Johanneburg — The government of eSwatini is refuting media reports that the nation's King Mswati III - the last absolute monarch in Africa - is "critically ill" with COVID-19.
Reports began to circulate after the king did not appear for a Good Friday service.
"The King is not ill," Foreign Minister Thuli Dladla told VOA via WhatsApp message when asked about the reports on Monday. "He is very much fine and directing Cabinet from the Palace. He meets the PM and Minister (of) Health now and again. We don't want him to be exposed. He is very well."
She also called the media reports "a very sick joke and very defamatory."
The World Health Organization says the landlocked nation of 1.1 million people, formerly known as Swaziland, has reported 12 cases of the virus, and no deaths.
The tiny nation wedged between South Africa and Mozambique is Africa's last absolute monarchy, co-ruled by King Mswati III and his mother. The nation is technically a democracy, though political parties are banned, and the king is the top executive who rules for life.
The 51-year-old monarch has ruled since he was 18. He has at least 15 wives and 23 known children. In 2018, he suddenly changed the country's name to eSwatini.
News outlets based in eSwatini or in neighboring South Africa have in recent days raised questions about the king's whereabouts.
On April 11, journalist Zweli Martin Dlamini, editor of the online Swaziland News, published a report that the monarch was in "a critical health condition at Manzana Royal Hospital" after the king did not appear for services Friday.
A rights group, the Swaziland Solidarity Network, reported that day that royal police raided Dlamini's home and harassed his family. His newspaper has subsequently reported that he is missing and wanted by police.
In addition to reporting on the king's health, Dlamini has also published several critical articles on the king, whose lavish lifestyle is in stark contrast to the dire poverty faced by most Swazis.
Swazi activists in South Africa say they believe the reports of the king's illness are true. South Africa-based activist Lucky Lukhele, spokesperson for Swaziland Solidarity Network, said the king is "seriously ill" in the hospital.
He said his information comes from close contacts within the royal family. He also said his network had received reports that other members of the royal family are ill.