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.