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Kingdom dances on the edge


LOBAMBA, Swaziland - It hasn't been an easy year for Africa's last absolute monarch, King Mswati III of Swaziland. Labor unions and student groups have been clamoring for democratic reform. One of his wives allegedly tried to poison him. And the king's recent efforts to jail anyone who mocked him backfired after howls of protest from the international community.

But if most days have been a royal mess, yesterday the troubled 33-year-old ruler enjoyed the rewards of the job.

In one of this tiny kingdom's oldest traditions, more than 25,000 young women from across the land arrived at his palace to celebrate the annual reed dance. The mass coming-of-age ceremony has one clear benefit for the king: If he desires, he can choose one teen to be his new - in this case, ninth - wife.

There was no word last night whether the king made a choice. But if he does, the young woman will be marrying into a monarchy that is at a crossroads: caught between the burden of honoring traditions as old as the reed dance itself and the pressure of changing to meet the demands of the modern world in which it longs to be respected.

As the king danced with the women, those calls for change were being voiced not too far away. As the World Conference Against Racism continued in Durban, South Africa, this week, a group of banned Swaziland opposition parties was planning a demonstration to bring the plight of this often-overlooked country to the world stage.

Sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique, the former British colony is a postage stamp-sized country with fewer than 1 million inhabitants. Since 1973, the population has been living in a state of emergency declared by King Mswati's father, King Sobhuza II.

Believing that political division would be too disruptive to his very traditional subjects, King Sobhuza repealed the constitution, dissolved parliament and banned all political parties. Ever since, pro-democracy groups have been fighting unsuccessfully for political reforms.

The second-youngest of his father's 69 sons, King Mswati assumed the throne in 1986 at age 18. "A king is a king by his people," the gangly young leader told his subjects in his inaugural address.

Yet his critics say the people play no role in his government. He rules in partnership with the Queen Mother (also known as the She-Elephant), a tight circle of traditional advisers and a partially elected parliament.

But without any written laws, the king enjoys near supreme executive, legislative and judicial powers. He owns 60 percent of the nation's land, can fall asleep in any one of a half-dozen palaces with any one of eight wives and is waited upon by servants who approach him on their knees.

Underground opposition parties, student groups and the trade unions (the only form of assembly still allowed here) are pushing to liberate the Swazis from a king they say is a tyrant.

The king's government has arrested newspaper reporters who printed negative articles, jailed opponents and has forbidden political gatherings. Some underground party members claim they have been tortured, arrested and harassed.

To meet the calls for reform, King Mswati launched a commission in 1996 to draft a new constitution. The process, critics say, was unfair, and to no one's surprise the commission recommended that the monarchy be strengthened.

"The tactics the monarchy uses are covert and dangerous," says Bongani Masuko, secretary-general of the Swaziland Solidarity Network, a group of exiled Swazi opposition party members based in Johannesburg. "The monarchy is losing popularity dramatically. It only survives through propaganda, lies, misinformation, disinformation, and de-campaigning of democratic activists."

And more of his subjects are growing weary of his reign, critics say. This year, in a major insult to the royal name, several women bared their buttocks in front of one of the king's brothers.

Not long after, the king was struck with a mysterious illness, touching off tales of palace intrigue in the local press that the king was poisoned by one of his wives.

And in June, Mswati suddenly issued a royal decree that gave him the power to ban newspapers, forbid Swazis from mocking their king and overturn court rulings. Many nations responded with outrage. The United States threatened to revoke Swaziland's newly won trade benefits.

Several weeks later, the king sheepishly rescinded his decree.

For all the apparent turmoil in the kingdom, Swaziland remains a peaceful land of green mountains and lush valleys of pineapple orchards, sugar cane fields and row upon row of banana plants.

The independent newspapers often run articles critical of the government - although attempts to muzzle the press also continue.

Overall, people seem too preoccupied with scratching out a living to be bothered by the finer points of government.

There is no political polling in this country, but the king's handlers viewed the huge number of young women at the reed dance this weekend as a crude Gallup Poll of their king's popularity.

"Look at all the girls," said Maswazi Shomgwe, director-general of the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Youth, as thousands of women paraded past him. "Last year, we had 18,000 girls. This year, instead, 25,000, maybe 30,000 girls. Their parents wanted them to come. You can see the people still believe the monarchy is the right way to rule the country."

But the king's opponents say the monarchy manipulates cultural events such as the reed dance to reinforce the importance of tradition and royalty's right to rule.

Apart from its political consequences, the dance remains a huge draw for international tourists who come to take a peek inside this secretive kingdom. It has also become a time to educate the girls about HIV, an epidemic that afflicts 25 percent of the population

During the weeklong ceremony, the women gather reeds from the countryside to repair the windbreak at the queen mother's palace. When the work is done, they dance and sing for the king.

The women lined up yesterday on the royal sports field dressed in beaded skirts festooned with streams and pom-poms and, in most cases, naked above the waist. Their songs were accompanied by a slow, shuffling dance that resembled someone performing the two-step while trying to scrape gum off the bottom of a shoe.

At several times during the daylong ceremony, King Mswati stepped down from his viewing stand to greet the girls.

Dressed in a leopard skin skirt, sandals and with feathers in his hair, the king trotted the length of the field flanked by royal guards.

More than a political leader, Mswati is a viewed as part pop star, part spiritual guide. His face adorns T-shirts and skirts. And it is easy to find residents who wholeheartedly endorse him.

"The king is good for Swaziland," says Josiah Tsela, 21, who like many adults here is unemployed. "We don't have quarrels like other countries. Once political parties exist, life would be terrible for Swazis."

In person, King Mswati is a soft-spoken man with a wide baby-faced grin who clearly likes having his life shrouded in mystery.

During a rare news conference on Sunday night, he deflected all questions about the logistics of being married to eight women and other personal matters.

But he spoke freely about the future of Swaziland, a place he wants to change in many ways - its job opportunities, health conditions, economic prospects - but one: how it is governed.

"Swazis rule as Swazis. Whatever we decide, we decide as Swazis," he said. "We want to maintain our traditions and culture that the king rules with his mother. It is a system that is unique to us and works well."

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