MBABANE, Swaziland - For centuries in this tiny African nation, the king of Swaziland, the supreme political leader and spiritual guide of the Swazi people, has taken his pick of young women each year to be his new wife.
King Mswati III, the nation's 34-year-old monarch, has married nine times this way. His father, Sobhuza II, chose more than 100 wives during his six-decade reign.
But for the first time in Swaziland's history, this perk of kingship is being challenged in a court of law by a mother who claims her only daughter was illegally abducted by the king to be his 10th wife.
Few court cases have drawn as much attention in the country. Here, most of the king's 1 million subjects live in poverty, growing maize and raising cattle. Mswati, Africa's last absolute monarch, is a source of both national pride and entertainment. Viewed partly as a god, partly as a pop star, Mswati's photo adorns the walls of homes, businesses and restaurants.
This case, however, has brought the kingdom's royalty down to earth, sparking a bitter debate about traditional values versus modern values and the king's rights versus human rights.
Lindiwe Dlamini, 39, an executive at Swaziland Posts and Telecommunications Co., is a single mother demanding that King Mswati return her 18-year-old daughter, who she claims was taken from her high school about three weeks ago by the king's courtiers and then spirited off to secret quarters inside the royal palace. She has not heard from her daughter since.
Dlamini complains that the king never sought her permission to take her daughter, Zena Mahlangu. When Mahlangu first went missing, Dlamini rushed to the police to search for her. It wasn't until two days later that the king's messengers informed her she had been taken to the palace for "royal duties."
"I was furious," recalled Dlamini. Dlamini, who has raised her three children on her own since their father died in 1985, says her daughter had planned to go to college to study psychology and pursue a career, not join the cloistered life of Mswati's stable of wives.
"This case is the crying of a woman, crying out for her daughter who has been taken away from her," Dlamini said. "She was my best friend. We had a bond. If she goes into that life it will be severed."
But Dlamini's pleas don't merit much sympathy from Swazis loyal to a male-dominated kingdom steeped in traditions many outsiders would consider offensive. Here, the king's subjects still approach their leader, known as "The Lion," on their knees. Unmarried Swazi girls and young women are forbidden from wearing pants in public, to help enforce modesty. Opposition parties are prohibited.
The royal marriage practices are as old as the steep green mountains that ring this secluded country of sugar cane fields and cow pastures. Each year, the king has been allowed to choose one or more wives from thousands of young women who, naked from the waist up, parade before him during an annual springtime reed dance.
That's tradition and it should never change, the king's supporters say.
"To some we are the wrongdoers, but to others we are fulfilling Swazi custom," said Andres Maziya, a member of the king's royal regiment who came to the Swaziland High Court dressed in a buckskin skirt, a traditional Swazi cape that he wore like a toga and a feather in his hair.
"This [case] is hurting the king. We Swazis are not happy," concluded Maziya, who is no stranger to royal tradition. Each year he travels to the Indian Ocean to collect the foam of ocean waves for the king's first fruit ceremony.
But not all Swazis agree. The public gallery at Swaziland's High Court has also been filled with representatives from human rights and women's rights groups who have rallied behind the mother.
They say the case highlights many of the inequalities in Swaziland. Under Swazi law, women have about the same legal status as children, critics say. A woman cannot own property, borrow money or enter a legal contract without the permission of a male relative.
Ironically, critics also note, the king will be violating his own ban on sexual relations with female subjects younger than 19 if he marries Mahlangu. But it may not matter. When Mswati married another 18-year-old this year, he fined himself one cow for the violation - a small price for a monarch with hundreds of cattle to his name.
"This is a case about us as Swazi women and our status under the law, and it is about children and their safety and whether they can be raised by their parents," said Doo Aphane, director of the Swaziland chapter of Women in Law for Southern Africa.
"The institution of multiple wives is one that is disempowering to women," she continued. "It makes it worse when the women who are entering such a union don't consent to entering it. And therefore we need to make changes."
Whether this case will result in any changes is unclear. So far, Dlamini's attorneys have struggled in court.
Under Swaziland law, her attorneys argue, Mahlangu is a minor, and therefore the king is not allowed to marry her without her mother's permission.
But in Swaziland, tradition appears to rule over the law. During more than two weeks of court proceedings, the case has been delayed by the oddities of the royal family practices.
King Mswati is immune from arrest or prosecution, so Dlamini's attorneys cited the two courtiers who abducted Mahlangu as defendants instead, demanding she be released. In their defense, the courtiers said she went with them willingly, but they could not release her because she is under the care of other members of the royal palace.
The Swaziland High Court then issued an order directing whoever is holding the girl to appear in court. But the messenger who was sent to deliver the order was not allowed beyond the palace gates.
So the High Court decided it would be best to hear from Mahlangu herself. The judge ordered two attorneys to visit Mahlangu and report back to the court on whether she felt she was being held against her will. The attorneys returned to court yesterday, admitting sheepishly that they were refused permission to meet the girl.
Frustrated, the judges ordered the attorneys to try again.
Adding to the drama, the country's daily newspaper, The Times of Swaziland, reported over the weekend that Mahlangu was happy to wed the king. The paper claimed to have reached Mahlangu by telephone. According to the report, she said: "I now take the king as my husband and I'm going to make him the happiest man on Earth.'"
A second article claimed that Mahlangu had been spotted at a shopping center over the weekend buying her royal wardrobe under the supervision of the Royal Swaziland Police.
Dlamini's attorney, however, said such reports cannot be trusted.
The case continues tomorrow and most likely for much longer. And many Swazis are torn.
"I am sympathetic with the mother because I'm a mother, too. It's painful to take kids away from you," said Nompumelelo Mazibuko, 29, an accounting clerk who took off work to attend yesterday's court hearing. "But it has let our king down. We don't want our news spread around. We Swazis have a saying: 'The rubbish of our nation must not go outside.'"