6 April 2018

Swaziland: Swazi King's Birthday Excesses

Photo: Cia Pak/UN Photo
King Mswati III
analysis

People in Swaziland are to be encouraged to give King Mswati III, the kingdom's absolute monarch, gifts to mark his 50th birthday - but only after his party is over and dignities have gone home.

A party costing millions of dollars is being organised at Mavuso Trade and Exhibition Centre in Manzini on 19 April 2018 and Cleopas Dlamini, Chairperson of the Resource Mobilisation Committee that is organising it, said, 'We know that there are those who want to make specific contributions like birthday gifts to His Majesty; they will have a chance to hand the gifts to him on a date that will be announced. The date, however, will be after the celebrations and it will be communicated to the public.'

King Mswati and his family live lavish lifestyles while seven in ten of his estimated 1.1 million subjects live in abject poverty with incomes less than the equivalent of US$2 per day. The extent of the King's extravagance is highlighted at his birthday.

In past years he has received a private aircraft and a fleet of BMW cars as presents. Meanwhile, ordinary Swazi people have been compelled to give him gifts of cattle.

Last year just as the World Food Program (WFP) revealed that one-in-three people in Swaziland were 'in need of emergency food assistance', media in the kingdom reported that King Mswati III's birthday cake took three months to prepare.

The Times of Swaziland reported, 'All eyes were on the cake that was beautifully displayed in the front during the garden party at His Majesty's birthday celebration. Most people were asking themselves how much time it took the bakers to prepare the cake. The company has always made it a point that it prepares a beautiful cake every year for His Majesty's birthday celebrations.'

The Swazi Observer said, 'The purple and cream white cake was set on a gold stand that connected the 49 pieces to make it one and the artistic look was finished off with a gold lion shaped piece.'

The King, who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, marked his 49th birthday while more than one in three of his subjects were kept alive by international food aid. The WFP reported 350,000 people were in need of emergency food assistance, with 640,000 potentially affected by some degree of food insecurity at the peak of the lean season (November 2016 - April 2017).

The WFP reported that its efforts to feed Swaziland was underfunded and people might not get fed in June 2017.

It reported, 'Chronic malnutrition is a main concern in Swaziland: stunting affects 26 percent of children under five years. Swaziland is vulnerable to drought in the south east. 77 percent of Swazis rely on subsistence farming for their livelihoods.'

In 2015, King Mswati hosted a birthday party for himself that cost at least E1.2 million (US$120,000). According to a report in the Sunday Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by the King, 35 cattle and 1,000 blankets were also presented to the King. The King's subjects, through their chiefs, also contributed 69 cattle, two goats and E5,400 cash.

The Observer reported, 'The dinner was indeed a glamorous event that was attended by Her Majesty the Queen Mother, Emakhosikati, members of the royal family, chiefs, diplomats, acting Chief Justice Bheki Maphalala, cabinet ministers, members of parliament and advisory councils.'

The newspaper said the dinner held at Ebuhleni Royal Residence was mainly sponsored by the Indonesian Consular and businessman Kareem Ashraf.

In a speech, the King told his admirers that God blessed his party. He said, 'The nation will recall that during the evening programme (on April 19) we received blessings from God in the form of rain. It is our traditional belief that when it rains after a national ceremony it means God is happy with the whole event.'

In 2013, his birthday party cost US$3.6 million, but Percy Simelane, spokesperson for the Swazi Government, which is handpicked by the King, said this money did not come out of the kingdom's budget for celebrations and national events. He told Voice of America radio, 'The King's birthday was privately sponsored this year, as [was] the case last year.'

He did not say who sponsored the event.

Also in 2013, the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), a banned political party in Swaziland, reported 32 BMW cars had been delivered to King ahead of his 45th birthday celebrations.

In 2012, the King was embroiled in a row when he took delivery of a private jet plane, worth an estimated US$46 million. He claimed that the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 twin-engine jet was a gift from an admirer, but declined to say who it was. This led to speculation that the jet had been purchased out of public funds.

The King choses a different area of his kingdom to visit for his birthday celebrations. In 2012 the venue was Shiselweni, Swaziland's poorest region. Locals were forced to give up their cattle for the King. At the time, the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN), a banned organisation in Swaziland, called for the party to be cancelled.

It said in a statement, 'Shiselweni is the country's poorest region, the same area where the country's poorest citizens live. Areas like Lavumisa are so poverty stricken that its residents have at times been reported to be living on poisonous shrubs. Despite this abject poverty in the region, the King has insensitively decided to throw a lavish birthday party and rub his stolen riches in the people's poverty stricken faces.'

In 2014, the King's birthday party received global attention when world-famous hip-hop and soul singer Erykah Badu sang for the monarch.

King Mswati's grip on power in his kingdom is so great that at the time magazine editor Bheki Makhubu and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko were serving two years in jail for contempt of court after calling the independence of the Swazi judicial system into question in articles in a small circulation magazine, the Nation.

Also, seven people were in jail awaiting trial for wearing T-shirts supporting the pro-democracy group PUDEMO.

It was against this background that Badu, who in the past had been a vocal supporter of human rights, sang the King's praises and gave him a US$100 note as a gift.

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