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.