There is manufactured outrage in the Swazi press about the way the activities of the kingdom’s autonomous King Mswati III are reported in the foreign press. This time the victim is the South African magazine Drum (3 May 2007), which reported on the king’s lavish birthday party under the headline “The Swazi king celebrates his birthday in style while his people suffer in poverty”.
There have been calls for the magazine, which is freely on sale in Swaziland, to be banned and legal action has been threatened against it. All because Drum misidentified a Swazi prince as the king in a photograph.
The article runs for about 1,100 words across two pages and describes the king’s birthday party in April 2007. There were two parties: one attended by 10,000 subjects in a stadium in eastern Swaziland and another exclusive garden party at the royal residence. The total bill for the day came to 15 million emalangeni (just over two million US dollars).
This extract gives a flavour of the article. “They [critics] might roll their eyes a little in exasperation sometimes – after all, this is a king with 13 wives, each of whom he has provided with a BMW X5 while he drives a 500,000 US dollars Daimler Chrysler Maybach 62, one of the most luxurious cars in the world. But as far as his people are concerned he’s their absolute ruler and it’s not their place to criticise him.”
The article then gives what it calls these “hard facts” about Swaziland: the kingdom is crippled by debt, 42 per cent of the population is HIV-positive and more than 46 per cent don’t have work, 70 per cent of the country’s 1.1 million population live on less than one US dollar a day.
The king is reported to have said the party was justified as it was good for morale and enabled the country to “come together as one”.
Swazis canvassed by Drum were nothing but supportive of the king. One is quoted saying, “He is entitled to such expenses. This is part of our culture and tradition and we are tired of the West trying to enforce their ideals on us. We are happy being ruled by the king – and he should live in a palace and drive a nice car. It’s his right.”
Reaction in the Swazi press was swift. The day after Drum appeared on the shelves in Swaziland the Swazi Observer chief editor Musa Ndlangamandla, in a full-page article in his own newspaper, called the journalists at Drum “fools” who “insult our king”. Significantly, he openly refused to tackle the accusations made in the article, preferring to hide behind rhetoric of “glaring untruths and misconceptions in the article.”
The misidentified picture became the story in the Swazi press. The Times Sunday reported that Prince Lonkhokhela (the man in the picture) was “humiliated” by the picture and was taking legal action against Drum.
In an editorial comment the Times Sunday called for the government to intervene in the row, believing the king had been ridiculed by the mistaken photograph.
The Weekend Observer reported prominent Swazi businessman Walter Bennett calling on the government to consider stopping the distribution of Drum in Swaziland unless it made an unreserved apology to the king and the nation.
Bennett echoed a sentiment that is often expressed in the Swazi media when he reportedly said it was high time the country reacted to negative reports written in the foreign media.
The most extreme outburst came more than six weeks after the Drum publication. Almon Mbingo, a columnist for the Weekend Observer wrote of the woman journalist who wrote the Drum article, “She deserves to be hanged from the nearest tree.” He went on to say, “She deserves to be declared a Prohibitive Immigrant who should never set foot in Swaziland again. What a pity we do not have the 60 days detention order anymore, otherwise, she would be His Majesty’s guest in the Correctional Services before she is deported.” This invective clearly contravenes the SNAJ code on hate speech.
This outrage in the Swazi press is part of its continuing campaign to protect the king’s reputation against what it sees as unfair reporting in non-Swazi media. However, the outrage about the photograph is entirely synthetic. An editorial error was made and the prince was misidentified as the king: it was as simple as that. The Drum magazine published a correction in a later edition.
The Times Sunday in its editorial comment attacked South African journalists for making such an “obvious mistake” in not being able to identify the king, but the reality is that King Mswati III is not an international figure. He rules over a small country, landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique, that has no significance on the international stage. The country has neither geopolitical strategic significance nor economic significance, such as a wealth of raw materials, and therefore what goes on in the country is of little interest outside Swaziland.
A systematic analysis of international news coverage of Swaziland demonstrates that hardly anything about the country appears in the foreign press. The King’s birthday went largely unreported outside Swaziland, although the South Africa Press Association agency did distribute a report based on comments from the Swaziland Solidarity Network that the cost of the celebration was extravagant. The South Africa Sunday Times ran a short piece based on the agency report, but I have been unable to find any other newspaper that felt the report interesting enough to publish.
The Swazi press is making its protests purely for internal consumption. The monarch in Swaziland holds all the power and no criticism of the king is tolerated. The manufactured outrage over the Drum article follows closely a report in Times Sunday in March 2007 from the Afrol news agency that suggested that economic and social problems facing Swaziland stemmed from the private spending of the king. This type of criticism was considered entirely out of order and after pressure both the Times Sunday and its stablemate Times of Swaziland issued apologies stating that the article was “disparaging to the person of His Majesty in its content, greatly embarrassed him and should not have passed editorial scrutiny”.
This was a very clear warning to the Swazi media. There have also been threats from the government to make further controls on a media that is already subject by more than 30 restrictive laws. The manufactured outrage over the Drum article gives the Swazi press an opportunity to once again demonstrate its loyalty to the king.
The miscaptioned photograph is a distraction. What remains unchallenged by the Swazi press are the central accusations of the Drum report that the king lives a lavish lifestyle while most of his subjects are in abject poverty.