Kings who cooled the flames of Africa

When the Sleeping Grass Awakens
April 16, 1999

Swaziland is about the same size as Hawaii, and it too was a kingdom invaded by white settlers in the 19th century. Unlike Hawaii, however, the kingdom rose again and regained political independence as a member of the United Nations since 1968. Its white settlers have been reduced to political insignificance, though they keep control over commerce and industry.

It is difficult for outsiders to understand what is going on in a closed aristocratic society such as Swaziland. The Dlamini aristocracy under the king, with its sub-divisions and allied chiefs connected by marriage, rules the roost. Students of Swazi society are reduced to watching for small omens of change in the body politic - who sits next to whom at annual national festivities and who joins a parastatal board. Staff at the local university get subtle messages suggesting that it is their duty to teach the delights of Swaziland rather than to take any interest in the political environment. Academics who do analyse Swazi politics and society usually move elsewhere before their book is published or soon after. So it is with Richard Levin, who now teaches at Wi****ersrand University in South Africa.

His thesis is signalled by his cover and title. The cover is a photograph of a road sign: "Slow Down, Royal Residence". The title is derived from a Swazi idiom: "The grass that is sleeping is woken by fire" -monarchy being the mechanism that has delayed the conflagration.

The first half of the book is a summary history of the country up to 1982. We see how royal and aristocratic accumulation countered and compromised the expropriation of land and resources by white settler capitalism. A reconstituted monarchy and Swazi "tradition" successfully regained its cultural hegemony over aspirant petty commodity producers but was less successful with the working class that sprang up during industrialisation in the 1960s. This rather bloodless structuralist account of Swazi history is relieved by insights into Sobhuza II.

Chosen as infant king in 1899-1900, Sobhuza II ruled from 1921 until his death in 1982. It is difficult not to admire him, dishing first white settler landlords and then British imperialists and African nationalists.

By a legal coup in 1973, he replaced an attempted Westminster-type parliamentary constitution with what Levin calls authoritarian populism.

Sobhuza foresaw the difficulties that his secretly nominated, still teenage successor would face in establishing his authority after his father's death. To this end, Sobhuza set up a system of local councils under a central Swazi National Council in 1978.

However, as soon as Sobhuza was dead, there was a scramble for power and wealth. Levin gives a spirited account of the intrigues and palace coups. He identifies eight major shifts of power between the death of Sobhuza II in 1982 and the accession of Mswati III in 1986. He sees the new royal regime as having quickly dissipated its promise. It became a hotbed of even greater corruption, blatantly collaborating with apartheid spies and special forces in assassinating African National Congress cadres using Swaziland as their base for infiltration into South Africa during the 1980s.

Enter Pudemo (the People's United Democratic Movement), founded in 1983 by student radicals inspired by South Africa's ANC-surrogate United Democratic Front. The last part of When the Sleeping Grass gia for this party.

There were massive strikes in 1996, but the grass slept again after this fitful stir. Swaziland is an intriguing place, and this book is the best for understanding Swaziland since Sobhuza.

Neil Parsons is a historian at the University of Botswana.

When the Sleeping Grass Awakens: Land and Power in Swaziland

Author - Richard Levin
ISBN - 1 86814 301 5
Publisher - Witwatersrand University Press
Price - £15.95
Pages - 290

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