Veteran Eswatini journalist Bheki Makhubu says King Mswati 111 needs to re-engage his subjects in order to end the political turmoil in the southern African kingdom.
Makhubu (BM) told Alpha Media Holdings chairman Trevor Ncube (TN) on the platform In Conversation with Trevor that most of Eswatini’s problems were caused by the disconnect between the monarch and citizens.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
TN: Bheki Makhubu, welcome to In Conversation With Trevor.
BM: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Greatly honoured to be here.
TN: So Bheki, for as long as I can remember, Eswatini and amaSwati were considered docile like Zimbabweans.
They took any repression from the authorities; from Robert Mugabe and from the King (Mswati).
However, like you are saying Bheki, 2021 to 2022 we have seen quite a restive population in Eswatini. Talk to us Bheki, what has happened?
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What has changed the amaSwati to be as outspoken? They are standing up. What is it that has caused them to be so restive?
BM: Well, my analysis has been that you know our structure as a country, remember we are one tribe, the Swati people.
We understand and share values, we share just about everything and one of the most important things I suppose is that we all are answerable to the King.
But over time, and you know I have written about this many times, is that the King in my view has over time moved away from the people, at a traditional level in terms of who we are.
We have a saying that “inkosi ngabantu”, so the king is the people, the people are the King. We are all one thing.
But I have seen him move away to being separate and distinct from us.
What does that mean?
That means if we are living in hard economic times, the king cannot be seen to be living a good life, he must suffer with us because in our tradition and culture and when we have problems he must sort our problems and we come first before him. He sort of lost that plot.
TN: So Bheki what is causing that distance between the king and the people in your analysis?
BM: Well like I said, in 2009 he bought those 13 Rolls-Royce’s which was a huge shock to everyone.
TN: Hold on Bheki. 13 Rolls-Royces?
BM: Yes. Phantoms I think.
TN: 13 of them?
BM: For him, the queen mother, and his wives.
TN: Wow. That’s huge.
BM: Like I said I wrote an article in response to that, and I said the king has abdicated his position as a monarch because it cannot be that in such difficult economic times where particularly public servants, and our government is the biggest employer in the country, they had not been getting salary increases I think for three years up to then.
They had been asked to sacrifice because the country was going through economic difficulties.
For him to then come up with his cars was showing the disconnect that he was no longer sensitive and like I said in our culture we are one with him.
So he was defying everything about being a Swazi monarch. Unfortunately, his children too were not helping.
You know with the advent of social media they were posting pictures of the glitzy lifestyles that they live and posting expensive watches and expensive lifestyle in a sea of poverty.
So that was his undoing in the main for me.
But you know it is a long discussion in itself as an analysis when you look at where the country comes from and the change in politics and how we got to a point where there was a disconnect.
TN: So the pro-democracy protest from 2021 up to this year; essentially there is a message there that the people have had enough with the monarch?
I get a sense that this is partly because 60% of Eswatini’s population is below 29 years of age?
Am I right in my assessment of what is happening?
BM: Well up to June last year (2022) I would have said maybe not tired of the monarchy, maybe tired of how he was running the country.
But since then he has not done anything to re-engage the people, and remind everybody and we remind him too we what we expect from him and what he should expect from us.
I am getting worried that it is now bringing the very question of the monarchy as an institution into question because what we are seeing now is he simply ignored us.
In fact, the latest issue of the magazine I work for, our front cover asks the question: “Has the king turned his back on us?”
This is because this is a time when he should be showing leadership of a true king, speaking to us with the wisdom that reminds us of who we are and that calms us down, but it is not happening. We are like a runaway train.
TN: I get the sense Bheki that the king has not ignored you, the king has responded in a heavy-handed manner to the protests.
In certain instances there is a violent response to protests about people that are asking for democracy. Is my information right?
BM: Well that is what happened last year in July.
There was a heavy-handed response, people died, the army moved in, people were maimed, people died, that is true.
I would not however, say the last year that is as much as what happened last year, there has been some restraint.
Remember this is problematic for us as a small country.
There are only 1.2 million of us, if somebody even a soldier takes a gun and shoots someone it might well be that over the weekend he might hear from his mother that she's going to bury this person because they are related to you.
So it is not an easy thing to do for us to murder each other.
But yes, there was that on orders, and the only person who gives such an order would be the king.
There is nothing like rogue elements from the security forces, he has to give that order.
So it happened, but it stopped because it was just unsustainable.
TN: So as we are talking right now Bheki you are home?
You have not gone to work because there is a protest that was called that people should stay away.
How would you characterise the situation? Is this a stalemate? Is it a standoff?
What is your sense of what is happening?
BM: I would say it is a standoff.
Listening to people and looking around... I think all sides, and I would argue that even the King too realised that something needs to be done to change the direction of the country.
The circumstances in which we live are not workable for him, and for ordinary citizens.
But there are also those people who are non-political, professionals and stuff like that.
They also will tell you that things are not well in this country, something needs to be done, but they are generally looking to the king to give direction, there is still that space.
Then of course you have the extreme elements, the more radical forces, who are saying well he (the king) is not going to do anything, he must go.
But for me as someone from this country, the question of he must go raises another question we have not even begun to discuss which I think would be even more problematic for us.
So to say he must go is to me very extreme.
Look, he has not been running this country properly, but to remove him, this is the question as to what do you replace him with?
I think that question is very difficult to answer.
TN: Three times Bheki you have said yourself “Something needs to be done”. What is that something?
What does that something look like? Something needs to be done.
What does that something look like?
BM: For me the king needs to call us and have a conversation with Ama Swati, as it has always been done from the beginning of time.
He has reneged on his responsibility as a king to have a conversation.
Not to talk to us and talk down to us, to have a conversation, to ask what exactly do we want.
To tell us what his views are, essentially to show that he cares.
To go back to what brings us together, that symbiosis.
Unfortunately that is his job, and no one else can do that work.
TN: Let me just go to what you have just said now, which is very important. The King needs to have a conversation with AmaSwati, to find out what it is that you want? What is it that the AmaSwati want?
BM: Like all human beings, amaSwati want a better economic life.
Let us suppose these economic difficulties are impossible to solve now overnight, he (the king) needs to talk to us about that.
But more than anything he needs to show that he is suffering just as we are. He cannot be living a first world life, and tell us to take it easy, all will be well, while he is living a life that defies all that.
So he needs to do a climbdown, and come down. Let me just give you an example.
I am sure you have heard of the fact that meetings of amaSwati are held at the sibaya (kraal)?
BM: One of the mistakes he has made over the last few years and I do not know why his advisors do not tell him that this is wrong.
By tradition when a ama Swati meet at the sibaya, the king does not sit on a chair or on a throne, he sits on the grass with everyone to be at the same level with a amaSwati.
He humbles himself because a amaSwati as a group, once they come together they form the kingship that he is. But he sits on a chair now.
BM: That shows a disconnect. Nobody has said to him you are losing your people your majesty by doing that.
Let me tell you, in a chiefdom, and I like to think it is an African thing I have noticed when you are sitting under a tree, if you sit on a root, you know those trees with big roots?
BM: You are not allowed to sit on it because you are raising yourself above the people.
It is the same thing, except that here it is more sensitive, and when he brings a chair to the sibaya, something that is unknown in African culture, there is no chair in African culture in a cattle kraal it is sending a bad message. So he needs to humble himself to us, and talk to amaSwati.
TN: It does appear like there is a disconnect between the institution of the monarchy and the modernisation of the society in which you live in.
How do these two things live together in an equilibrium? In an environment which is modernising?
If you are going to sit down with the king and have a conversation with the king I suspect you will be asking the King to sit down on the floor with you and let go some of the powers that he has?
The privileges that he has? How realistic is that?
BM: Well it is very realistic and I will tell you why.
In the comments he has made about the problems in the country, he has invoked tradition and custom as the solution to our problems.
He is the one who has done that.
So all we have to do is agree that let us use tradition. So sitting on the ground, on the grass on the cow dung...
BM: ...Is not belittling of him because it is the definition of who we are.
It might shock you as an outsider, but to us we will tell you that this is our king, he is sitting with us and we respect him for bringing himself to our level, to have a conversation.