LOZITHA, Swaziland (Reuters) - It was described as a divine message received in a thunderstorm, a surprise rebirth of Swaziland’s traditional “Tinkhundla” political system that triggered faint hopes of reform in Africa’s last absolute monarchy.
But a week before voters go to the polls in the landlocked southern African nation, King Mswati III admitted the “Monarchal Democracy” he had presented to an obedient Swazi press this month was merely a name change for foreign consumption.
Political parties, banned by his father Sobhuza II in the 1970s, will still play no part in Swaziland’s elections.
“No change really. It’s just a name so people can understand,” the monarch, educated at an exclusive English boarding school, told Reuters in a rare interview in the opulent, peacock-infested surrounds of Lozitha Palace, set in hills 20 km (13 miles) southeast of the capital, Mbabane.
“The world really doesn’t understand the Tinkhundla system,” he added. “But everybody can understand monarchal democracy. It’s an English name. This monarchal democracy is a marriage between the traditional monarchy and the ballot box, all working together under the monarchy.”
Sitting bare-shouldered on a gilded armchair in a bright red wrap and with the three red feathers symbolising Swazi monarchy stuck in his hair, the 45-year-old exuded confidence as he affirmed the support and loyalty of his 1.4 million subjects.
The king denied accusations of autocracy and was unapologetic about the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by him and his dozen or so wives, each of whom has a palace paid for by an administration that he himself appoints.
In 2009, Forbes magazine estimated his personal wealth at $200 million (126 million pounds) although Mswati said he had no idea where the figures came from.
“I was very surprised and wondering where I got all this amount of money,” he said. “You just live according to what you can afford and according to your taste within the budget that has been allocated. It’s not in anyone’s interest to overspend.”
Despite his self-assurance, outside the concrete walls of Lozitha, guarded by soldiers and conveniently sitting next door to the Ministry of Defence, all is not well in the tiny sugar-producing kingdom of rocky hills and rolling plains.
Swaziland has the world’s highest HIV/AIDS rate, with more than one in four adults infected, and the $4 billion economy is flat-lining, starved of investment and struggling to recover from a 2011 budget crunch that almost bankrupted the state.
The government survived by running through central bank reserves and paying civil servants late after failing to secure outside help because of foot-dragging over military and royal budget cuts and concerns about Mswati’s unaccountable rule.
Emboldened by popular uprisings in north Africa, cash-strapped Swazis launched small but unprecedented anti-government protests in 2011, while dissidents in exile in neighbouring South Africa even mentioned the ‘R-word’ - Republic.
While the government’s immediate funding crisis has eased with a revival in receipts from a regional customs union - the source of nearly two-thirds of its revenue - analysts say the country is doomed without a shake-up in the way it is run.
Most of the king’s subjects eke out a living in agriculture, often cultivating sugar, and there is widespread poverty.
“Swaziland is on a non-sustainable trajectory, which the king and the government will ignore at their peril,” the London-based Chatham House think-tank said in a report released ahead of the elections.
The chief resident of Lozitha does not share the concerns.
In the interview, Mswati extolled the virtues of Tinkhundla, a confusing mix of elected-but-apolitical MPs, tribal chieftains and royal patronage that places the king at the heart of all decisions, from foreign policy to road tolls.
He appoints the Prime Minister and the majority of the Senate and can - and does - ignore decisions of parliament. He is also immune from prosecution and pays no tax.
“It’s working well here. It’s providing peace and stability,” he said. “Everything that we do in this country is by consensus, by allowing the people themselves to define how they want themselves to be governed.”
Riot police used tear gas to disperse the 2011 protests and dissident union and student leaders were arrested, but Mswati denied using security forces to crush political opposition.
“We haven’t applied any kind of repressive measures. In fact, there is no need to do so because we are a very peaceful country, a peaceful nation,” he said.
On the streets of the capital, Swazis offer criticism of the king only in whispered tones, leaving the most strident voices to come from the relative safety of South Africa.
“This is a monarchy that says there is a constitution for the government and then says that we rule above it,” Wandile Dludlu of the Swaziland United Democratic Front, a coalition of pro-democracy activists, told a seminar in Pretoria this week.
“We should not allow Mswati to play God over our lives.”
Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Ralph Boulton