October 27, 2002

Palace 'Abducted Young Girls'

Ironically, Swazi King Mswati III last year revived a traditional ban on sex with underage girls in order to combat HIV/Aids, but has violated the ban by taking young girls as wives. His courtiers were this week accused in court of abducting two 17-year-old girls and an 18-year-old girl for "royal duties". The abductions, it was claimed, could amount to a violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The controversy is seen by a UN-linked group as a "clash between customs and modernity", while across the kingdom, support is growing for court action by a mother, Lindiwe Dlamini, to free her 18-year-old daughter, Zena Mahlangu. Together with two other girls, Noliqhiwa Ntentesa and Sandra Dlamini, Mahlangu was allegedly whisked off to an unknown destination, where she was made to perform "royal duties" as a prelude to becoming one of the emakhosikati, or king's wives. It is claimed that all three were taken from school without their parents' knowledge, in what Swazi national co-ordinator of Women in Law for Southern Africa, Lomcebo Dlamini, describes as "abduction in the pure criminal sense".

The 34-year-old Mswati, Africa's last absolute monarch, already has nine wives. Now he wants another, just two months after his last wedding. All three candidates were chosen after they attended the traditional reed dance ceremony on September 15. According to custom, Mswati may choose a new wife every year from among the thousands of virgins who attend the annual reed dance. Official biographers record that his father, King Sobhuza II, had more than 125 wives during his reign of 61 years, which ended with his death in 1982.

Ironically, Mswati last year revived a traditional ban on sex with underage girls in order to combat HIV/Aids. Women's rights groups have pointed out that he has violated his own ban by continuing to take young girls as wives.

The king, after protests, fined himself a cow for breaking his own royal decree, according to BBC News. But by choosing Mahlangu as a bride, he has come across an adversary who may not be mollified with cattle. Mahlangu's mother, a manager in Swaziland Posts and Telecommunications Company, is a high-profile figure - and women's groups and parents have rallied to her cause. In papers before the Swazi High Court, she accused palace courtiers Tulujane Sikhondze and Qethuka Dlamini of abducting her daughter. Her case is unprecedented - and has sparked some unusual developments.

For a start, the palace-appointed attorney-general, Phesheya Dlamini, has asked to be cited as a defendant in the case. In his affidavit, he claimed he knew where Mahlangu was being held but would not disclose her location to her distraught mother. Dlamini said the king had personally asked that Mahlangu be prepared as a wife. The attorney-general then slammed her mother for her "clear cowardice" in citing the palace courtiers as defendants in the matter - and not the king. As he put it, "the Ingenyama [king] must be joined in the matter because it is clear he is the principal". His strategy is clearly apparent - if Mswati was cited as a co-defendant, the matter would simply be thrown out of court. Under Swazi law, the king and queen mother cannot be sued, arrested or prosecuted.

Chief Justice Stanley Sapire, presiding over the matter with Judge Josiah Matsebula and Judge Thomas Masuku, summed up the challenges facing the court: "I want to know what happens in a case where something is sanctioned by customary law, yet it is a crime under common law."

Meanwhile, Ntentesa's distressed father, a university lecturer, has told the Times of Swaziland: "If I had money, I would also take those who abducted my child to court like Lindiwe did." But the father of the third girl, former policeman Sipho Dlamini, is reportedly overjoyed at his daughter's selection. "As a genuine Swazi," he said, "I believe the king is incapable of doing wrong." (SUNDAY TIMES)

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