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Swaziland Questions Absolute Monarchy of King Mswati - 2002-11-14

In sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarchy, Swaziland, people are increasingly challenging the king's absolute authority. A recent lawsuit against the king has sparked renewed debate about what it means to be Swazi.

In Swaziland, King Mswati's word is literally the law. To directly challenge his authority is not only illegal, it is seen as committing the cardinal sin of being "un-Swazi."

That is why Lindiwe Dlamini sent such shockwaves through the country when she went to court to challenge what she called the abduction of her 18-year-old daughter by two of the king's aides. The daughter, Zena Mahlangu, was to become the king's 10th wife.

Mrs. Dlamini a longtime women's rights activist wanted her daughter back. But under Swazi custom, the king has the right to marry whoever he wants. So Mrs. Dlamini argued that his aides could not take the girl to the royal palace without informing her family. The king's aides, she said, had not honored Swazi custom.

In the end, the daughter agreed to marry the king, and Mrs. Dlamini withdrew her lawsuit.

Still, she is something of a hero to Swazi activists. But at a busy roadside market outside the Swazi capital, Mbabane, some people are less impressed. Fifty-nine-year-old Lindiwe Mkhiliphi minces few words when asked whether she was at all sympathetic to Mrs. Dlamini's cause.

"There is nothing you can do, because this is the law of Swaziland," she said. "Nothing you can do."

She has a point. Average Swazis have very little say in the way their country is run. King Mswati rules with total authority, as his father did before him, and his father before him, and as Swazi kings have for hundreds of years, except for the British colonial period.

It is hard to be a democracy advocate in Swaziland, because calling for change implies there is something wrong with the traditional Swazi system including the monarchy. Political parties have been banned since 1973.

But there is a fledgling pro-democracy movement. The Swaziland Democracy Alliance is headed by former prime minister Obed Dlamini, who argues Swaziland must change with the times or "face disaster."

"The country is sick, politically. It has to be democratized," he said. "And by democratization as far as we are concerned, is that we have to embark as a country into a multi-party dispensation."

Soon, the government is expected to propose the country's first written constitution in nearly 30 years. Western diplomats say it is likely to include some erosion of the king's power.

Swazi traditionalists are fighting against even that possibility. They say weakening the monarchy would be "un-Swazi." Former finance minister Isaac Shabangu heads a Swazi cultural group called "The Fortress."

"If the majority of the Swazis believe it should change, therefore let it change," he said. "But they cannot be just a few people who say it must change and therefore it changes. There must be a majority of people, Swazis."

Still, there are signs that change is coming to Swaziland. When King Mswati recently tried to make his brother chief of two provinces, public outrage forced him to back down. Last year, after he selected a 17-year-old schoolgirl to become his ninth wife, hundreds of outraged young women traveled to the royal palace to protest that he was violating his own ban on sexual activity for young people. The king agreed to pay the traditional fine of one cow.

Parliament recently rejected the purchase of a multi-million-dollar jet for the king's personal use. He is buying it anyway.

But human rights activists say even unsuccessful challenges to the king's authority are signs that the Swazi people are beginning to demand political rights.

"People are beginning to question the culture," Comfort Mabuza, an activist with the Media Institute of Southern Africa said. "You see, you cannot use the Swazi culture to muzzle the people and basically try to stop debate, and try to hinder people asking questions. I think we are now discovering that people have a right to ask, they have a right to debate the issues that are taking place in the country."

It hard to say whether Mr. Mabuza's ideas about democracy are shared by ordinary Swazis. The local newspapers are full of robust debate. But at the marketplace outside Mbabane, most people refused to speak to two Western reporters about the king.

Those who would talk were skeptical. Leaning up against a vegetable stall, Lindiwe Mkhiliphi laughs at the idea that the king will ever change his ways.

"He won't change. This is Swaziland!" he said.