Swaziland – tradition, autocracy and corruption – II

A police spokeswoman said that women make it easier for rapists by wearing mini-skirts. “The act of the rapist is made easy because it would be easy to remove the half-cloth worn by the women,” she said.

(Daily Times, 24 April 2013)

Swaziland gained independence from Britain in 1968 under King Sobhuza II, whose nominal reign of almost 83 years (1899-1982) is a world record.  At the time of his accession in 1899 upon his father’s death, he was only a few months old, with his mother acting as regent until 1921.  Within five years of gaining independence, in 1973 the king repealed the constitution and banned political parties, making himself absolute ruler.

He may have set another world record for the size of his harem, with 70 wives and 218 children. At the time of his death he had over a thousand grandchildren.  Ninety seven of his children are still alive.

With so many children contending for the throne, succession in the kingdom is not a simple matter, no matter the rules.  So, after Sobhuza died in 1982, Mswati, one of his many sons, succeeded in becoming king with the help of his manipulative mother.  Upon which he performed the ceremonial ritual of slaying a lion to seal his accession.

In terms of his harem, King Mswati III is only a faint shadow of his father, with only fourteen wives and 23 children, and, even though is only 45 years old, time may be running out for him to close the gap. A Swazi king’s first two wives are chosen for him by the royal National Councillors. According to tradition, he can only marry his fiancées after they have fallen pregnant, proving they are fertile. Until then, they are termed liphovela, or “brides”.

One of the wealthiest kings in the world, with a fortune estimated by Forbes in 2009 at $200 million, King Mswati reigns over an impoverished country in the throes of a political crisis, besides the AIDS epidemic.  While there are many countries in Africa which make short shrift of multi-party politics, Swaziland is the only one in the region which does not even make a pretence of democracy.

Wandile Dludlu, from the Swaziland United Democratic Front, is quoted in the Guardian (April 11, 2012) as describing the king as a “gallivanter” who recently added a Rolls-Royce and Mercedes to his car collection and enjoys a hedonistic whirl of cocktail parties, “orgies” and shopping trips to Dubai.

Amid allegations of extrajudicial killing and torture, human rights groups complain that Swaziland has been turned into a police state with a sinister culture of state surveillance and accuse the king of being a despot and a dictator. They say that rituals, in which old men take child brides and celebrate promiscuity, are contributing to the spread of AIDS.

Nevertheless, loyalty to the king is strong in the rural areas where three quarters of Swazis live. Children grow up on stories of his magical powers “such as the ability to induce rain, turn himself into a cat or make himself invisible to his enemies”.  In the national language, the words for chief, king and god are similar. “The king is the mouth that tells no lie,” one saying holds.

Swaziland’s tourist fame, however, mainly rests on the annual Umhlanga (Reed) Dance, which is a traditional opportunity for thousands of Swaziland’s maidens, very many of them bare-breasted, to pay tribute to the Queen Mother, but also an occasion for the King to choose a new wife for himself.

Today’s tourist will be lucky to see the traditional side of Swaziland unless he times his visit to coincide with the Umhlanga Dance or some other festival.  And he would be rather unlucky to see the regime’s authoritarian aspects.  I saw neither.  What I did see is a densely populated, scenic, hilly, poor kingdom where life is rather laid back, and where some policemen are trying to augment their salary by taking “drink money”, while others allow offending motorists to get a “discount” if they pay a fine directly into their pocket instead of the state coffers, as I did.

The central market in Mbabane is a noisy, bustling place next to the main bus station.  Hawking and selling here, as elsewhere in Africa, is mainly women’s business.  Just another African marketplace, with all its sights and sounds, where both men and women, like elsewhere in Africa, are very colourfully dressed.  The only Indian restaurant in town is run by a Bangladeshi family, who were recent arrivals in search of greener pastures.

The clash of tradition and modernity, the contradiction therein, and the hypocrisy thereabout, is best illustrated by the issue of how women dress in Swaziland.  It was reported in The Telegraph (September 24, 2004) that, following the arrest of two bus conductors and a bus driver who were charged with the gang rape of an 18-year old student, “bus conductors in Swaziland have vowed to assault and rape female passengers who wear miniskirts.”  Hundreds of women who marched to the bus rank to protest the attack were met by bus crews who vowed to “teach these women respect”.  A conductor said: “Women who wear miniskirts want to be raped, and we will give them what they want.”

Late last year, the police said they will enforce a 19th century law which bans “immoral” dressing. However, the colonial-era law will not apply to traditional costumes worn by women during ceremonies like the annual reed dance, where many women and girls appear bare-breasted, not to mention short skirts.

According to a report quoting the Times of Swaziland, a police spokeswoman, Wendy Hleta, said women make it easier for rapists by wearing mini-skirts. “The act of the rapist is made easy because it would be easy to remove the half-cloth worn by the women,” she said.  Women who wear “skimpy clothes” also draw unnecessary attention to themselves.  “I have read from the social networks that men and even other women have a tendency of ‘undressing people with their eyes’. That becomes easier when the clothes are hugging or are more revealing,” Ms Hleta is quoted as saying.

Yes, dear reader, these are the words of the police spokeswoman of the Kingdom of Swaziland, not the spokesman of the Taliban, Iranian or the Saudi Committee for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue!


By Razi Azmi



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2 Responses to Swaziland – tradition, autocracy and corruption – II

  1. Javed Agha says:

    An amazing country. So different from others. In this day and age, people follow the king blindly. I have sent you some pictures of annual Umhlanga (Reed) Dance. I wonder they dance for the queen mother or to please the king, who takes a new bride on that day. People offer their girls to him and feel blessed. He is the real KING.
    Thanks for taking us through interesting journey of yours.

  2. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Razi Sahib, Thank you for the information and insights into lands about which not much is writte.

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