Africa's Game of Thrones

The hazards of human-rights work in the continent's last absolute monarchy
King Mswati III (Reuters/Lerato Maduna)

Imagine a mountainous kingdom at the edge of a lush, tropical continent, where one house has clung to power for hundreds of years. The aged king passed away after ruling for more than six decades in one of history's longest reigns. He fathered more than 200 children but left no heir, unleashing an epic struggle between the queen regent and a handful of challengers in the royal court. Eventually, a 14-year-old boy, the product of one of the king’s hundreds of illegitimate affairs, was chosen as successor, and his mother was wedded to the dead leader’s corpse to legitimize the plot. Selected as a puppet, the new king quickly outgrew his courtiers and became notoriously cruel and corrupt.

Today, the new king rules from a castle and employs a royal guard to protect his 15 wives. He often picks a new wife in a national festival each summer where his servants round up tens of thousands of the most beautiful young virgins from all across the land. There, they dance shirtless, and the king examines each one, choosing his next bride.

This is a feudal society where the majority of the population are poor farmers, tilling land supervised by the royal palace. Through his relationships with foreigners, the king earns plenty of coin, but hardly any of it trickles down to the poor. Although surrounded by spectacular and exotic plants and animals, the king's subjects suffer from a lack of basic goods and modern medicine. More than one in four adults is afflicted with an incurable, often-fatal disease.

His Majesty has no rivals. Under his banner of a golden lion, he dictates the future of his people after chatting with his small council. Political parties are illegal, and any defiance or criticism of the royal family is outlawed. Even insulting the king’s name is liable to be punished by imprisonment. The king controls all feudal lands and local barons, along with the court system, press, police, and army. Any who choose not to bow their heads to his decree are rewarded with a stay in the royal dungeons, where a pair of leg irons, or worse—an ancient and excruciating form of foot torture—is the punishment of choice.

Considered the father of his people, the king’s legitimacy rests on ritual and superstition. To protect himself against demons, the king imbibes charms and potions. His royal court and ministers routinely grovel on the ground. If His Majesty deigns fit to visit a subject’s home, the chair in which he sits must be destroyed—or else, it is feared, an evil sorcerer might attack him.

We who write this are not on the production team of HBO’s Game of Thrones. We work in a human-rights organization in 2014. Yet we could be describing King’s Landing. Regrettably, however, this is no tale from Westeros: It is an accurate description of Africa’s last absolute monarchy, a tiny country near the continent’s southeastern coast called Swaziland.

Presented by

Thor Halvorssen is president of the Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum.

Alex Gladstein is director of institutional affairs at the Human Rights Foundation.

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