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…


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