Return visit to the Kingdom

I had not visited my former home, Swaziland, in more than a year. When I left the country (one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies), it was going through turbulent times: weekly, sometimes daily street protests led by irate teachers had erupted in response to what seemed an impending financial collapse. The king and his circle of advisors were on the defensive. Facebook was the enemy. Since then, Mswati has taken a new wife, and held “elections” even dubbing his kingdom the “monarchical democracy”. Returning this week, I was surprised to see how much had changed, and how much had remained the same.

1.Money poured into making Ezulwini Valley Shine

At the entrance to the Gables Shopping mall a toothless man with only stumps for hands gives me a knowing grin and nods at a line of luxury vehicles escorting some member of the royal clan into the mall. For the casual visitor,  it is easy to imagine yourself in any of neighbouring South Africa’s more opulent suburbs. You won’t see shops like this anywhere else north of Nespruit and  south of Nairobi.  It is easy to forget the dismal poverty lurking outside of this oasis in the Swazi countryside or the nation’s shocking HIV stats as members of Swaziland’s small, monied elite totter on shiny, wedge heels and order cocktails by the poolside at one of several luxury hotels in the Valley. With the main royal palace just down the drag, golf courses and horse paddocks are interspersed with new office parks and shopping malls. You can now stuff yourself with sushi in the newly renovated “Gables” mall before heading off to the cinema (with a choice of 4 movies) and stopping in at Woolies.

2. In the capital unfinished, rusting hulks of buildings transformed into more gleaming malls.
When last I visited the capital, Mbabane (up the hill) the skyline was blighted by the half-finished “Plaza” mall and no one knew if it would ever be completed. It was a state of play that seemed to amplify a mood of national foreboding. Now the Plaza has not only been finished but has been transformed into an impressive, gleaming mall complete with glass spiral housing some of SA’s biggest retail chains.
3. Mswati in ebullient mood?

For several years the king did not choose a new bride (as is the tradition during the annual Umhlanga reed dance). During the lean years he suffered insults to his honour when one of his young harem had a fling with his a member of his cabinet. Mswati’s advisors are well aware of the risks the taking of a royal bride involves ( i.e the international press has a field-day) but, just the same, it can be an important nation-building exercise showing the king is still virile and confident. It is designed to inspire the populace with the promise of a rags- to- riches, or Cinderella story for the chosen one.   Coinciding with another round of elections, the King this year felt confident enough to choose a young bride. The age difference -30 years – has raised eyebrows amongst Swazis but, as many told me, who are we to complain when the girl herself seems happy enough to have a new palace built for her.
4. The Americans are building a new embassy.

The talk of Swaziland is a major new construction just above the Gables Shopping centre that will house the US Embassy. The Americans are amongst the few countries that maintain an active diplomatic relationship with Mswati’s regime (the others are Taiwan and of course, South Africa) sending scores of peace corp workers in each year and pouring money into aid projects. The building is going up under the shade of Executioner’s Rock mountain where, in time gone past, Swazis used to execute people by pushing them off the edge to their deaths. Amongst the more frenzied rumours (always rife in Swaziland) about the embassy is that it will include bunkers and tunnels running up into the mountain…. At any rate the project is contributing to a sense of confidence in Swaziland: the Americans are here to stay.

5. The tap is flowing (though not gushing) again

receipts from the shared customs union with neighbouring SA as well as Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho was (and is) Swaziland’s main source of income. The gushing tap had slowed to a trickle following the global financial slowdown and a rethink on the part of economic powerhouse, SA as to how the money should be shared. After a few anxious years, the tap has since started flowing again and Swaziland is a step back from the precipice. But (and this is a big but) with no new industry or major investment to speak of, it hardly seems wise to pour the cash into shopping malls. As one person I met put it, “Who is going to be doing all this shopping?”

One of the things that has not changed: the cows (many of them royal) still rule the misty highways. So I left Mswati’s beautiful kingdom, gingerly scanning the sides of the road for any bovine with its head lifted, finger on my hazard button…


Where do we go from here?

Teachers take a break during protests demanding government pay what is owing to schools, so pupils can keep learning….

Protesters burn flag, or rather someone’s king skirt


Manzini, Sept 6th

Reed Dance in Pictures

Day 6. Maidens waiting to deposit bundles of reeds at royal kraal. I saw others arriving with broken-looking stalks earlier that looked far more genuine. I don't know where these bundles came from but they look very uniform. I was told maidens found it difficult to collect enough reeds this year after a mysterious fire destroyed most of the reed plantation

Day 6. This princess was late for the divvying out of the reeds so her driver dropped her off right in the middle of the action

Photo op

King Mswati entering the stadium – this year he was on foot with his regiment. He did not show the usual flash by entering in a luxury cars. Neither did the queen mother who made no grand entrance, seated demurely in the stands behind. Perhaps all in deference to the economic crisis.

Part of crowd of spectators. Sorry guys I couldn't resist. It took guts

Princess Sikhanyiso led the dancing as usual. This year she unveiled a new song. Read into it what you will: "This is our land, they may come with spears but that is not the way it goes. They will not cope, they will not get close to this land."

Dancing to Different Tunes: Umhlanga Maidens’ Close Encounter With Dangerous Varsity Students

Students from the University of Swaziland have been waiting 3 weeks for campus to open to allow them to start their varsity year but, UNISWA says it is short of funds, blaming the financial crisis. It seems the money for education has run out here in Swaziland. If and when the university does open, only about a quarter of the first year students who thought they would get state bursaries will actually get them. Students say they have exhausted all avenues by way of pleading with university authorities so they tried petitioning parliament.

Unluckily for them, just up the road, a march of a different kind was underway. Thousands upon thousands of Swazi maidens (by which I mean girls between the ages of 12 and 18 mainly) were massing in preparation for their long march to cut reeds to eventually present to the King on Monday. The air of festivity and expectation around the maidens is palpable as hordes of roadside stores mushroomed throughout the Lobombo area around Ezulwini to cater to the hungry, and often bored young women.

No ways were the students getting near the girls. You could hardly see the small group of toyi-toying students (who’d been brave enough to turn up given clashes with police outside the university earlier in the week) there was such a big crowd of  police surrounding them as they made their way down to parliament. On the way back things got nasty as the police blocked their route back to the bus rank and detained around 7 according to student leaders – the idea being so as not to ruin an otherwise beautiful, celebration of Swazi culture.

“They thought we wanted to disturb the King’s thing, this Reed Dance,” said student leader, Sibusiso Nhlabatsi. He and several others were bundled into police vans and taken to HQ where they were made to do press ups and stomach crunches for half an hour while police verbally abused them.”They told us we think the King is not good enough,” Nhlabatsi said.

Woman gives birth to 7-Headed Snake

And now for something completely different.

Both Swazi daily papers featured, as front page news, the story of a woman who gave birth to a snake.  This is apparently normal if you are an ex-devil worshipper, married to a cop. The only way the stories differ between papers is that in the Times she gave birth to a 7 headed snake, and in the Observer, a 2 headed one. Well, that and in the Times she also got a T-shirt from the devil while in the underworld and in the Observer she came away with a hairpiece manufactured in hell.

Swazi Police Grab Papers at Border

Swazi Times reports today that cops went to the border to grab copies of SA paper, the Sowetan apparently because it contained details of legal crisis unfolding  here. Specifically the sexual misconduct allegations against Chief Justice, Ramodibedi. Police apparently confiscated copies of the paper to study them and released them several hours later. It appears they also wanted to block copies of the Mail and Guardian coming in. There the offending article is one on King Mswati’s 12 wife, LaDube trying to flee the country.