Swaziland’s Queen Mother Ntfombi Tfwala only married King Mswati III’s father King Sobhuza II after he had died, raising doubts as to the legitimacy of the present King’s right to be monarch.
A new article in the National Geographic magazine says Tfwala had to marry the corpse of King Sobhuza II in attempt to ease King Mswati’s path to the throne.
Jonathan W. Rosen writes in the magazine, ‘When Sobhuza died in 1982, his most senior wife, Queen Dzeliwe, assumed the regency, though in a break with tradition the Liqoqo [the most important group of traditionalist leaders in Swaziland] soon had her dismissed, feeling threatened by a probe into corruption and a series of attempted reforms that had been initiated by Dzeliwe’s prime minister. In her place the Liqoqo appointed Queen Ntfombi Tfwala, the mother of one of Sobhuza’s younger sons, the 15-year-old Prince Makhosetive, who was summoned from boarding school in England and introduced as Swaziland’s king-in-waiting. In April 1986, upon reaching his 18th birthday, Makhosetive was crowned King Mswati III [three years earlier than expected].’
Rosen continues, ‘Although treated today as blasphemy, it’s an open secret inside Swaziland that Ntfombi, who continues to hold the powerful post of queen mother, was never married to Sobhuza during his reign. She was a teenage maid in the house of one of his favorite wives, and was banished from the royal household when she became pregnant in 1967—a scenario recounted by Swazi elders to the civil liberties watchdog Freedom House and corroborated to me by multiple sources inside and outside of Swaziland. Sixteen years later, seeking to replace Queen Dzeliwe with a successor they could control, the Liqoqo found Ntfombi in a working-class Manzini neighborhood. In a highly usual ceremony, they staged a marriage between Ntfombi and Sobhuza’s corpse and installed her as a ruling figurehead until Mswati’s coronation.
‘Today, the consequences of this bizarre sequence of events are many. Never intended to be king, Mswati was not properly prepared for the role of monarch, says Mandla Hlatshwayo, who dealt routinely with Mswati as the president of Swaziland’s chamber of commerce and is now a prominent critic-in-exile. Unlike Sobhuza, who was groomed for the position from birth, Mswati was raised with “no expectation that he could be anything,” Hlatshwayo tells me via telephone from South Africa. Despite being sent by the royal family to a boarding school in England, Hlatshwayo says, he never developed crucial skills of diplomacy or proper respect for Swazi traditions.
‘Owing his position to others, moreover, Mswati assumed the kingship with the understanding he would need to please his many senior princes—a situation critics say has facilitated high-level corruption, stretched the palace budget, and resulted in cabinets filled to an unprecedented level with members of the royal family. This concentration of royal power, says Sipho Gumedze, a Manzini-based human rights lawyer, has also diminished the influence of local chiefs, who live among the masses and are therefore better positioned to advocate for the needs of average Swazis.’
Rosen’s account is not the first time that the circumstances of King Mswati’s rise to power have been publicly discussed. In Swaziland, where the King rules as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, his subjects are encouraged to believe the King was chosen by God.
However, the truth is more mundane. One biography of King Mswati reports, ‘Observers saw the early coronation as an attempt on the part of the Liqoqo to legitimate the usurpation of Dzeliwe and consolidate their gains in power.’ King Mswati acted quickly however to disband the Liqoqo and call for parliamentary elections.
In May 1986 King Mswati dismissed the Liqoqo, the traditional advisory council to regents, which had assumed greater powers than were customary. In July 1986 he dismissed and charged with treason Prime Minister Prince Bhekimpi and several government officials for their role in the ejection of Queen Regent Dzeliwe, though he eventually pardoned those who were convicted.
Another biography of King Mswati says, ‘King Mswati’s first two years of rule were characterized by a continuing struggle to gain control of the government and consolidate his rule.
‘Immediately following his coronation, Mswati disbanded the Liqoqo and revised his cabinet appointments. In October 1986 Prime Minister Bhekimpi Dlamini was dismissed and for the first time a nonroyal, Sotsha Dlamini, was chosen for the post.
‘Prince Bhekimpi and 11 other important Swazi figures were arrested in June 1987. [Prince] Mfanasibili, [Prince] Bhekimpi, and eight others were convicted of high treason. Eight of those convicted, however, were eventually pardoned.’
In 2011, court papers relating to the treason trial that was held in secret come to light after 23 years. The papers that had been deliberately removed from Swaziland after the trial in 1987 were unearthed in Namibia.
They have not been released to the public and might contain details about the plotting that surrounded King Mswati’s rise to power. The papers might also remind the King’s subjects that he is really only where he is today because of political intrigue.
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