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

Royal life in Swaziland matches traditional rituals with modern luxury.

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Within five years, however, King Sobhuza had dissolved the parliament and repealed the constitution.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

Swaziland's Government

Opposition parties are still essentially illegal in the country and both the president and the prime minister are appointed by the president.

"I think it's a bit of a façade," says Robert Hermann, programs director for Freedom House, an organization tracking democracy world-wide. "It's not democracy in any way the way we think about it. These elections fit in a way that all these people are going to be loyal to the king," he told ABC News.

Political dissension is not tolerated, and speaking against the king is considered a treasonable offense. Last month Mario Masuko, an outspoken critic of the monarchy who has spent years campaigning to make Swaziland a multi-party democracy, was charged with supporting terrorism.

Masuko leads the People's United Democratic Movement, known as Pudemo. The group is accused of being behind a failed bomb plot after September's elections. The king promptly had a new anti-terror law passed, banning Pudemo and three other opposition groups. If convicted Masuko could face 25 years in prison.

The Swazi government has defended the new law, with the attorney general telling the BBC that "The idea is not to punish eminent political opponents; it is to punish entities and persons involved in terrorist acts."

But Hermann says that the law has very little to do with terrorism. "They're using the terrorist term as a weapon against political opponents," he says.

The monarchy claims that Swazi people don't want a Western-style democracy, that it's incompatible to Swaziland tradition. The king does remain popular with the masses, but cracks in his support are beginning to show.

While the rule of law under King Mswati may be traditional, the lifestyle of the royal family is decidedly modern – and lavish. He reportedly has as many as 14 wives and more than 30 children. Royal protocol makes it impossible to know exactly how much money the royal family has and how it is being spent, but according to the Freedom House's "Countries at the Crossroads" report last year, the king requested state funds to purchase a private jet and build new royal palaces for his wives.

King Mswati and Royal Family Live in Luxury

He is known to own several luxury cars including a Daimler Chrysler Maybach, worth about $700,000. Earlier this year Princess Sikhanyiso, King Mswati's eldest daughter, was number 20 in Forbes Magazine's "20 Hottest Young Royals" list, sharing the title with Britain's Princes William and Harry, among others.

The magazine compiled the list by ranking "international Web and media presence as well as family wealth." Though she has spoken out in the past against some Swazi traditions, like polygamy, she also benefits from her position. Unlike most college age kids in Swaziland, she is able to acquire schooling abroad and currently studies at Biola University in California.

But some Swazis are beginning to publicly question King Mswati's extravagance. Last September, the king celebrated his 40th birthday and the nation's 40 years of independence by throwing a nationwide party reportedly costing more than $10 million.

A month prior the local press reported that nine of the king's wives had chartered a plane to go on a shopping trip to Europe and Dubai.

Both instances sparked protests by activists who said the money could be better spent improving the lives of Swaziland citizens, some of the poorest in the world.

Life for ordinary Swazis is by most accounts extremely hard.

The country boasts the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world. In 2005 the Swazi Ministry of Health released a survey finding that nearly half the country was infected with disease. The numbers have fallen recent in years, but still today more than a quarter of adult Swazis are living HIV/AIDS. But they aren't living long -- the disease has devastated the population, with the average life expectancy rate at 32 years old. More than 70 percent of Swazi citizens live in poverty, a sharp contrast to the life of the royal family. That is something more and more Swazis, who are struggling to survive, are noticing.

"People I talked to say that the former king didn't live such a lavish lifestyle, at least not publicly" says Hermann. "Ordinary Swazis are beginning to ask: where in our tradition does it say the king needs to drive a Rolls Royce?"