King Mswati III of Swaziland, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, is clearly rattled that news about his purchase of up to 20 state-of-the-art armoured Mercedes-Benz cars for himself and his (many) wives has become public knowledge.
It was reported that the Mercedes Benz S600 Pullman Guard cars that can resist an attack with small arms projectiles, a grenade or other explosive and include high-end audio, an intercom, 19-inch flat screen display, DVD player, refrigerator and wood trim as standard, cost E25 million (250,000 US dollars) each.
The Times Sunday reported this news that has also been all over the Internet.
Now, the Times of Swaziland, the kingdom’s only independent newspaper group, has been forced to make a front page apology. It seems Times’ publisher Paul Loffler was summoned to see the king and as a result the following appeared on the front page of the Times.
The TImes Group of Newspapers wishes to bring to the attention of its readers and the public at large that an article published in the April 19, 2009 edition of the Times SUNDAY entitled 'E25m cars at Ludzidzini' was not entirely correct and could have misled the public into believing that his was an amount actually spent on the cars. It has been brought to our attention that the cars referred to in the article were not purchased at a cost of E25 million but at a highly reduced figure due to them being ordered directly from the manufacturers in Germany. We therefore would like to unreservedly apologize to His Majesty the King and all affected parties for the misleading information. We wish to state that the Times Group of Newspapers remains committed in its endeavour to provide information accurate and balanced content in a respectful and unbiased manner and that it shares a common vision for peace and development of this country with the people of Swaziland.
By the publisher on behalf of the Times Group of Newspapers.
Keen readers will note that King Mswati is not denying that he bought the cars, but only that they didn’t cost as much as E25 million, because he got a discount. As I said in my blogpost on Thursday (30 April 2009), when reporting the king’s denial in the Swazi Observer, the newspaper in effect owned by the king, nobody has actually said how much the cars did cost.
If King Mswati doesn’t feel the cost of the cars is any big deal, let him tell us how much he paid for them and where he got the money from.
There are sinister overtones to the Times’ apology. King Mswati has form when it comes to bullying the media in Swaziland. In March 2007 the Times Sunday published a report from the international news agency Afro (click here to read it) that criticised King Mswati and included a reference to the king’s spending, ‘Swaziland is increasingly paralysed by poor governance, corruption and the private spending of authoritarian King Mswati III and his large royal family.’
The article went on to say, ‘The growing social crisis in the country and the lessening interest of donors to support King Mswati’s regime has also created escalating needs for social services beyond the scale of national budgets.’
King Mswati threatened to close down the Times group unless an unreserved apology was printed. It was, and the newspapers survived.
The news about the king’s new cars will not go away. I suspect he may have scored an own goal by forcing an apology from the Times over a report that was essentially true. Expect to see more international attention focused on the king who is said to have a wealth of 200 million US dollars (E2 billion) when 70 percent of his subjects live in abject poverty earning less than one US dollar a day, Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV AIDS and tuberculosis in the world and last year six in ten people needed some form of international food aid to avoid hunger.