There is growing anger in Swaziland as it emerges that the media have been forced to censor news that a group of King Mswati III‘s wives have been on another international shopping trip squandering up to E50 million (6 million US dollars) that should belong to ordinary Swazis.
When the wives went on a similar trip last August, it caused an outcry and ordinary Swazi women took to the streets to protest. The women defied the orders of traditional authorities not to march.
The latest news to emerge unofficially from Swaziland is that at least five of King Mswati’s 13 wives and up to 40 attendants are on what is being described as a ‘world tour’ that includes stop-offs in France, Italy, Taiwan, and the United States.
The ruling elite in Swaziland are trying to stop news of the queens’ tour of the world’s shopping malls becoming public. Sources usually regarded as reliable in Swaziland say that Barnabas Dlamini, the illegally-appointed prime minister of Swaziland, called in the editors of the national press and told them that the worldwide reaction to the last trip caused irreparable harm to the image of the king abroad.
He ordered them to publish nothing about the current trip. They were threatened with the loss of their jobs or the forced closure of their papers.
Although the reports of Dlamini’s intervention are unconfirmed, they ring true. King Mswati, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, has form when it comes to intimidating the media in Swaziland. In May 2009 he threatened the independent Times of Swaziland group of newspapers with sanctions (including possible closure) after it reported that the king had bought up to 20 top-of-the range armored Mercedes Benz cars at a cost of 250,000 US dollars each.
In March 2007, King Mswati personally threatened to close down the Times group after the Times Sunday reproduced a news agency report that said that there was concern internationally about the “private spending of authoritarian King Mswati III and his large royal family.”
One of the concerns is that the international community donates money and goods in kind (most obviously food) to Swaziland where seventy percent of the one million population live in abject poverty earning less than one US dollar a day. Up to 600,000 people had to receive some form of food aid in the past 18 months to fend off starvation.
Meanwhile, it is known that King Mswati has a personal fortune worth 200 million US dollars, but it is unclear where his money comes from.
Forbes says King Mswati is the beneficiary of two funds created by his father Sobhuza II in trust for the Swazi nation. During his reign, he has absolute discretion over use of the income, which has allowed him to build palaces for each of his wives and stay at five-star hotels when abroad.
As well as his personal wealth, King Mswati receives money from the Swazi taxpayer. In this year’s Swaziland national budget he gets E130 million (about 16 million US dollars) for his family’s upkeep.
This is more than the money Swaziland will spend on capital expenditure for education (E113 million) or capital expenditure on social security and welfare (E73 million).
Or put another way, 70 percent of the families of one million Swazi people live on less than E10 a day, while the Royal Family gets by on a third of a million a day.
The news that the king and his wives are squandering more money will anger many in the international community. At present there is a row about the amount of money Swaziland receives from the Southern Africa Customs Union (SACU).
Nearly two thirds of the income of the Swazi government comes from SACU receipts, which come from the South African government. In effect this means that South African taxpayers are paying for the queens’ shopping trip.
In the same vein, the European Union plans to donate more than EUR 63 million (90 million dollars) to the Swazi Government and the US government more than 200 million dollars to Swaziland each year.
Put simply, King Mswati and his wives are living an extravagant lifestyle funded not only by the Swazi poor, but by taxpayers from all over the globe.
Richard Rooney is Associate Professor, Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Swaziland. Rooney was a newspaper and magazine journalist in England for 15 years. His journalism has appeared in more than 60 different publications. He taught in universities in England and Papua New Guinea before going to Swaziland in February 2005. He has a Ph.D in Communication and has published academic research articles in journals and books across the world. Contact: <email@example.com>. This article was first published by Swazi Media Commentary on 19 August 2009; it is reproduced here for educational purposes..