Long Live the King: Sobhuza II of Swaziland Looks Back on 80 Years and 100 Wives
Jimmy Carter could learn a thing or two about political popularity from the king. When Sobhuza goes out among his people, they lavish affection upon his graying head. Conversations with him customarily begin with an obeisance like: "Sobhuza, born of the royal shields, master of the spears, you have brought your people joy and pride, all hail! I am a mere nothing, a dog, a stick." Politically, Sobhuza has little to worry about—except from occasional mythic spirits. To deal with them, he stages a week-long ceremony once a year, beginning under a full moon. He puts on a crimson loincloth, smears himself with the fat of a slaughtered bull, sticks four red feathers into his hair and launches into an age-old ritual of battle. His partisans get as jittery as an American candidate's at convention time. "Jjiya, oh king, alas for your fate!" they cry during the ceremony. "Jjiya, oh king, they reject thee; Jjiya, oh king, they hate thee." But Sobhuza spits sacred waters to the east, then to the west, and is declared the winner every time.
Swazis call him "the Lion," "the Great Mountain," "the Inexplicable" and, perhaps most descriptively, "the Bull." With more than 100 wives and 500 children, he is literally the father of about one-tenth of one percent of his country's population (527,000). By 1933, only 12 years after becoming king, he had married at least 50 times. His matrimonial adventures have slowed since then, however. Swazi maidens say becoming Sobhuza's wife these days is like taking the veil. Still, he marries a new woman every couple of years or so. Early wives are the most influential at court, but he has outlived most of them.
To his people, Sobhuza's fertility may be his most important virtue. It is inseparably linked, they say, to the fertility of the land—and most of Swaziland's GNP is agricultural. (Sobhuza and his medicine men say his longevity and fertility derive from drinking the juices of a secret root.) The king is also a shrewd, if sometimes less than delicate, politician. The kingdom of Swaziland became the last British territory in Africa to win its independence, in 1968, and Sobhuza was not happy about it even then. Five years later he announced that democracy wasn't working and canceled it, along with the nation's new constitution and parliament. His opponents, he complained, were getting into the government and acting like "hyenas urinating upwind." Last October he relented a bit and allowed new elections, but kept veto power over all candidates.
Yet Sobhuza is a simple man, as kings go. He has been abroad only twice—in 1922 and 1953, both times to England-He rides in a battered black 1975 Lincoln Continental, and some of its dents are his own handiwork. Though he has no license, he often terrifies his royal guard by taking the wheel himself and careening along unpaved back roads. Loyal followers have built two palaces for him—one is a gaudy, white-turreted number straight out of an early Tony Curtis movie. The king uses neither, preferring his private grass hut in the royal compound at Lobamba, where he often whiles away the day drinking corn beer from a communal bowl with his wives. At night he sleeps outdoors on a reed mat. Sobhuza presides over national meetings on the grounds at Lobamba, often drawing thousands of his subjects around his campstool. He also keeps 10,000 cattle grazing there.
Swaziland wonders whether anyone will be able to follow his royal stewardship. All of his fellow African strongmen—the Sardauna of Northern Nigeria, the Mwami of Burundi, even Ethiopia's "Lion of Judah," Haile Selassie—long ago fell to young modernists. Swaziland furthermore is landlocked in a geographical—and political—vise. Sobhuza has an uncanny ability to get along with both the "progressive Marxists" of bordering Mozambique, whom he needs for access to the sea, and the "white racists" of South Africa, whom he relies on for imports. But, although he has some 50 middle-aged sons angling for his throne, he has groomed no one to succeed him.
Nor is he supposed to. The machinery of Swazi succession is quite precise. Sobhuza's death would be followed by the election from among his senior wives of a new Queen Mother, or Indlovukati ("she-elephant"), by the elders of the royal family. They hold all of Sobhuza's treasures in trust for the nation, an arrangement some say has prevented the corrupt excesses of other African rulers. Then the elders pick one of her sons as king.
Few Swazis look forward to that day. With a one-battalion army and a one-plane air corps, Sobhuza has sustained his government largely through force of personality. The king is increasingly unwell; he had to cancel several birthday festivities due to an onset of influenza. But his royal patriarchy remains as popular as ever, in part, perhaps, because he treats his subjects as his children—and because so many of them are. "Go home carefully," Sobhuza told the throng at Lobamba, "and be sure you don't catch the flu so we can all meet again."
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