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Amid Animal Skins and Family Pride, a Youth Becomes Swazi King

April 27, 1986|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

MBABANE, Swaziland — An 18-year-old, Mswati III, became king of the remote African mountain nation of Swaziland on Saturday and, addressing his subjects for the first time, promised his people a reign of "unity, happiness and prosperity."

"I have pledged myself to your service, and throughout my life and with all my heart, I shall try to be worthy of your trust," Mswati said as he began his rule over one of the world's smallest kingdoms, a landlocked country of 600,000 wedged between South Africa and Mozambique.

He is the world's youngest monarch, still an English schoolboy with his final exams in two months. But as he appeared Saturday before his people as king, Mswati wore a leopard skin and a tribal chief's headdress of black ostrich feathers.

A crowd of about 50,000 at the national sports stadium roared its approval when he pledged to continue the policies of his father, King Sobhuza II, who died in 1982 at 83, after ruling more than 60 years. The multitude greeted him with shouts of Bayethe! Bayethe! ("Hail, you are the most powerful!"), and a 21-gun salute was fired.

Swazi warriors attired in animal skins and carrying shields and spears pledged loyalty to the new ruler, who joined them in a tribal dance on the stadium's soccer field. Hundreds of Swazi young women, wearing only beaded belts around their hips, danced. And about 500 red-coated soldiers, half the Swazi army, paraded to military band music. Poets sang the young king's praises and heralded his reign.

"The ceremonies of the past two days are ancient, their origins buried in the shadows of the past," Mswati said, speaking of the elaborate and largely secret rituals of his installation as Swazi monarch. "But their traditions shine through the ages, particularly in today's world where many traditions have been lost or badly tarnished."

The rituals reportedly included the killing of a sacred black bull by Swazi warriors, who used its entrails to anoint the young king's body, and his appearance before Swazi elders wearing a sheath that symbolizes the vigor of the ruling Dlamini family.

As crown prince, he had gone hunting with his warriors last year, killing a lion--a requirement for a Swazi monarch, who is known as Ngwenyama, meaning lion in the country's Siswati language. Earlier, when he was tapped as Sobhuza's successor, an elephant was slaughtered in his honor and a herd of 1,000 black cattle were gathered to give him wealth.

Again, as custom required, Mswati took his first wife, 16-year-old Sibongile Tessa Mngomzelu, the daughter of a civil servant, before he was formally proclaimed king in a ceremony before dawn Saturday at the royal seat of Lombamba.

Originally named Makhosetive, the new monarch took the name of a 19th-Century predecessor, who ruled from 1840 to 1868 and became known as the greatest of the Swazi warrior-kings.

So few people remembered the late Sobhuza's installation as king in 1921 that Swazi officials had to ask Britain, the colonial power here at the time, to search its records for accounts of the secret rituals and ceremonies then. To aid future generations, most of the ceremonies were videotaped this time.

Support for the Swazis' adherence to tradition came from President Kenneth D. Kaunda of nearby Zambia, a guest, who decried the "extermination" of many African institutions by the continent's European colonizers. Kaunda praised the continuation of the Swazi monarchy, one of three remaining in Africa and one of the world's oldest, dating in an unbroken line of succession to the 15th Century.

Mswati, whose name is pronounced ma-SWA-ti, was the second youngest of Sobhuza's 68 acknowledged sons. The old king had at least 50 wives--perhaps more than 120, according to informed Swazis--and he fathered several hundred children.

Mswati's selection as crown prince three years ago was guided by two traditional requirements: the prospective king was not married and had no full brothers. These are intended to prevent feuding within the royal family and free the monarch as much as possible to make his own political alliances.

But the selection was also characterized by considerable infighting as factions within the royal family maneuvered to increase their power after Sobhuza's death.

In the course of this struggle, the queen regent named by Sobhuza was ousted, as was Sobhuza's last prime minister. Princes, Cabinet ministers and top police and army officers were imprisoned or exiled, and the winner of the complicated fracas is still far from clear.

"The basic issues are fairly clear--how to modernize the country, which traditions to retain, how to develop the economy, what relationship to have with South Africa--but I cannot say with any certainty where most of the senior princes stand on them," a Swazi journalist said, attempting to explain what he admitted remains a "complex and highly volatile political situation."

Hopes are high that Mswati's installation will end the infighting.

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