22 April 2003

SWAZILAND: Royal debate finds bible condemns democracy

King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch and unelected head of state, reasserted the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings during an Easter weekend religious observation that turned into an anti-democracy rally. "Although the whole world is preaching democracy, it does not mean we have to follow them," Mswati said. He dismissed democracy as a fad that has taken hold of the world, but which has no place in his realm.

"Democracy is not good for us because God gave us our own way of doing things," said the king, addressing 400 pastors at Engabezweni royal village, 25 km east of Mbabane, the capital. Mswati wore an antelope loinskin and red feathers in his hair, designating royalty. Seated separately were five of the king's nine current wives.

The pastors represented religious sects that combine fundamentalist Christianity with traditional animists beliefs. Pastors used the occasion to say the bible condones the Swazis' sacred Incwala pageant, which is devoted to ancestral worship. Most speakers quoted biblical passages they claimed condemned non-monarchial governments. A pleased Mswati endorsed their views: "It is good that you have quoted verses from the bible which do not support multi-party democracy." His comments were greeted by loud shouts of the royal salute, "Bayete!"

Mswati sat grinning or nodding in agreement during a debate hosted by the League of Churches, entitled "The Disadvantages of Multi-Party Democracy." Reverend Khayeni Khumalo said citizens of democratic states are damned. "A king links a country with God. A president cannot communicate with God because God does not know how he was installed. Presidents are power-hungry people who are like rapists, they break in and rule. They are imposed. Many presidents are going to hell, together with their people, no matter how many they are," Khumalo said.

Noting "there is not a single verse in the Bible which says there should be a president ruling a country," the Reverend Mkhuluza Zwane was applauded when he told Mswati: "When people are given the right to choose, they always choose evil. There are people who are sponsored to dethrone you, Your Majesty, and these are the people who advocate for democracy." The local press has reported that Mswati believes Western governments and South Africa are conspiring to undermine his authority by encouraging such organisations as the Swaziland Democratic Movement, and political parties banned by Mswati's father, King Sobhuza, 30 years ago this month.

Political observers noted that Sobhuza did not refer to the Divine Right of Kings when he grabbed governing powers for the royal house, but said rule by a king was Swazi custom.

In the hundreds of small quasi-Christian sects in the country, Mswati has recognised a source of popular support for his government, analysts told IRIN. Recently, Mswati has stressed the divinely mandated foundation of his reign. At an Easter service three years ago, he said no Swazi would be admitted into heaven without his personal endorsement, which he would deliver while standing beside St. Peter at the gate.

Typical of a country where it is almost unknown for King Mswati to be criticised by name, opposition leader Jan Sithole, secretary-general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, confined his criticism to pastors for what he called hypocrisy. "Whilst it is good for them to have freedom to associate and form multiple denominations of their own choosing, they have the audacity to condemn multiplicity of political views, and the forming and joining of political parties," Sithole said in a statement.

Other members of pro-democracy and human rights groups feared Mswati's hard-line against democracy sent signals about the content of an imminent palace-written constitution. Mswati said the constitution, currently being written by his brothers after years of delay, will be formulated in accordance with Swazi custom. "There is no way - after the stage-managed Easter debate condemning presidents and democracy - that the king will come out with a constitution that recognises majority rule. How can he do that, and not be accused of being 'ungodly'?" said Thadeus Magagula, a member of the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civil Organisations. Magagula felt Mswati was reacting in part to South African President Thabo Mbeki's criticism of Swaziland last week, after the censoring of state-owned media by Information Minister Reverend Abednego Ntshangase. (IRIN)

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