A rare look inside Swaziland's mysterious annual kingship ceremony and brewing protest movement.
MBABANE, Swaziland – King Mswati III, one of the world's last absolute monarchs, is a powerful man -- precisely because many think he isn't a man at all.
"He believes he is divine, believes he is magic," his former speechwriter, Musa Ndlangamandla, told me one evening. "And so do his people."
The paunchy young king, typically sporting a goatee and traditional Swazi garb, has made himself one of the richest royals in the world by controlling an estimated 50 percent of the economy. His Swazi kingdom is a tiny, mountainous region between South Africa and Mozambique, but there's still big business: it's home to a Coca-Cola concentrate-manufacturing plant (the company's biggest on the continent), a new iron-ore reprocessing plant, and one of the largest man-made forests in the world. Over all this lords Mswati III, but for one month a year, he has different business to attend to.
Last winter, a few weeks after I arrived in Swaziland to study traditional healers, the country shut down for the month-long witchcraft and kingship ceremony known as Incwala. The annual event is taken very seriously. Shops close, police take off work, and warriors camp outside the king's palace while he goes into seclusion to perform elaborate rites -- eating traditional herbs, dancing -- under the supervision of inyangas, or witch doctors. A month later, he emerges from Incwala invincible, cleansed from the past year, and reaffirmed of his divinity. Many Swazis call Incwala "our national prayer month" -- the deity being Mswati III.
Some people -- including U.S. diplomats and even the king's former speechwriter -- are beginning to suggest that King Mswati's belief in his own divinity blurs his vision. In a 2010 cable obtained by WikiLeaks, the U.S. embassy in Swaziland, citing a local businessman, described the king as "imbalanced" and heavily influenced by "witchcraft."
While traditional culture ought to be celebrated, the stakes of Mswati's mental balance are high. For Swazi women ages 30 to 34, the HIV rate is 54 percent, the highest in the world. Life expectancy fell from 61 years in 2000 to 32 years in 2009.
Belief in his own divinity may allow Mswati to disconnect himself from these realities. In April of last year, he stirred anger by demanding cows and presents from his impoverished subjects to accompany government funding for his $652,000 40th birthday party (70 percent of the country lives on less than two dollars a day, and yet the royals are wealthy enough to skew World Bank statistics, making it seem a lot less bad.) In May, he flew to England for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and let one of his 13 wives spend $60,000 at a South African hotel. Such decadence shouldn't be significant, but it becomes so when such a tiny and ailing populace must shoulder it. Later that month, the International Monetary Fund pulled an advisory team out of the country because it did not have faith in the government's commitment to rein in spending (not surprising when the government spends 17 percent of its budget on unnecessary security, funds lavish royal birthday parties, and then asks for loans).
"The rest of the world keeps saying we should have democracy, and we agree," Vusie Majola, who runs a nonprofit, said. "But what they don't understand is that the king, he can point a stick at you and you die. We are dealing with someone whose power the world can't understand."
Swazis fear the king and fervently believe in his power. Their reverence for Mswati is, to a foreigner, jarring.
I wanted to see the ceremonies for myself, and so I bought a traditional Swazi dress from Mr. Cheapies, a crowded fabric shop in downtown Mbabane, and hopped in my Toyota SUV to drive to the palace. Everyone, Swazis and expats alike, said I couldn't go -- that the Incwala was too tightly guarded and that I ought to wait until the big tourist-friendly dance that marked the public-facing end of the festivities. But I didn't have a day job at the time, and trying to break into Incwala seemed as good an activity as any. I showed up at the palace gates and offered the guards some chocolates. Spinning their AK47s, they asked if I was a virgin (only virgin girls can enter the barracks where the Incwala warriors stay) and let me in.
Through the gates, I drove by a field of makeshift tents -- nothing more than torn blue tarps roped around trees -- and police officers napping on blankets spread across the browning lawn. I passed the barracks, a cluster of thick-walled beehive houses made of long, bent branches, and arrived at the palace. Inside the low-lying whitewashed complex was a minister, Thandiso, eating biltong (dried meat) with his two wives.
"The king's just right in there," Thandiso explained, pointing to some buildings within the complex. "In isolation with his maidens. And the inyangas."
Thandiso's leopard loincloth cut tight into his belly as he led me back out to the barracks and introduced me to the warriors and princes. This sort of access was remarkable, I was later told -- a tribute more to Swazi curiosity and friendliness than any skill on my part (though it might have helped that I said I was open to the idea of a Swazi husband). The king's young son, silent and confident, crossed his arms and waited for one of the soldiers to dress him. I saw the marks of fresh muti, or witch magic, everywhere. The warriors had thin scabs up and down their arms where they had rubbed herbs into their blood, and brightly colored strings around their necks for protection. I also saw the marks of untreated HIV. Police uniforms hung loose, decorating the sagging shoulders of emaciated captains.
After a few hours of watching a boy's induction into one of the regiments, I heard the high-pitch blare of police escorts. The royal coterie of wives, cousins, and attachés arrived -- an intimidating parade of armored BMWs and security forces. They emerged from the vehicles in stilettos, sunglasses, and leopard-skin cloths and paraded past the three regiments of Swaziland (soldiers, police officers, and traditional warriors) onto the palace's the main dancing field. There, with the regiments, they formed an enormous circle, danced a slow dance, and sung a quiet, repetitive chant for two hours (King Sobhuza II sang the same ancient war song, Inqaba Kanqofula, when Swaziland achieved independence from the British). When the dance concluded, the royals got back in their cars and the regiments returned to their barracks and tents.
I returned to Incwala every day for a week and got to know the royal healers -- quiet, deeply feared figures who stay near the palace while the king is in isolation. These are not the herb-collecting healers you call to cure a stomach ache but rather the ones you summon for luck and power, the ones who deal in animal parts, the ones albinos fear because their speckled white flesh is considered magic. The healers themselves are constantly poisoning one another in Mswati's competitive royal court. I caught up with one, Mabuzo, in northern Swaziland after he ran away from the palace.
"Mswati is not like his father [the revered Sobhuza II, who expelled the British from Swaziland]," he told me. "They all used us, but you only go to Mswati if you want to die. If one healer thinks you are becoming too powerful, he will kill you." When I asked if Mswati used human parts as muti, Mabuzo got very quiet and whispered something to my translator who smiled and winced. The interview was over.
The last night of Incwala, after the tourists left and the gates closed, I met Sydney (many Swazis go by Anglicized names), one of the king's personal guards. He was standing at the entrance to Mswati's Incwala kraal, or cow pen, made of thin 20-foot-high logs and covered by a layer of branches. The king was inside.
Sydney was a lean young man with a clean face. He stepped closer to me, and I smelled the cow's blood before I noticed that it drenched the pants and shirt of his uniform.
He informed me that I couldn't explore the kraal. Earlier, I'd been told that if a girl enters the king's kraal she'll have her period for the rest of her life, which I didn't dare risk. Still, I asked Sydney why I couldn't just look.
"You don't understand," he said, cradling his AK-47, "no one can go in there now.... Not even me. In there is the king, the bulls, a very few warriors and," he pauses, "and the inyangas."
I'd seen a dozen bulls enter the kraal minutes ago but couldn't hear anything inside save for chanting -- a soft shush-shush-shush.
"Are you a Christian?" asked Sydney. "I am a Christian," he said. "And I hate what is happening in there."
The secret ceremonies of Incwala are steeped in mystery. But on Nov. 28, 2011, Pius "unSwazi" Rinto (aka Pius Vilakati), the founder and spokesperson of the banned Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN), released a document that contained a Swazi man's alleged confessions about the true nature of the ceremony.
The SSN, which coordinates democracy campaigns from South Africa, claimed that the report came from a former member of the Royal Army who had defected to the democracy movement. The report was picked up by major news organizations, even making it into the New York Times.
It contained a number of well-known facts about Incwala -- royal advisors spend the month wandering Swaziland and fining people for violating traditional codes (women wearing pants are commonly apprehended), bulls are killed, young (ideally virgin) boys move onto the palace lawns (80,000 came this year, and all received new sneakers).
But the document included some strange revelations as well, which are harder to verify.
The author claimed that a snake licks the king all over his body -- and quite a bit more. In December, the Johannesburg-based Southern African Report summarized the report as follows:
Among [Incwala's] highlights is a symbolic demonstration by the king of his power and dominance in a process involving his penetration of a black bull, beaten into semi-conscious immobility to ensure its compliant acceptance of the royal touch. The royal semen is then collected by a courtier and stored, for subsequent inclusion in food to be served at Sibaya -- traditional councils -- and other national forums.
Afterward, the document claims, Mswati has public sex with two of his wives, ejaculating into a horn like he did after engaging in intercourse with the bull. Then a bucket of water is poured on his head and he washes himself on the women. These wives are the sesulamsiti, which means, per Sydney's translation, "after I dirty I must clean my hands." They are used only for traditions and are not allowed to get pregnant.
Whether this account is true or not -- some people I met swore its veracity, others scoffed when I brought it up -- is irrelevant. What's more interesting is the reaction to the account in Swaziland.
The kingdom's most prevalent religion is Zionism, a precarious balance of Christianity and traditional beliefs. Several Zionist pastors have declared Incwala evil -- a lurch too far toward the pagan. The Times of Swaziland, a paper owned by a white Swazi named Paul Loffler who allows the editorial team to function freely, ran weeks of letters to the editor calling for boycotts of Incwala and for parents to bring their sons back from the palace.
Mswati made some attempts to punish the critics, though they were largely futile. The royal newspaper -- the Swazi Observer -- asked if anyone had information that could help the police arrest those individuals who "distributed pamphlets containing malicious and misleading fabrications aimed at tarnishing the country's customs and traditions," citing laws banning defamation of the king. Yet no culprit was caught. One man was arrested for selling G-rated video recordings of last year's Incwala and asked to get each one back -- an impossible task. Journalists and photographers -- even Swazi nationals -- were banned from all the Incwala events. The only news outlet permitted to cover the last day of the festival was Swazi TV, the king's propaganda station. Yet I managed without any trouble to bring a video camera into the event. A couple of months ago, the government announced a new lèse majesté law that will make insulting the king via social media sites a crime. But again, enforcing this law might be difficult.
The account of Incwala published by Pius "unSwazi" Rinto isn't the only source of anxiety about witchcraft influencing Mswati. In 2011, WikiLeaks released a cable from U.S. Ambassador Earl Irving entitled, "Witchcraft and More: A Portrait of Influences On King Mswati III." In a kingdom of 1.4 million people, where U.S. embassy officials and Swazi royalty basically all go to one of two real restaurants, comments by U.S. Ambassador Irving made for a very awkward morning after and a public relations nightmare for the embassy.
"What we can say with confidence," Irving concluded in the cable, "is that shamanism pervades Swazi culture, and even the king, who is above the law and constitution of Swaziland and ostensibly a Christian, is not exempted from its grip."
The cable quoted Mandla Hlatshwayo, a former Mswati advisor and sugar company CEO, as telling U.S. officials that the king regards any attempts to use muti to attack him seriously. Hlatshwayo, who later founded the People's United Democratic Movement, the kingdom's banned opposition party, has gone into self-imposed exile in South Africa.
"They want me dead," Hlatshwayo titled his Swazi Observer column in October 2011, shortly after the cable was released. Since 2008, he wrote, he'd been hearing rumors that authorities wanted to assassinate him.
One day during Incwala, I took an afternoon off to meet the nation's foremost democracy activists. Majola, the Swazi nonprofit manager, led me to a meeting in a large, old building in downtown Manzini. There around a dusty, wooden conference table in a dimly lit room, I listened as they planned a teacher's union strike, debated whether to merge with another union group, and discussed how many lawyers might actually show up to a march. Afterwards, in the lobby outside, their conversation turned to Mswati's power.
The king "can turn into a cat or an ant," Majola said quietly. "He can be invisible right next to us right now. I have had friends die this way."
Majola is a large, intelligent businessman with a degree in systems management from a South African university.
"Swazis have a secret you cannot beat," Majola observed. "They believe in God. But they also believe in the ancestors. The ancestors make the king as powerful as a god."
"I had a friend, one of us [in the democracy movement], and he entered the royal grounds wanting to discuss the labor movement," said one short man with a silver tooth. "Walking out of the palace he looked weak. He died two weeks later."
"You know what happens," added a young man in a New York Yankees T-shirt. "The king had his inyangas sprinkle a circle of powder around the palace. You cross that line and you die."
Come now, I said, you're all smart and youthful and fighting for democracy. You can't believe King Mswati is really a god.
The young man in the Yankees shirt shook his head. "This is why the revolution in Swaziland will be so hard," he said. "Maybe impossible."
WALTER DHLADHLA/AFP/Getty Images