Magical Thinking

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.

Swaziland's four-decade "state of emergency" -- the world's longest -- gives the king absolute power to punish dissent. And yet there is a quiet, watchful protest movement brewing.

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."



The Decider

Opponents of an Israeli strike on Iran have focused their ire on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it's his hawkish defense minister, Ehud Barak, who is really driving the talk of war.

TEL AVIV — Twenty years have passed since Israel first raised the alarm over Iran's nuclear program, 10 years since Iranian dissidents revealed the enrichment plant at Natanz, and roughly two since pundits started predicting an Israeli attack against the Islamic Republic. Today, never have so many Israelis from across the political spectrum agreed that a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities could arrive within months.

Channel 2, Israel's leading newscast, reported earlier this month that the foremost advocates of a strike -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- are nearing a final decision on whether to push the button. Meanwhile, Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn wrote that Netanyahu wants to attack "in the coming weeks" -- and Yossi Melman, the paper's former intelligence reporter, estimated the "window of opportunity" for a strike at 80 days.

Efraim Halevy, the former head of Israel's Mossad spy service and an outspoken opponent of a strike, echoed the same sentiment. "If I were an Iranian, I would be very fearful of the next 12 weeks," the laconic, British-born septuagenarian said early this month.

While the media often depict Netanyahu as the prime mover behind a strike, it is Barak -- the one-time standard-bearer of the Israeli left  -- who over the past two years has emerged as the unlikely champion of military action. This support from Netanyahu's political polar opposite has been crucial in leading Israel to the brink of war.

"Barak is much more of a hawk than Netanyahu," a security analyst and former longtime member of Israel's National Security Council told FP. "The idea that Bibi is the hawk and Barak is a good little boy serves Israel -- it's the good cop, bad cop routine -- but I don't believe there's much of a difference between them on this issue."

"Barak is the stone-cold analyst: What are the objectives? What are the risks?" the former official said. "Bibi comes from a different perspective -- that of the historical leader. Jewish history weighs upon him, and he's leader of the Jewish state, the country with the world's biggest Jewish population."

Netanyahu and Barak view the Iranian nuclear threat in roughly the same terms, analysts told FP, but where they stand on the issue depends largely on where they sit. "Netanyahu is much more prudent, because he's the prime minister and has to make sure he has broad legitimacy from the cabinet and the public," said Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. "Nonetheless, both are of the opinion that something must be done."

According to Rabi, Israeli officials' interminable warnings of an impending strike could be an attempt to prepare the Israeli home front, and international public opinion, for the inevitably messy aftermath of any such action. "What Barak and Netanyahu have done over the past month or so is tell everyone -- the Iranians, Americans and Israeli public -- that a military option could be in the offing," he said."

The duo has also won support -- both inside and outside the government -- for military action. Shabtai Shavit -- a former head of the Mossad spy agency and the last Israeli intelligence attaché in shah-era Iran -- told Channel 2 he doesn't trust American assurances of keeping Tehran in check. "I don't believe it -- even [from] our friends and greatest allies," he said. "When we're talking about my fate, my existence, my survival, I don't let any outside actor to handle it."

That's Netanyahu's mindset too: Visiting the site of a thwarted kidnap attempt this month along the Egyptian border, the prime minister said that when it comes to securing its own citizens, "Israel must and can rely only on itself." The Jerusalem Post editorialized that the remarks appeared aimed at Washington and Tehran.

Judging by an interview with an unnamed Israeli "decision maker" published last weekend in Haaretz, Barak appears to share those sentiments in spades. Most Israelis immediately recognized the interviewee as the defense minister -- the "decision maker" spoke ominously about the "immunity zone," a pet Barak phrase for the point at which a strike that could significantly damage Iran's nuclear program would be beyond Israel's capabilities.

"For the Americans, the Iranians are not yet approaching the immunity zone -- because the Americans have much larger bombers and bombs, and the ability to repeat the operation a whole number of times," the "decision maker" said. "But for us, Iran could soon enter the immunity zone. And when that happens, it means putting a matter that is vital to our survival in the hands of the United States."

The interviewee also cast doubt on U.S. President Barack Obama's repeated promises to prevent Iran from going nuclear, noting that despite similar pledges, Ronald Reagan didn't keep Pakistan from building a nuclear bomb, nor did Bill Clinton stop North Korea from doing the same. "We mustn't listen to those who in every situation prefer non-action to action," the source said. "Even a cruel reality must be looked at with total clarity. Israel is strong and Israel is responsible, and Israel will do what it has to do."

The interview is long and its argumentation meticulous, but its overall thrust is clear: A military strike would a dangerous and unfortunate -- but possibly inevitable -- choice, one far superior to the alternative of living with a nuclear Iran.

A willingness to use force should come as no surprise to those familiar with the defense minister's political and military background. Barak, 70, is the embodiment of "old Israel" -- the Laborite establishment that settled and farmed the land, built the country's institutions, and dominated its government for three decades after independence. That socialist elite also directed the bulk of Israel's wars and counter-terror operations, and Barak -- the most decorated soldier in Israeli history -- has rarely hesitated to beat his plowshare into a sword.

In 1972, as commander of Sayeret Matkal, the army's most elite unit, Barak led the storming of a hijacked plane at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport. Dressed as air technicians in white overalls, Barak and his troops -- who, incidentally, included Netanyahu -- stormed the plane, and within 10 minutes had captured or killed all four hijackers.

The following year Barak, dressed as a woman, snuck into Beirut as head of a hit squad that assassinated dozens of Palestinian guerrillas Israel held responsible for the Munich Olympics massacre. Barak was also a key planner of the 1976 Entebbe operation, in which Israel dispatched special forces to Uganda on a night raid to free 101 Israeli and Jewish hostages held by Palestinian and German hijackers (this time the ruse included a replica of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin's black Mercedes).

Barak, however, has also overseen withdrawals of Israeli power. As prime minister (and simultaneously defense minister) in 2000, he ended Israel's ­22-year military occupation of south Lebanon, and the same year entered into the (ultimately unsuccessful) Camp David peace talks with Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat.

Barak, however, remained ready to use force when he deemed it necessary: Reappointed defense minister in 2007, he oversaw the following winter's three-week offensive on the Gaza Strip aimed at stopping Hamas rocket fire on Israeli communities. The same year, he reportedly "personally directed" the Israeli air strike on a nuclear reactor being constructed in Syria with the help of Iran and North Korea. Jerusalem had given no prior warning of the operation, and skeptics this time around say all the loose talk of a brewing strike is a signal the warnings are little more than posturing.

"A country that is debating whether to attack or not to attack usually doesn't spill its guts," said veteran journalist Motti Kirshenbaum. "I personally believe that it is all really a propaganda show on the part of Barak, that it's all make believe," wrote Ben Casspit in the mass-market daily Maariv.

A number of Israeli political leaders, however, have said they doubt Netanyahu and Barak are bluffing, and have instead warned that the two are edging the country toward disaster. Shaul Mofaz, head of the opposition Kadima party and an ex-army chief and defense minister, warned a strike could not only damage relations with Washington, but also lead to a full-blown regional war. On Aug. 16, Mofaz -- born Shahram Mofazzakar in Tehran -- accused proponents of an attack of "risking our children's lives" for the sake of political gain.

That same day, Israeli President Shimon Peres said in a pair of televised interviews that the country "cannot go it alone" against Iran. While Peres acknowledged that a nuclear-armed Iran would be an existential threat to the Jewish state, he argued that Israel must not act in the absence of American support. Officials close to Netanyahu issued a stinging rebuke, accusing the president of overstepping his bounds. "When all is said and done," said one minister, "the political leaders call the shots, not the president, who should stick to his ceremonial duties."

Yoel Guzansky, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said the disagreement between Washington and Jerusalem goes beyond the difference in the two countries' military capabilities.

The crux of the issue, he said, is that the United States appears willing to let Iran reach the nuclear "threshold" -- the point where, with little effort and in minimal time, it could "break out" to build a nuclear weapon (a White House spokesman recently said Washington would know if Iran made a dash for nukes). From Israel's perspective, however, Tehran must be prevented from even approaching that threshold at all costs.

The White House has loudly promoted its success in passing several rounds of U.N. Security Council resolutions sanctioning Iran, and believes diplomatic avenues have not yet been exhausted. Barak, Netanyahu and fellow advocates of a strike -- reportedly as many as 11 of the 14 members of the Security Cabinet -- are convinced sanctions have been ineffective, negotiations are at a dead end and military action inevitable.

"President Obama doesn't even know if he'll still be sitting in the Oval Office come spring," the anonymous "decision maker" told Haaretz. "And if Mitt Romney is elected, history shows that presidents do not undertake dramatic operations in their first year in office unless forced to."

For proponents of a strike, autumn could be the ideal time frame. First, Barak and company argue that Iran could reach the "zone of immunity" within months, after which an Israeli attack would have little effect. Second, the clear fall weather is more conducive to an airstrike than Iran's cloudy winter skies. Third, a strike during the U.S. election season is less likely to earn Obama's condemnation -- and might even draw passive U.S. support -- than after the president's potential reelection.

Self-reliance is a pillar of Israel's ethos, and Barak has said the country would "absolutely not" deliberately drag America into war. "A country does not go to war in the hope or expectation that another country will join it," he said this month. "Such an act is an irresponsible gamble." Michael Oren, Jerusalem's ambassador to Washington, said this weekend that the timing of a potential strike has nothing to do with U.S. politics and everything to do with Israeli security.

The precise rationale behind when to strike may remain known only to Israel's most senior decision makers, but the question of whether to do so appears all but settled -- this week, Israeli television reported Barak and Netanyahu are "determined" to strike before U.S. elections. Israeli analysts, meanwhile, are convinced American officials underestimate the risks that the decades-old Israel-Iran feud will come to a head before November.

"I recently met a former very senior American diplomat who said the consensus in Washington is that Israel is bluffing, that Barak and Netanyahu are trying to wag the dog and get the U.S. to attack Iran," said Guzansky. "If that's the case, I told him, they've fooled me too."

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images