Swaziland: Chief Forces Subjects to Greet King

A chief in Swaziland has told his subjects they have no rights when it comes to attending 'traditional' ceremonies involving the King: they have to go.

The instruction by Chief Malambule of Mbilaneni that he will force people to turn out to greet and celebrate King Mswati III confirms suspicions that Swazi people might not be as keen to support the monarch as his supporters insist.

King Mswati rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch and there are several 'traditional' cultural ceremonies where people are expected to celebrate him.

Chief Malambule was quoted by the Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by the King, saying, 'As long as I am still the ruler here, all of you are expected to participate in all activities such as the cultural events of the kingdom and this is a must.'

The newspaper said the chief 'who seemed to be seething with anger' told about 400 of his subjects who attended a mass meeting he had called to address them, 'that he expected no one to claim he or she had a right to participate or not to participate in important national duties'.

Chief Malambule was angry that so few of his subjects had attended the Incwala ceremony in December 2013.

Incwala is a controversial annual ceremony in which the King goes into seclusion. His supporters call the ceremony a 'national prayer', but some Christian leaders have labelled it 'un-Godly' and 'pagan'.

The Observer quoted him saying, 'No one should claim he or she has a right to decide if he or she attends these ceremonies. I am expecting all the boys to attend ceremonies such as Lusekwane and Incwala.

'I found myself having nowhere to hide during the recent Incwala when I had to identify a group of tingatja which was expected to accompany me. I found that less than four of the boys attended and I turned a laughing stock to other chiefs whose boys came in numbers.'

Chief Malambule fined each homestead in his chiefdom with boys who did not attend E20, about one day's income for seven in ten of Swaziland's population.

Another of the major 'traditional' cultural ceremonies where people are pressured to attend is the Reed Dance or Umhlanga, which takes place each year, usually in August or September.

Here 'maidens' dance half naked in front of the King. Thousands attend (although the actual numbers are contested), but there have been reports in past years of girls being coerced into attending by their chiefs and the girls' families can be victimised if they do not go.

Sponsors, keen to gain the King's approval, have also offered gifts, such as sneakers, to those who dance before the King.

Musa Hlophe, a regular columnist for the Times of Swaziland, one of the few newspapers in the kingdom not owned by King Mswati, commented after one Reed Dance that many of the girls who attended went because it was their only chance to get a decent meal.

Chief Malambule's attack on his subjects demonstrates that chiefs in Swaziland have enormous powers over their subjects, because they are appointed by King Mswati III.

Traditionally they lead a band of area elders. They can decide who lives where and some have been known to banish people from their homes for not obeying rules. Sometimes chiefs demand tithes from their subjects such as a beast or money.

In November 2013, the newly-appointed Chief Ndlovula of Motshane threatened to evict nearly 1,000 of his subjects from grazing land if they did not pay him a E5,000 (US$500) fine, the equivalent of more than six months income for many.

He said his subjects had illegally built homes on land put aside for grazing.

Chiefs also settle disputes such as over land, accusations of witchcraft, and wandering livestock that harm someone's crops. Many also settle criminal disputes that probably should best be left to magistrates.

Chiefs are given stipends by the national treasury, but not salaries, and community members pay their allegiance to chiefs by weeding and harvesting their fields, and constructing the traditional mud and thatch huts usually found at chiefs' homesteads.

In Swaziland chiefs do the king's bidding at a local level. People know not to mess with the chief because their livelihood depends on his goodwill. In some parts of Swaziland the chiefs are given the power to decide who gets food that has been donated by international agencies and then the chiefs quite literally have power of life and death in such cases with about a third of the population of Swaziland receiving food aid each year.

Chiefs can and do take revenge on their subjects who disobey them. There is a catalogue of cases in Swaziland. For example, Chief Dambuza Lukhele of Ngobelweni in the Shiselweni region banned his subjects from ploughing their fields because some of them defied his order to build a hut for one of his wives.

Nhlonipho Nkamane Mkhatswa, chief of Lwandle in Manzini, the main commercial city in Swaziland, reportedly stripped a woman of her clothing in the middle of a Swazi street in full view of the public because she was wearing trousers against his orders.

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