Wife No. 8 proves royal pain for king

Swaziland: Of hundreds of dancing maidens, African monarch picks out a high school dropout. He loses face, and an editor loses his job.

October 14, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MBABANE, Swaziland -- Presented with hundreds of exuberant maidens dancing before him during the annual "reed dance" in the royal compound of the Queen Mother last month, King Mswati III, 31, chose as his eighth bride Senteni Masango, an 18-year-old beauty.

What the monarch, who rules over 1 million Swazis in this South African nation, did not know as he participated in one of this country's most colorful rituals was that the bare-breasted teen-ager who caught his eye was an undisciplined high school dropout.

Nor could he have realized that his choice of a fiancee would undermine his country's efforts to shed its image as an outdated absolute monarchy and project itself as an emerging democracy.

As Mswati toured four European countries last month to drum up investment in his pocket-sized kingdom, the newspaper editor who revealed the educational shortcomings of his bride-to-be was arrested by the Royal Swaziland Police and charged with "criminal defamation," which carries the possibility of a fine or imprisonment.

The editor, Bheki Makhubu, 29, was fired Oct. 4 from the Times of Swaziland after refusing to apologize for publishing a story and being accused of "gross insubordination."

The case illustrates the tensions that surface when ancient and modern worlds collide, throwing tradition into conflict with progress and putting this kingdom's tolerance of basic freedoms under international scrutiny.

The harsh reaction to what is regarded as an insult to the royal family comes in the wake of a bloody uprising last year in Lesotho, another tiny kingdom in southern Africa, where the violence was blamed on dwindling respect for the monarchy and the rapid introduction of multiparty democracy.

Alerted by the nearby troubles and in line with a continental emphasis on promoting democracy over dictatorship, Mswati has been cautiously preparing his kingdom for the future.

His aim is to transform a country a little more than half the size of Maryland into a modern society without jeopardizing the aura around his throne, which allows him to hold an almost spiritual sway, as well as a political one, over his subjects.

There is a local saying that Swazis are 90 percent religious and 100 percent traditionalists. It sums up the confused emotions in this land of rugged mountains, verdant hills and blossom-filled valleys landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique.

Elections, limited opposition

In 1993, Mswati, who acceded to the crown when he was 18 in 1986, authorized the first elections since the country's 1968 independence from British protectorate status. A second election was held on schedule last year.

Opposition parties, formally banned under a national emergency declared by Mswati's father in 1973, are not represented in the parliament of elected independents and royal nominees. But they operate openly.

The Cabinet, selected by the king from members of parliament, is dominated by technocrats led by Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini, an economist.

The sale of land held under traditional authority has been accelerated for development. That has created tension between the politicians and the country's 308 chieftains, who previously controlled most of the countryside. But it also has led to wider land ownership and the construction of an impressive industrial park that has attracted international companies, including Coca-Cola.

Mswati appointed a constitutional review commission to decide what sort of system most Swazis want, but he botched the first effort by keeping the hearings closed to the news media, prompting the Clinton administration to withdraw its support for the process.

The United States, prodded by the AFL-CIO, also is pressuring parliament and the palace to adopt a new labor law. It would replace a draconian 1996 law, passed in the wake of industrial unrest, that threatened strike leaders with prison and contravened the standards of the International Labor Organization. At stake for Swaziland is preferential trade access to the U.S. market for its textiles and sugar.

Behind the thrust toward modernization, the royal prerogatives remain largely unchanged.

Mswati controls the political heights of a country where more than 100 princes vie for power and influence. His father is reputed to have had more than 80 wives and 200 children.

He has not reacted publicly to the furor over his fiancee, but in a meeting in the royal residence at Ludzidzini, the governor of the royal household, Dibanisa Mavuso, said Mswati and his fiancee were "annoyed."

After publication of the article, Mavuso summoned media executives to the palace.

"I told them it is not Swazi custom to write about his majesty's affairs," he said, adding that the king took no part in the decision to prosecute Makhubu. "What Swazis say is, they don't want their king embarrassed."

`Gagged press' denied

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