Swazi women get a voice
One of King Mswati's privileges as a monarch is to choose a young woman for his wife yearly from a group of young unmarried girls called Ingabisa in siSwati or reed dance. During the ceremony, thousands of virgin girls parade before him every year and thereafter he selects one of them for himself.
This year's choice, Lindiwe Dlamini's daughter has brought headaches to the monarch and revealed to the outside world the daily struggles of Swazi women against cultural dominance and the conservative nature of the tiny Southern African monarch.
Human rights campaigners hope the on-going court battle by Dlamini (34) to have her daughter, Zena Mahlunga released by the royal household will highlight their plight. Women in landlocked Swaziland cannot enter into legal contracts or own property.
The case was first heard by the country's Chief Justice Stanely Sapire on 25 October where it was suggested that a custodian be appointed to meet her and find out her feelings. In the past, palace representatives met the families of potential queens to discuss a wedding, but this has been substituted by the unannounced removal of the virgin girls from schools without the approval of their parents. The story has hit the headlines across Southern Africa with calls for reform now permeating from outside.
"Lindiwe Dlamini, the distressed mother of the girl who was snatched from school by Mswati's men deserves worldwide support, particularly of all progressive women. Hers is an opportunity for every truly self respecting woman to shout at the top of their voice: "No to male bullyism, royal or otherwise," Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu, a respected journalist and social commentator wrote in one of Zimbabwe's mass circulating newspapers, The Daily News. "Dlamini's daughter should be set free forthwith! She belongs to high school and not to a harem." In Botswana, when King Mswati III visited the country barely two weeks after the news were broken, one of the tabloids, The Gazette splashed the king's picture in the company of one of his eleven wives, Queen Inkosikazi Langagaza on its front page.
The story was headlined; "A King and his Queen." King Mswati had joined the presidents of Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho, all members of the Southern African Customs Union to sign a new agreement.
The story read; "King Mswati of Swaziland who is facing charges of criminal abduction at home was in Gaborone this week to attend the signing ceremony of the SACU agreement. At a press conference addressed by the heads of state, the youthful king made it clear he would not entertain questions outside the agreement.
"Stumbling through the answers, the clearly upset King steered clear of the court case and was ably protected by the Director of Information and Broadcasting, Andrew Sesinyi who sensing possible embarrassment for the King, urged reporters to stay focused on SACU." Such coverage has helped raise the plight of Swazi women beyond their borders. "Dlamini's case has once again given Swazi women a chance to strengthen their fight against institutionalised discriminatory practises in the name of traditions and culture. The plight of women in Swaziland goes beyond the reed dance or the lack of property rights," said Nomsa Mkhwananzi an activist with the Women's Coalition in Swaziland. "The royal family is failing to embrace the universally declared human rights and freedoms spelt out in the United Nations' Declaration of Rights."
"I have not heard as much as a whimper of protest from Zimbabwean women against that piece of naked injustice, where are our women? In the kitchens? In the fields?" asked Ndlovu. "The royal family should accept that culture is not static. Mswati should not be telling us that because his father practised this tradition, he should do likewise. He should reflect that he is reigning in the 21st century," said Thembi Ndlovu, a 20 year-old student. "Women should not be treated as objects anymore." Observers say the case might draw the same controversy for the royal family as that of a Nigerian woman who was sentenced to death by stoning for committing adultery. Debate is now raging on in Botswana on whether the country should send a representative to the Miss World finals set for Lagos, Nigeria in November following the wide spread coverage of the story. South Africa has already made it clear that it would be not sending a representative.
Agency reports indicate that the royal family is aware of the devastating impact the case is going to have. "I think its a royal test against the royalty," Prince Mfanasibili Dlamini, a spokesman for the royal family was quoted as having said. "I think they want to draw as much publicity as they can to ridicule the kingdom and its customs."
Dlamini helped run the country between the death of Mswati's father and the accession of the king to the throne in 1986. Some of the customs Prince Dlamini was probably referring to are the ones that do with discrimination of women and the general lack of democracy in the name of culture. Unlike in the two other African monarchies Morocco and Lesotho where kings do not rule but reign, King Mswati III actually rules. Most of the kingdom's traditions have been jealously protected and guarded as an integral part of the Swazi culture and history. The kingdom has in the past run into problems with the western world over its human rights record.
But those defending the British educated Mswati's rule say the king has never married any women without her consent. "The King cannot take anybody against their will, never," Prince Dlamini was quoted as having said.