MBABANE, SWAZILAND — For some 1 million residents of this tiny mountain kingdom in Southern Africa, their "lion king" is equal parts: wise elder, infallible pope, and national symbol.
Women wear bright cotton skirts decorated with the king's face and the words "praise the lion." Men sometimes pierce large holes in their earlobes as symbols that they have "opened their ears" to the words of their king. Those who dare to criticize King Mswati III or any of his seven wives are threatened with jail time. The king is required to listen to only one person - his mother, known affectionately as Indlovukati, "the great she-elephant."
Despite this following and such a stranglehold on power, for the last decade the royal family has been wrestling with calls, from inside and outside this nation, for democratic reforms.
During this time, both of Swaziland's closest neighbors, South Africa and Mozambique, have ended years of dictatorship and civil war to establish peaceful democracies. Swaziland, however, is moving in the opposite direction. Now, Swaziland is the only country in Southern Africa without a multiparty government, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression. Later this month, the royal family is expected to announce that it will tighten its grip on power with a new constitution, formalizing the king's absolute control.
Swaziland is, in the words of its former Prime Minister Obed Dlamini, who recently captured headlines by daring to criticize the king in public, "an island of dictatorship and oppression in a sea of democracy."
Opposition parties, though formally banned since 1973, when the former king suspended the Constitution Swaziland had inherited from Britain at independence, still exist and have been increasingly bold in their calls for multiparty governance.
Wilson Mdluli, a soft-spoken meter reader for the water company and founder of the banned Swazi National Progressive Party, was detained by police twice this year when he dared to approach the king to deliver petitions.
"Democracy will come to Swaziland," says Mr. Mdluli. "There is no doubt that it is on its way."
Some members of government have echoed this sentiment.
Sitting in his thatched-roof house, Mr. Dlamini, the former prime minister and popular though rebellious royal family member, suggests, "If Swaziland is to thrive in today's world, we should have an enlightened government.
"The people of Swaziland are educated now. We want a democracy," says Dlamini, who hitchhikes around the country for his appointments, with a traditional wooden club in one hand and a leather briefcase in the other.
The king has responded to demands for democratic reform by appointing a series of committees to study the issue. In 1996, the king appointed a 30-member Constitutional Review Commission, headed by Prince Mangaliso Dlamini, to draft a new constitution in consultation with the Swazi people. The handpicked committee included a few democracy activists (who later resigned in frustration), royal family members, and traditional chiefs. They were scheduled to finish the draft constitution in 1998; they have twice asked for extensions. Now, the remaining members say they don't have enough time to write it.
In a report to be released this month, Prince Dlamini says, they will summarize the public comment they've collected at meetings across the nation, from which the media were banned. The report will make clear, he says, that Swazis want their king's rule.
"Our people aren't interested in democracy," says Prince Dlamini. "The people of Swaziland are traditional." A new constitution, giving the king absolute control and banning opposition parties, should be in place by 2003, he says.
The opposition calls the entire last decade of committees and studies an elaborate campaign orchestrated by the royal family to legitimize their dictatorship. Furthermore, they say, the people have never been told that they can follow Britain's model: establish democracy while retaining a king.
Unlike many neighboring states that have adopted democracy, Swaziland is virtually homogeneous - almost all its citizens are members of the Swazi tribe. Nearly 15 percent of the country shares the royal family's last name (Dlamini) and claims blood ties to royalty. Democracy is a harder sell here.
"The king is the symbol of national unity," says Joshua Mzizi, secretary-general of the Human Rights Association of Swaziland and a theology professor at the University of Swaziland. "Who-ever is opposed to him is opposed to the essence of Swazi being."
The monarchy's critics maintain that the royal family has used Swazi tradition and culture as a tool to repress political debate.
The opposition movement not withstanding, many Swazis passionately agree that democracy is an unnecessary foreign import.
"Democracy will divide the people," says Themba Nhlabatsi, a Swazi accountant. "We Swazis have been led by one person from the onset. One man on top, and everyone equal below him."
Prince Dlamini agrees: "It will take a long time ... [before] you can tell Swazis they can be ruled by anyone other than the king."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society