Life of a Swazi King: Bare-Chested Brides and Rolls Royces

Royal life in Swaziland matches traditional rituals with modern luxury.

ByABC News
December 17, 2008, 11:50 AM

NAIROBI, Kenya, Jan. 28, 2009 — -- Every year around 75,000 young women in Swaziland flock to its capital to participate in the Reed festival, in which bare-chested virgins cut off a reed and dance for the king of the country, many of them hoping to be plucked from the crowd to be his newest bride.

To the Western world, the dance is seen as exotic and even exploitive, but to Swazis it's a centuries-old custom and way to maintain, in a modern world, the country's deeply traditional beliefs.

Swaziland's focus on tradition extends beyond the annual festival. Here, everything is about the king.

The tiny southern African country with a population of 1 million is one of the last absolute monarchies in the world. Unlike royal families in Europe, the kingship is not a ceremonial role. He is the law and it is only he who has supreme authority.

The current king, Mswati III, 40, has ruled Swaziland since 1986. His father, King Sobhuza II, ruled for nearly 83 years. King Sobhuza's reign was the longest on record in modern history. He believed deeply in maintaining what, in his view, was the essence of Swazi culture, including polygamy.

According to the Swaziland National Trust Commission, King Sobhuza II "married 70 wives and had 210 children between 1920 and 1970."

He is survived by nearly 100 children and 1,000 grandchildren, all considered part of the royal family. He also believed an absolute monarchy was central to Swaziland culture. After independence from Britain in 1968, Swaziland was initially set up as a constitutional monarchy. There would be a king, but also a constitution and a parliament.

Within five years, however, King Sobhuza had dissolved the parliament and repealed the constitution.

He made all decisions regarding the country's economy, justice system, education. He regarded political parties, voting, and government checks and balances as "alien" to the traditions of Swaziland.

His son, King Mswati, is reportedly taking after his father in many respects. Though he re-established a constitution nearly three years ago and allowed Swazis to vote in a parliament for the first time in more than 30 years last September, democracy experts say Swaziland hasn't changed much.