MANZINI, April 12, 2011 (AFP) – Africa’s last absolute monarch, Swaziland’s King Mswati III, has enraged his impoverished nation by enjoying a lifestyle of unchecked luxury while demanding salary cuts from civil servants. Mswati has 13 wives and a fortune estimated at $100 million, placing him on Forbes magazine’s list of the 15 richest monarchs in the world. The 42-year-old king, who assumed the throne in 1986 at the age of 18, has a penchant for fast cars, luxury palaces and extravagant parties. In a country where nearly 70 percent of people live on less than a dollar a day, he has caused controversy by building million-dollar palaces for each of his wives, giving them BMWs and personal staff and sending them on overseas shopping sprees by private jet.
To rein in government spending and qualify for international loans, Swaziland wants to slash salaries for civil servants, which last month sparked rare street protests. Born on April 19, 1968, only four months before Swaziland attained independence from Britain, Mswati is, like the country he rules, a curious mix of traditional African and modern Western influences. Educated at Sherborne school in the south of Britain, he is as likely to appear in public in a stylish suit and tie as the traditional blanket wrap and red-feathered crown he is often photographed in. He has embraced Western-style market-driven economic policies, but has refused to loosen the monarchy’s grip on power. Besides acting as head of state and commander in chief, the king appoints his cabinet and prime minister — currently the staunchly loyalist Barnabas Dlamini — and maintains tight control over parliamentary elections.
Political parties have been banned in the kingdom since 1973. Respect for the monarchy runs deep among Swazi people, who take their name from the current king’s 19th-century forebear Mswati II, but patience with the royal family has appeared to be running thin in recent years. Mswati sparked outrage in 2002 when he tried to lease a $48 million private jet in the middle of a drought that left a quarter of the population in need of food aid. The same year, the mother of 18-year-old Zena Mahlangu said royal aides had kidnapped her daughter to become the king’s 10th wife. Mswati had reportedly spotted Mahlangu at the annual reed dance, a ceremony in which tens of thousands of bare-breasted virgins dance for the king. When Mahlangu’s mother took the matter to court, the presiding judges claimed Mswati’s henchmen had threatened them. The entire high court resigned later that year when the king refused to abide by the six judges’ ruling in the case of 200 families evicted in eastern Swaziland so Prince Maguga, Mswati’s brother, could live on their land.
The king’s marital life has continued to be at the centre of numerous controversies and scandals. The king again caused a stir in 2003 when he picked his 11th wife, 17-year-old Noliqwa Ntentesa, admitting to violating his own decree banning sex for women under 18 — a bid to halt the spread of HIV in the country with the world’s worst infection rate, 25.9 percent. In 2008, a 19-year-old woman reportedly ran away to South Africa to escape becoming wife number 14. Last year, Justice Minister Ndumiso Mamba resigned amid allegations of a love affair with Mswati’s 12th wife. A palace source told AFP 22-year-old Nothando Dube, a former Miss Teen Swaziland, would disguise herself as a soldier to sneak out of her palace to meet the minister. Mswati has 23 children. According to the Swaziland National Trust, his father, King Sobhuza II, had 70 wives and 210 children.
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