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.

King Mswati III, the real-life ruler of Swaziland, has held total dominion over this realm since 1986. Of course, Mswati’s lifestyle also includes the trappings of modernity: Maybach limousines, a DC-9 jet aircraft, and foreign bank accounts worth billions of dollars. The habitual treatment of his critics might be medieval, but his corruption parallels that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and Equatorial Guinea strongman Teodoro Obiang.

Mswati does, in fact, select his new wives from tens of thousands of half-naked women crammed into a stadium. Elsewhere, 80 percent of the Swazi population makes less than two dollars per day. HIV, the incurable illness mentioned earlier, afflicts 31 percent of the country’s adults, the highest national rate on Earth. The average Swazi can only expect to live about 50 years.

Amid this bleakness, Swaziland is also home to some larger-than-life heroes whose bravery rivals that of any character found in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. This week, for instance, the human-rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and journalist Bheki Makhubu sat in prison, on trial for the crime of questioning the independence of Swaziland’s judicial system.

Last year, King Mswati violated a constitutional ban on foreign-born judges and personally installed Michael Ramodibedi of Lesotho, a pliable Mswati loyalist, as Swaziland’s chief justice. This February, Maseko and Makhubu wrote defiant articles in The Nation—the country’s only independent media outlet—excoriating Ramodibedi for imprisoning Bhantshana Gwebu, the national motor-vehicle inspector. Gwebu was just doing his job, but a car he impounded happened to be owned by one of Ramodibedi’s colleagues. Gwebu has been released on bail, pending his trial.

In Swaziland, following the law instead of a royal judge’s decree lands you in jail. So, in retaliation for their investigative journalism on Gwebu’s arrest, Mswati’s police raided Maseko and Makhubu’s homes, violently seized them, and brought them to “justice.” In true Westerosi style, they were arraigned not in a court of law with due process, but in the chief justice’s private chambers. As you read this, Maseko and Makhubu are in leg irons, lumped in dungeons with common criminals. The day before his arrest last month, Maseko accepted an invitation to speak in Norway at the Oslo Freedom Forum, which is organized by the Human Rights Foundation, about the state of human rights in his country. He’s scheduled to speak on May 13—if he’s released from jail in time.

“There is peace” in Swaziland, the head of the country’s only trade union once remarked. “But it’s not real peace if every time there is dissent, you have to suppress it. It’s like sitting on top of a boiling pot.”