The last time the people of this tiny mountainous kingdom converged on the Royal Kraal at Lombamba to crown an ``ngwenyama,'' or lion of Swaziland, was 65 years ago. By the end of his reign in 1982, King Sobhuza II had become the world's longest-ruling monarch. Last month, tens of thousands of tribesmen, many of them traditionally clad in animal skins and red or orange cotton prints, gathered again for the enthronement of a new ``lion.''
On a low hill overlooking this high open, grassy valley, they sang and danced as 18-year-old Prince Makhosetive entered the kraal -- an enormous enclosure made of felled trees where the enthroning takes place -- for the last in a series of secret and mystical coronation rites.
By early evening on April 25, Mswati III, as Makhosetive is now known, had become Swaziland's new King. Representing one of Africa's three ruling monarchies (Morocco and Lesotho are the others), he also ranks as the world's youngest sovereign.
For a landlocked nation of barely 650,000 inhabitants wedged between white-ruled South Africa and communist-run Mozambique, the three-day coronation festivities were an unusual blend of tradition and modernity. They also reflected the intense pride with which many Swazis regard their rich, cultural heritage -- one which stretches back centuries and embraces both its African as well as its more recent colonial past.
At the Lusaseni national stadium at Lombamba, southeast of Mbabane, British-style red-and-black uniformed troops marched with the precision of Grenadier Guards while throngs of warriors brandishing knobkerries (short clubs) and cowhide shields brought up the rear. A formal choir sang Handel's Messiah and was followed by several thousand maidens in tribal costume rhythmically shuffling and chanting their way across the field.
When the new monarch addressed his people over nationwide radio and television in front of visiting foreign dignitaries from some 35 countries, he stood bare-chested, a leopard skin and cotton cloth around his waist, his head festooned with a fierce crown of black feathers. Even Swazi television crews and journalists wore traditional garb as they covered the events.
Swaziland's ``boy King'' had been preparing for this responsibility since he was first proclaimed heir to the throne in 1983, less than a year after Sobhuza II's death. One of the late King's 69 sons, Mswati III is the 24th in a dynasty that goes back to the 15th century.
Still a pupil at Sherbourne College, a leading British public school, Mswati III made periodic trips back to his homeland for training and to undergo initiation ceremonies.
Last year, the young crown prince was required by tradition to spear a lion. Not only would this prove his manhood, but also his worthiness to be named ``ngwenyama,'' one of a long string of royal titles.
A sign of the times, however, was that the lion had to be specially imported from a South African game park. The South Africans also provided an elephant to be eaten at a ceremonial feast at the royal kraal.
Neither the lion nor the elephant, both symbols of the Swazi royal coat of arms, can now be found in this country. They have been hunted to extinction.
According to local residents, many of the rituals in which the new King participated are steeped in witchcraft, which is particularly prevalent in this country. They are also closely bound to fertility and the land. The ceremonies are veiled from outsiders and are performed by a tight circle of tribal elders who pass down their secrets from generation to generation.
When asked about the rituals, a commander from the traditional guard at the kraal solemnly shook his head. ``About this, I can tell you nothing. We have been sworn to secrecy.''
Even the Swazis milling outside said they had little idea as to what exactly takes place. ``Don't forget: The last coronation we had in our country was over 60 years ago,'' laughed a government official.
According to Jim Stevemer, a Peace Corps volunteer from Minnesota, ``No one knows what's going to happen except those who are supposed to.''
As with a number of Europeans and Americans, Mr. Stevemer was dressed in the tribal manner with a beige duiker (small antelope) skin and red cotton wrap. His Swazi hosts, he explained, had made him an honorary member of one of the kingdom's three traditional regiments.
No longer military organizations, the regiments perform an important social function in Swazi society and are open to all grown males.
At the royal kraal foreign visitors were allowed in, among them Maureen Reagan, President Reagan's daughter, and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, representing the Queen of England. The new King was officially presented to the dignitaries but then turned to join his warriors in a slow dance before disappearing again.
King Sobhuza's 61-year reign was one of peace and stability, mostly because of the King's ability to bridge personally the dualism -- tradition vs. modernity -- in his country.
Since his death, however, the kingdom has been wracked by political intrigue and power struggles within the royal family. A living soap opera, the power struggles have been mixed with witchcraft, tribalism, and, according to some rumors, possibly murder.
As a diarchy rather than a monarchy, Swaziland is traditionally ruled during interims by the Queen Regent, otherwise known as ``Ndlovukazi,'' the ``Great She-Elephant.''
Amid complex infighting, the first queen, Dzeliwe Shongwe, was removed in 1983 and replaced by the present queen, Ntombi Thwala.
The former Queen Regent, Dzeliwe, however, still commands a great deal of angry grass-roots support, a problem with which the new King will have to cope.
Swaziland's political cabals have also been particularly thorny. They included the removal of a prime minister (Prince Mabandla Dlamini) because he had, among other things, instigated an investigation into the alleged corruption of another prince: Mfanasibili, a powerful member of the Liqoqo, the King's inner council of advisers.
This did not halt the rivalries, and Mfanasibili has been jailed since on charges of fraud. Yet he continues to be regarded as one of the country's most influential men.
Despite outward appearances of peace, this beautiful southern African kingdom is still one of confusion. Mswati III's greatest challenge in the months and years ahead will be to forge new stability and to rally his people behind him, irrespective of their loyalties.
Observers claim that the new King has already shown positive signs of leadership. His first speech to the nation, in which he pledged himself to his people, was met with great enthusiasm.
For the moment, however, the ``boy King'' must return to England to complete his final exams.
No doubt, Mswati III, known as ``Mac'' (Makhosetive) by his schoolmates, can also expect some typical public-school ragging.
With a first wife already chosen several months ago, the royal elders picked out seven more for him on his coronation. As one observer pointed out, the duty of a king is to beget as many children as possible. His father, it is said, had 124.