Swaziland is ruled by Africa’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III, ranked among the world’s richest royals but reigning over a nation mired in poverty, hunger and disease. With 13 wives and a personal fortune estimated at 100 million dollars, Forbes magazine places him among the 15 richest monarchs on the globe. Since taking the throne at age 18 in 1986, he has developed a penchant for fast cars, luxurious palaces and extravagant parties. His wives enjoy posh European shopping trips aboard private jets. That life could not be more removed from his 1.2 million subjects who face daily a battle to survive. Nearly 70 percent live on less than one dollar a day, 40 percent are unemployed, and 25 percent of adults have HIV, the highest rate in the world. Life expectancy is the lowest in the world, at 32.5 years.
Food crops have declined for a decade, leaving Swazis dependent on foreign food aid to survive from one harvest to the next. Mswati rules by decree over a government with chronic budget shortfalls. Finance Minister Majozi Sithole has vowed to cut this year’s deficit to 7.5 percent of GDP, down from 13 percent last year, but the proposed austerity measures have sparked a backlash from civil servants. Landlocked and squeezed between Mozambique and South Africa, Swaziland depends heavily on trade. Revenue a regional customs union, which amounted to 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2009, fell 60 percent last year to 1.9 billion rand ($262 million, 194 million euros). Swaziland has little developed industry and is heavily dependent on South Africa, which receives almost half of Swaziland’s exports and supplies most of its imports.
Political parties were banned under the Suppression of Terrorism Act in 2008, and the few opposition figures are in and out of prison. The Economist Intelligence Unit 2010′s democracy index ranks Swaziland 141 out of 167 countries, placing it firmly in the “authoritarian” category. The country’s media is almost all government owned and tightly controlled. The only independent critical newspaper, the Times of Swaziland, is routinely intimidated into retracting or not publishing articles that are critical of the government.