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Africa's last monarch celebrates his birthday

Swazi king reigns over a land his detractors describe as an island of dictatorship.
Last modified: 19 Apr 2013 21:31

King Mswati III celebrates his 45th birthday today.

Grand celebrations are planned and thousands of people will celebrate alongside him.

The king reigns over Africa's last absolute monarchy - a country opposition leaders describe as an island of dictatorship in a sea of democracy.

But the king - who has been in power for 27 years is widely loved and respected. He is an integral part of Swazi culture and is part of the reason this nation of 1.3 million people is unique.

While its neighbours have changed dramatically - from the end of apartheid in South Africa to a bloody civil war then peace in Mozambique - with both now fully fledged democracies.

In contrast, there are elections and there is a constitution in Swaziland, but the King can overrule both, prompting opponents to describe them as pointless.

Absolute power 

Perhaps it is Swaziland's small size and homogenous nature that's kept its monarchy so powerful.

Last Friday marked 40 years since King Sobhuza II abrogated Swaziland's independence constitution and created an absolute monarchy.

Since taking the reigns Mswati III has shown little sign of introducing reform.

The closest he came was in 2011 when a dramatic drop in revenue (because of the economic crisis) meant Swaziland turned to South Africa for a bailout - but the conditions of political reform were refused and now, as the global economy has recovered, so too has Swaziland's bank balance.

It has taken some of the steam out of the pro-democracy movement, so has the harsh nature by which the police crack down on any attempt to protest, despite the fact the constitution includes the freedom of association.

When I spoke to Vincent Dlamini of the National Association of Public Servants and Allied Workers Union he said opposition groups had to think of new ways to be active, but he seemed at a bit of a loss as to what that could involve.

'A selection'

The king says that anyone can run in elections (due later this year) but only as independents, not as members of any political party.

Mario Masuku, the leader of the banned Pudemo (People's United Democratic Movement) told me it's not an election but a selection.

Despite the challenges both Dlamini and Masuku say they're determined to see real democracy in their lifetimes.

The country has many challenges.

Most of its people live below the poverty, a third are malnourished, it has one of the highest HIV rates in the world and by 2014 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts it will have the worst performing economy in the world.

While revenue has bounced back the king has unfettered access to the state's coffers and a penchant for extravagance, with 14 wives, 24 children and hundreds of chiefs to share his patronage with his power-base seems solid although a drain on the country's finances.

But for those outside the circle, life is much harder.