Magazine article The Spectator

Prince Charles Should Be Allowed to Take His Pick from Rows of Dancing Debutantes in G-Strings

Magazine article The Spectator

Prince Charles Should Be Allowed to Take His Pick from Rows of Dancing Debutantes in G-Strings

Article excerpt

Compared with the woes besetting our own royal family, the problems faced by the Swazi monarchy in adapting to the 21st century are minor. King Mswati III has just chosen his tenth wife. The wedding will not affect his marriage to the existing nine. There may be lessons here for Prince Charles.

I have recently returned from a short visit to Swaziland, where I was educated as a boy. The country is about the size of Wales. Hilly, fertile and well-watered, and landlocked between the top right-hand corner of South Africa and the bottom left of Mozambique, this sweet and peaceful little place is unusual for being more or less conterminous with the modern homeland of a single tribe. Almost all the inhabitants of Swaziland are Swazis, and this has rescued their nation from the furies and fractures which beset so many African nations.

For much of its modern history Swaziland was a British protectorate, one which in many respects our colonial governors tactfully allowed to rule itself. The country sidestepped most of the struggles which ravaged southern Africa throughout the last century. This was and is in the most splendid sense a backwater: a mountain redoubt.

Partly as a result, and because the Swazi people's own history and identity are so rich and strong, the nation's monarchy - in reality an exceptionally well-defined and centralised African chieftainship - has survived remarkably intact. The Swazi royal family has turned itself into an apparatus of 21st-century government. On its surface the country is part-democratic but at its core governance there is characterised by that delicate and peculiarly African counterpoint of hierarchy and consensus - profoundly conservative, authoritarian yet somehow sensitised to the nerve-endings which are its rank and file -- whose capture in language eludes European sociologists. A successful African chief is no democrat, but he is always listening.

The present king's father, Sobhuza II, was one such. Born in 1899, he began his reign in 1921 and became the world's longest-reigning living monarch. He ruled with a willowy command: an adroit balance of attentiveness, cunning and absolute decree. When in 1967 he came to bestow his blessing on Waterford school, he decided unilaterally and without warning to rename us, and the school has been Waterford-Kamhlaba ever since. The king arrived in a Rolls-Royce and a proto-grunge blend of morning dress and tribal raiment. His curiously ambiguous speech was delivered in the Swazi language, but Sobhuza roughly interrupted his wretched Swazi interpreter throughout, to correct his English. He steered his country deftly to independence from Britain in 1968. After a 60-year reign, he was said to have more than 80 wives when he died in 1982.

So far his son has only nine. Being king will be harder for Mswati III, and I should not give the impression that there are no clouds on the horizon. Somewhere between absolutism and democracy, and almost without African precedent to guide him, this young Sherborne-educated king must establish the model for a 21st-century African monarch. There are some worries about the way things have been going -- but this is no place for an earnest screed.

Less earnestly, let us ask about lessons for royals: not whether the Swazi royal family has any to learn from ours, but whether ours might copy them. In particular I think the Prince of Wales should take a look at the Ceremony of the Reed Dance. …

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