A Traveller's Guide to Swaziland
Excerpts from "A Traveller's Guide to Swaziland" by Bob Forrester.

Index to information in the guide


The title of the rulers of Swaziland, Ngwenyama, is translated as 'Lion'. The traditional role of the Ngwenyama is much more like that of medieval kings and barons than that of a constitutional monarch. The King is the son of the previous King but never the eldest. How the new King is chosen is not public knowledge. The King is not crowned as such, but becomes King at the culmination of secret and public rituals, for the King is at once the physical and the spiritual ruler of the Nation.

Traditionally his word is law, his health the Nation's health, his fertility the Nation's fertility. However, the King is not a remote ruler. Every person in the country has the right to speak to the King, although this custom of easy access is dropping away. Neither is the role of the King inviolate. His retaining power is dependent upon his charisma, popularity and force of personality. There is no formal hierarchy or specific chain of command with exact duties.

The story of the Kings of Swaziland and their reigns stretches far into the past; the chain of events is often mystical and lost in time, cause and effect muffled by webs of intrigue. It is thought that in the fifteenth century a chief named Dlamini and his followers moved to Catembe near Maputo from the north and settled there for some two hundred years.

They may have been vassals of the Tembe tribe. In the 1750's, the man considered by most historians to be the first King of Swaziland, Ngwane III, moved from Ingwavuma over or around the Lubombo mountains and started to settle what is now south Swaziland. By 1820 Sobhuza I had settled in central Swaziland. Precise dating of this is not currently available. The Swazi consider themselves to be his people or "Bantfu BakaNgwane" (the people of Ngwane).

The name Swazi was given by the white settlers when they first arrived in the country at the time of Ngwane III's great grandson, Mswati II. Ngwane III was succeeded by Ndvungunye of whom little has been recorded. He died in the early nineteenth century and was succeeded by his son, Sobhuza I.

Sobhuza I who ruled from circa 1805 to 1839 was a contemporary of Dingiswayo, Shaka and Dingane. Sobhuza increased his army to protect himself from the expansionist Zulus. He did this by conquering smaller clans and absorbing them into his army, creating a formidable fighting force. This may well be the start of Swazi Kingship, although this is open to debate.

His son, Mswati II, who reigned from about 1845 to 1865, consolidated his holdings and increased the role of the Swazis to a regional power, second only to that of the Zulus, whom he avoided by expanding his influence northwards.

During his reign, the first white hunters began to arrive in Swaziland. Despite his military power, Mswati decided to accommodate them because of a dream his father had had, foretelling the coming of the white man. In the dream, Mswati's father, Sobhuza I, saw the arrival of strange looking people with non-human hair "like cows' tails". In one hand they carried a book and in the other hand they carried a small circular object.

The book, or the Bible, Sobhuza was told in his dream, should be accepted, but the circular object, or money, should be rejected. The first Wesleyan missionaries arrived at Mahamba in 1844 by invitation from the king. Following a massacre in the mission station, when the king’s warriors killed hundreds of people they regarded as traitors, the missionaries fled in 1846, returning in 1880.

Sobhuza was also warned against harming the strange people with hair like cows' tails and so it was that the Swazis - unlike the Zulus - never fought the white settlers. Nevertheless, the Swazis did not heed the warning about the money and today are still trying to buy back land awarded to concessionaires during the reign of Mbandzeni (see below). This was an era during which dispossession was common place throughout Southern Africa and a Xhosa saying has an ironic ring to it: "We had the land and they had the Bible; now we have the Bible and they have the land."

After Mswati's death, his son Ludvonga was heir, but died before becoming King. Another son, Mbandzeni, came to power and ruled from 1875 to 1889. Mbandzeni helped the British subdue the baPedi, and in return was given a guarantee of independence by the British. The Mozambican Thonga were raided for children who were sold by the Swazis to the Boers who were settling the very sparsely populated Lake Chrissie area and needed farm labour. They were called "apprentices", but in effect this was a form of slavery. During Mbandzeni's reign, concession hunters flooded into the country after the discovery of gold.

Mbandzeni and the concessionaires had totally different concepts of ownership of land. To Mbandzeni, a concession allowed people to operate in his Kingdom. However, they were his subjects and all land was the property of the King.

To the settlers, used to Western freehold land, concessions were quickly taken as freehold ownership. The Westerners undoubtedly held military superiority and, in the end, this is often what determines whose value system is used. It is not a question of right or wrong so much as who has power. Mbandzeni died at the time of increasing animosity between Boers and the British and was succeeded by his son Bhunu.

Bhunu's reign, from 1894 to 1899 was not one of the high points of the Royal lineage. Accused of rashness by the people, and of murder by the Boers who were then administering the country, he was 'investigated' for murder by the Boers. The British monitored the situation carefully. He was fined and then re-instated as King with limited powers. He had had his mother's induna (right hand man) murdered, probably because he thought his mother was giving up too much power to the increasing number of whites in the country. The Boers had him up on a murder charge, Bhunu said they had no jurisdiction over Swazis. The Boers said they did, after some negotiations the enquiry went ahead with serious misgivings on both sides. The Boers fortified the then capital, Bremersdorp (Manzini), expecting an attack if the verdict was guilty. It was not, there was a compromise ruling, but Swazi culture had changed for ever.

During a ceremony to empower warriors to deal with rebellious chiefs in the south his grandmother Tibati became seriously ill and was taken home to die. With such a bad omen the ceremony was abandoned and the attack never took place. Soon afterwards Bhunu died suddenly and mysteriously. His mother Labotsibeni went on to be Regent for over twenty years. His son, Sobhuza II, who was five months old at the time of Bhunu's death, only came to the throne in 1921.

The Queen Regent was instrumental in starting to solve the greatest problem that the Swazi faced: lack of land. When the British intervened in 1907 to sort out the confusion that had arisen because the same concessions had been granted to several people, they decreed that two-thirds of the concession land would become either freehold or Crown Land and the remaining third would become land reserved for the Swazi nation. By the turn of the century, a great many Swazis were squatters in their own country.

Lobatsibeni set about collecting funds by encouraging migrant labourers to go to the South African gold mines to earn money. Some of this revenue was used to buy back more land and increased the one-third holding which had been apportioned by the British in 1907. In 1921, Sobhuza became old enough to be installed as King and Labotsibeni abdicated as Queen Regent in his favour.

Before handing over power Labotsibeni had ensured that Sobhuza had received two educations: that traditionally due to the future King; and a western education. Hilda Kuper reports that she said, "In what does the white man's power lie? It lies in money and in books. We too will learn; we too will be rich." Her single-mindedness in redressing previous wrongs was carried on by Sobhuza. One of his first acts as King was to unsuccessfully petition a court in England for a return of more than one-third of the land that had been returned in 1907. It was only in 1944 that the British responded and about half the country became Swazi Nation Land.

After the Second World War, Britain was no longer effectively able to finance the running of its vast Empire. They had spent all their accumulated reserves on fighting Hitler's Germany. There were growing Independence movements throughout the Empire and India's Independence in 1947 paved the way for other countries to press for gaining independence. Sobhuza became officially known as King - rather than Paramount Chief and full independence was gained in 1968, after an election in which the King's party won all of the seats in Parliament. Through both the executive power invested in him and through his immense popularity, Sobhuza II became the first King to truly rule the country since his great-grandfather, Mswati II, during whose reign European settlers had first entered Swaziland.

The King became dissatisfied with the Westminster constitution which limited his power, especially when three seats went to an opposition party in the 1972 elections. With much popular, but not unanimous support, he repealed the Westminster constitution in 1973 and set about creating a new constitution along more traditional lines, which blended what he felt was the best of African and European law and custom. Parliament re-opened in 1978.

Sobhuza celebrated his Diamond Jubilee in 1981, marking sixty years' reign as King. Whole generations of people had grown up during his reign and had children and grandchildren, none of whom had lived under any other ruler. He seemed to be an ageless benevolent presence who was greatly loved and depended upon.

When he died in 1982, the period of stability which had been apparent throughout his reign was somewhat threatened. After Sobhuza's death, the heir apparent, Prince Makhosetive (later to become King Mswati III), was sent to a public school in England which he attended for the two years prior to his coronation.

During his absence there was a great deal of palace in-fighting, changes in the cabinet, rumours and general political confusion. Stability was restored on the return of the young King from school and his subsequent installation as Ngwenyama of Swaziland in 1986.

All Kings face challenges and the current monarch is no exception. The role of an absolute monarch as established by Sobhuza II is seen by some more educated Swazis as being incompatible with demands for freedom of expression, democracy and civil rights. To a large extent the future of the monarchy will depend on how it adapts to changing circumstances.