As Swaziland’s economy goes into meltdown and the government can’t pay its bills, King Mswati III is busy spending millions of emalengeni sprucing up his palaces.
He has 13 at the moment – one for each of his wives – and since he recently married wife number 14, we must expect palace number 14 to go up some time soon. One in four of the king’s subjects live in stick and mud homes.
You won’t be surprised to hear that I am never invited to visit any of the palaces so I can’t write from firsthand experience, but people closer to the scene tell me that among the new furnishings are chandeliers that cost US$30,000 each.
There is simmering anger over the extravagance of the renovations in Swaziland, where King Mswati rules as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. But you won’t hear about the anger in the Swazi media which is scared to be critical of the king.
I’m told one palace had been completely decked out in the finest of Egyptian cotton and silks by the best Egyptian interior designers. The queen involved walked in and simply said - I don't like it - and the whole lot was pulled down.
The fineries are bought in the Middle Eastern countries of Dubai, Qatar and Kuwait.
A special trusted aide is sent on these trips to carry out Royal purchasing instructions. He is said to stay at the Burj Al-Arab hotel when in Dubai, with the bill picked up by the Swaziland Government. I hope this isn’t true: when I tried to book a room at the hotel today I was told the cheapest was E14,000 a night. (about US$2,050) Or I could have something a bit better at E28,000. I declined.
The king is not short of a dollar: according to Forbes in the United States, King Mswati himself has a personal fortune estimated at 200 million US dollars.
Just where the king gets his money from is a carefully guarded secret, but according to Afrik.com he owns (among other things) 10 per cent of every mining company in Swaziland.
Forbes says King Mswati is the beneficiary of two funds created by his father Sobhuza II in trust for the Swazi nation. During his reign, he has absolute discretion over use of the income, which has allowed him to build his palaces and stay at seven-star hotels when abroad.
The Swazi Royal Family is bleeding the kingdom dry. In April 2010, the Swaziland Democracy Campaign reported that a breakdown of expenditures shows that despite the king’s personal wealth, a significant portion of mainstream government spending goes towards the up keep of the royal family. In the past few years the following are annual expenditures associated with the royal family:
E170 million for Royal Emoluments and Civil List.
E 125 million for rehabilitation, maintenance and construction of state houses.
E158 million recurrent budget for the Swazi National Treasury under the King’s office.
E50 million for state houses and E50 million for link roads to royal residence.
E95 million for official royal trips by the king.
Swaziland is trying to negotiate a loan of E500 million to get it out of the crisis caused by the government’s mismanagement of the economy. As the king wallows in his wealth, seven in ten of his subjects are mired in deepest poverty, earning less than US$1 a day.
To pay for the economic crisis at least 7,000 civil servants will lose their jobs, the poorest workers will be forced to pay income tax for the first time and public services are being slashed.
People in the international community will wonder why they should come to Swaziland’s aid. Surely they would want Swaziland to put its own house in order before it received help from overseas. They would expect King Mswati to spend less on himself and help his own people first, before outsiders do. And who can blame them, because they are right.