwest for advanced education, as well as to an increasingly successful local university (a spinoff from the earlier University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland). 

Meanwhile, a general public sensibility of respect for traditions was also being encouraged. Wearing traditional national dress was strongly encouraged on Fridays as a way of building elusive national cohesion. (Just to confound things, the king was also a fan of American soul music star Percy Sledge and had even arranged for him to come to Swaziland for concerts.)

The societal climate in Swaziland made it a haven for a wide range of people from around the globe, and especially South Africans with serious anti-apartheid chops. They included the founders of the famed Waterford-Kamhlaba School that educated children of incarcerated South African political figures, and a number of ANC-in-exile figures, and sometimes even their military operatives, although Swaziland was not a “frontline state”, given its near-total dependence on South Africa for its economic survival. 

Regardless, Swaziland could be an easy victim of spillovers from Mozambique’s ongoing civil war, as well as the struggle inside South Africa. Speaking about such geopolitical realities, a senior government figure had told me, “You can pick your friends, but a country can’t pick its neighbours. That’s our challenge.” And staying alive and independent was the goal.

Nevertheless, sometimes South Africa’s turmoil overflowed into Swaziland. South Africa’s security police would sometimes dispatch people into the kingdom in their white BMWs to capture or perhaps kill a particularly irritating South African who had been too active against the regime. That, in turn, would motivate the Swazi police to set up roadblocks around the country to search for people of interest, as well as firearms, explosives and who knows what else. The police were the real power in this regard, rather than the country’s army.

Swaziland hosted a very small diplomatic community. Resident diplomats came from the US, Israel and Taiwan, and there was a trade commissioner from South Africa with a rather outsized staff. (The Taiwanese agricultural research farm generated fresh oriental vegetables for a rather good Chinese restaurant in the capital.) There was also a sizable UN contingent, including a resident commissioner for refugees and other specialised UN agencies. 

Soon we also discovered through a friendly law lecturer at the university, who had just returned from one of our invitational visits to the US, that there was a group of a half dozen tutors who were taking the king through his paces to learn about being a modern leader. And so now, suddenly, we had a second avenue. 

There was also a large foreign aid community, as it seemed that every nation that could do so had people in Swaziland doing all manner of good works. There was a big USAID contingent, a British Council office, the US Peace Corps, and numerous volunteer specialists from Scandinavian nations, Belgium, Japan and other countries. Swaziland was viewed as a small and hopeful enough place that foreign assistance programmes might actually achieve their objectives. 

The foreign business community largely focused on agricultural and related commodities, soft drink bottling, tourism and light manufacturing. Great hopes had once been placed on a large iron ore mine, but the ore body had played out, and a major asbestos mine had also declined as demand for that mineral vanished because of environmental concerns. 

For Swazi economic planners, the future seemed to lie with the expansion of light industry, tourism and high-value agricultural products for export. At least while the Mozambican civil war continued and economic sanctions kept ratcheting upward against South Africa, Swazi economic circumstances, in a perverse kind of way, actually appeared increasingly bright.

As we came to understand more about the country, we kept trying to figure out how the authority of government was exercised. There was the king, of course, with his presumably absolute authority, but there was also a rather mysterious council of elders that some foreigners derisively called “those old men wearing goatskins”. Still, one of the stalwarts of that traditional body was also a respected deacon of the Anglican church, a published historian and the father of children who had become university educated and were working as academics, economic development planners, doctors and NGO managers.  

There was also a larger circle of royal relatives, including some of the king’s siblings from King Sobhuza II’s wives. (Mswati had been selected as king because he had no full, male sibling, thereby avoiding Cain and Abel-style problems of sibling rivalry.) Some of those relatives also had official positions in the government. 

Then there was the Tinkhundla organisation, and beyond that, a formal government comprising ministers, and even a parliament, elected in a limited franchise.

There were also the command structures for the national police, army and correctional service. And then there was a judiciary that sometimes recruited well-respected South African advocates as judges. Identifying who actually had final authority over a specific issue could be a difficult task for a foreign representative.

When King Mswati first took over, he was just 20 years old, out from under the restrictions of the regency. Yes, he had spent two years at the British boarding school of Sherbourne, but he had not yet completed high school before being called home. Diplomats had few insights into royal thinking since he was generally only seen at large public events where he might read a couple of sentences and then be whisked away. 

Two separate events, however, created an entirely different dynamic for me. One night, while I was out at some event, and while my wife was sitting down to supper with our daughters, a man appeared at our gate, looking for someone named Mr Pectok. “Who?” my wife asked, and he repeated the singularly mispronounced name, but then explained what his mission was — he had been sent to summon Mr Pectok to appear before the king. Aha. 

My wife managed to reach me by phone and I came rushing home. The messenger explained that I should present myself to the king at his home. “Now?” I asked. I was informed that if the king sought your company, you went right away. 

And so off I drove late in the evening, in the dark, in a rainstorm, down that steep mountain road to reach the palace. As I waited in the antechamber, shoeless out of respect, none of the attendants could explain the reason for the summons. The palace we were in was a pretty bare bones place — more like an ordinary suburban house with a few extra turrets thrown in for effect, rather than what might be thought of as a palace. But a man’s home is his castle, no matter what.

Our first conversation quickly moved on to, of all things, the new styles of breakdancing and moon-walking. Well, think about it. The king was just past his teens, clearly eager to stay up-to-date on youth fashions, but he had no easy way to gain this kind of information, in the pre-satellite TV and pre-internet world. Perhaps someone suggested I was the right person to help, even if, in truth, I could not dance. At all. We chatted about various things about America that intrigued him, but it was moon-walking and breakdancing that proved the icebreaker. 

The next day I thought it best to explain to our ambassador that an unusual channel to the king had suddenly opened up, independent of the confusing circles of influence and power around him. I quickly reached my Washington backstop, who did herself proud, rounding up and then sending me a whole box of instructional videotapes on contemporary American dance styles and the right moves. We had also figured out who his favourite American singers were, and our backstop reached one of those, Lionel Richie, who promptly sent our office in Washington an autographed jersey on which he had written the words, “Best wishes to the King, your friend, Lionel Richie.” That was some amazing gift box I could deliver to the king. I’ll bet nobody reading this essay has ever had one of those sweatshirts.

Soon we also discovered through a friendly law lecturer at the university, who had just returned from one of our invitational visits to the US, that there was a group of a half dozen tutors who were taking the king through his paces to learn about being a modern leader. And so now, suddenly, we had a second avenue. 

Given the king’s marginal hands-on approach towards public policy in the past, I find it difficult to believe he personally had given “shoot to kill” orders, although I do find it entirely possible to believe police commanders or other officials had decided that violence was the best policy. 

We subscribed to the USA Today international edition on his behalf and delivered the copies to the palace every two or three days. After we talked with the tutor who was working on basic economics, and once we were sure he had a working PC, we ordered the latest version of the SimCity computer software and worked with the tutor on how best to deliver real lessons about governance via a computer game. 

We then moved on to videotaping presentations for him by every visitor to the country through our office, whether they were one of our invited guest speakers or a roving expert on some interesting topic, and delivered those video presentations to him as well. 

One day, in one of those meetings, he casually asked about personal security and related equipment. This was a bit too much of a deep dive into internal politics for me, but we did arrange for a travelling security specialist to prepare a presentation on what they call “situational awareness”. Uneasy sleeps the head that wears the crown? 

Eventually, I was due for a new posting elsewhere, but not before we arranged for President Ronald Reagan to deliver videotaped remarks in celebration of Swaziland’s 20th anniversary of independence and the king’s own birthday. Not surprisingly, Swazi TV played the message over the whole period of celebrations — the national radio station received an audio copy and kept playing theirs, and our new ambassador was given a personal copy to deliver to the king for his own viewing when she presented her credentials as the new ambassador. 

After we left Swaziland, over the years I occasionally met the king in the US, including when he attended a session of the UN General Assembly, and also at an event in South Africa, when he took part in a SADC leaders meeting. Afterwards, I wondered if the memory of those early gifts had stayed with him, and whether he recalled the SimCity lessons about overtaxing citizens or the need to build infrastructure.

The current unrest and violence in the now-renamed Eswatini makes me wonder, though, just as before, about who is actually making decisions about deploying the police — who is commanding them, and what orders they are being given (like at Marikana, perhaps) for restoring order or suppressing dissent. 

Given the king’s marginal hands-on approach towards public policy in the past, I find it difficult to believe he personally had given “shoot to kill” orders, although I do find it entirely possible to believe police commanders or other officials had decided that violence was the best policy. 

If I were working there now, and if I was on one of those drives to the palace to deliver yet more videotaped information, or a book or magazine for him to read, I like to think I would suggest that he find a way towards a new, more inclusive constitutional dispensation — one that provided clear understandings of the role of the country’s parliament in creating law and, most importantly, that his security forces be brought under rigorous political and administrative control. 

The question now is whether it is already too late to make the reforms that are clearly needed. Nearly 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French chronicler of American democratic growth, had also taken a look at czarist Russia in the 1840s and had determined that the most dangerous time for a bad regime is when it tries to reform. 

In circumstances like the present in Eswatini, real leadership is called for — not violent, perhaps panicked responses by underlings eager to curry favour with what they believe are the wishes of the country’s sovereign.

But I wonder — and increasingly worry — if the now middle-aged King Mswati III still retains the curiosity needed to figure out how best to rule his nation in a way that benefits all of its citizens. DM


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All Comments 4

  • Interesting story….
    As a South African taxpayer who is, no doubt, funding the lifestyle of this monarchy, I would like the tax break a Democracy offers, However not at the cost of innocent lives and the destruction of a culture. Eswatini/Swaziland has always been a peaceful shining light in Southern Africa but perhaps that is just an illusion and the make believe is about to end? Perhaps it needs to be incorporated into SA as yet another Province? I’m just not sure how the SA taxpayer can afford to continue paying towards these Royal Households when there are collapsing Municipalities, unemployment and child grants to fund, and ongoing graft and corruption destroying our reserves…. something needs to change, that’s for sure.

    • I have always maintained that those who want a king should finance that king. See how quick the tribes get rid of their kings and kingdoms. Why should there be two ‘governments’ in any democratic country?

  • Maybe the Author can explain how The King has amassed a fortune of at least $500 million from a tiny impoverished state. Mswati is not the innocent the author tries to persuade us.

  • John Townsend…. This piece was a memoir of a past time. What in it makes you think it is an apologia for current circumstances? Reread the last three or four paras.

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