Tag Archives: swaziland

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…


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.

Whatever happened to THAT princess?

LaDube in blue on the left

All right, time for some royal gossip.

Remember THAT princess, Inkhosikati laDube – otherwise known as wife no. 12? She who was surprised in a lover’s tryst with the Minister of Justice last year? Perhaps you saw those unforgettable photos circulating on the net of said minister peering out of the innards of a bed.

Well, after nearly a year in Coventry (sequestered inside one of the many royal palaces), she has been seen out in public again and has even been quoted giving fashion advice in a local paper.

When asked by the Times of Swaziland on Sunday to share her beauty secrets the former Miss Teen says, “Tons of sleep and staying prayed up.” She also advises readers, “it’s all about exercise, keeping healthy and staying positive.” Few clues there as to how she’s been spending those lonely months waiting for the dust to settle.

LaDube was spotted at a fashion show 2 weeks ago and both national papers published the photo of her in a pale blue sari (albeit in a low-key manner without mentioning why her appearance was significant).The state controlled Observer received a sharp rap over the knuckles from the King’s Office for daring to do so none the less. The Swazi media were not supposed to report on the scandal to begin with.

But, no matter, she appears to have managed a seamless coming-out – though we have yet to see her accompany her husband to any state functions.

As for her partner in crime, the erstwhile advisor to the king and top businessman, Ndumiso Mamba, he is still keeping a very, very low profile. He was not sentenced to death or locked away for life as many predicted, but is occasionally spotted at church with his wife.

It is official,my phone is bugged

At first I believed it must be some kind of mix up at the phone company. People who tried calling me when my phone was off told me they got through to someone else who said not to worry he would call me. They then heard the sound of dogs and children’s voice and he never came back on the line. Luckily it was just an old number I hardly used anyways and you sometimes hear of a phone company assigning the same number to 2 people.
Then, yesterday my editor told me it happened on my new number as well. Same guy, same story. Now, what are the chances. So, thank you MTN I certainly believe your assurances you are not helping police wiretap in Swaziland!

Inside the Industrial Court

There are moments when the energy around change is palpable in Swaziland. Wednesday, at the Mbabane Industrial Court was one of those times. From 2pm on members of the SNAT teachers’ union as well as a myriad other unions and political activists began arriving to pack the court where a panel of judges was listening to arguments from unions and the state as to whether a proposed strike and protest action could go ahead. The teacher-led strike was supposed to have begun Wed am and last until Fri but the government filed a last-minute interdict to stop it.  I counted at least 200 people in court. Sadly it all seemed to hinge on one piece of missing paper – the results of SNAT’s secret ballot that had to be filed with the Labour Office before a certain date for the strike to be legal. The unions’ lawyer said it had been, but the paper could not be found in evidence. On the other hand, the presiding judge pointed out, the state’s argument was full of holes so, in the end, a compromise had to be bashed out. The unions agreed not to strike for now and to go back to a mediation forum with government for another 7 days. Their members, who are itching to go out onto the streets so angry are they about proposed pay cuts etc, filed out meekly, agreeing justice had been done. The industrial court seemed a serious, fair place as opposed to the other courtrooms I have been in lately.

The police top brass put in an appearance – not inside court; but outside on the steps in case anyone thought of taking the toyi-toyi too far I guess. Maybe they were just bored from patrolling the streets to make sure no one thought of marching or striking.

Where is Maxwell?

Maxwell Dlamini addressing protesters on March 18th outside PMs office

Maxwell Dlamini, one of the main organisers behind national protests due to begin tomorrow is missing. So are 3 other youth leaders –  while another is on the run, fearing for his life.

Dlamini, who is president of the Swaziland National Union of Students (that’s him above addressing the crowd on March 18th calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation) was on his way back from the border last night. He had gone to South Africa to help plan the demonstrations since organisers did not feel safe doing so in Swaziland.

He was last seen at a police roadblock very near our place in Mbabane last night. Amongst the  others who have gone missing are the deputy president of the banned PUDEMO youth organisation, SWAYOCO – Sifiso Mabuza, (who told me in March being arrested is part of his job and he is used to it. He said, “We are saying to people of Swaziland they must get ready. They can’t keep getting crushed by police then they go home and keep quiet”.

Mcolisi Ngcamphalana, SWAYOCO’s national organiser believes he is public enemy number one. Maybe his is paranoid – you would be too if you’d been held and tortured as he says he was for 24 hours last week – but he says police believe his is the one behind the “faceless” national uprising. He says he is not, he simply supports it.  He has been on the run since last week but his little brother was picked up in a case of mistaken identity.