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Monday, 18 November, 2002, 16:04 GMT
Swazi polygamy under spotlight
Swazi reed dance (photo: Chris Hughes)
Up to 30,000 maidens gather every year for the reed dance

A miserable looking 18-year-old girl sits on the end of a line of women all wearing the traditional costume befitting queens of Swaziland.

That moment Zena Mahlangu appeared in public alongside King Mswati III she became an official fiancee.


It will be slow, but at the end of the day we might get rid of it and dispense with the polygamy, but that is in generations to come

Queen Inkhosikati La-Mbikiza, the king's third wife
And it was at that moment that her mother, who had taken the Swazi royal family to court to try and get her daughter back, knew her efforts were futile. She had lost her girl.

"That marked the end of my struggle because after that point, that is when I realised he was not going to let her go," said Lindiwe Dlamini.

"I could have continued with the court case until I was blue in the face, and nothing would have changed."

The reed dance

Zena's selection as the king's 10th wife in waiting came during the Reed Dance ceremony - the royal courtiers went to her house and took her to the king's kraal.

But her mother objected, said she was taken against her will and filed charges of abduction against the royal messengers.

King Mswati (photo: Chris Hughes)
People would never have questioned the King before
"One minute she was here and the next minute she was gone. There was that total emptiness and wonder and hurt - all mixed together," said Lindiwe.

Challenging King Mswati III was brave, but she was taking on the system - the court was blocked from investigating whether or not her daughter was happy, and then the attorney general pressured the judges to drop the case.

The shockwaves of this challenge to the judiciary continue bouncing around the courts, but for Lindiwe Dlamini, the issue is now trying to negotiate at least some access to the daughter she was so close to.

Voice for women

The case has brought into sharp focus the situation with regard to women's rights in Swaziland and has made some of the most ardent supporters of the king ask serious questions.

The court case, and the international attention on it, has given women's groups in Swaziland a voice.


I could have continued with the court case until I was blue in the face, and nothing would have changed

Lindive Dlamini, the bride's mother
Thobile Dlamini from the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse backed the court case as part of a bigger struggle.

"I guess as you can tell, the status of women in Swaziland is not good. Our human rights record is not good throughout the country - it's even worse for women and this is the whole issue now," she said.

"We are trying to strengthen civil society and the NGOs to say if we are not taking responsibility and addressing issues around human rights we are letting down women in their struggle to equality, for education and for economic empowerment."

System overhaul

And even those within the royal family do not necessarily support the system. The king's third wife, Queen Inkhosikati La-Mbikiza, was chosen at a reed dance and disagrees with polygamy.

"Tradition is tradition and you can't really change it in the twinkle of an eye, so it is going to take time for it to be amended," she said.

"It will be slow, but at the end of the day we might get rid of it and dispense with the polygamy, but that is in generations to come."

This is the first time that the king's choice of bride has been questioned and challenged so openly and so publicly.

Swaziland is a fiercely traditional country and the monarchy plays a hugely important role in people's daily lives - even in urban areas like the capital, Mbabane. There is a conflict between the old way of doing things and human rights, women's rights and democracy.

New constitution

A new draft constitution has been prepared - 30 years after the original constitution was suspended - and will be put to the king and then the people when he comes out of seclusion in January.

The man responsible for it, Prince David Dlamini, says it will go a long way to addressing women's rights, but it will not go to a referendum.

One of King Mswati III's previous fiancées
It is a conflict between the old way of doing things and women's rights
Even though it has the king's full support so far, the new constitution could be thrown out altogether, and even if passed its value is yet to be seen, as it runs alongside and not above the rules of traditional Swazi law and custom.

The reed dance will go on for many years, and no doubt the king will continue to take more wives, but the case of the mother and the king will no doubt have an impact on what women in Swaziland are prepared to put up with.


Talking PointTALKING POINT
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See also:

01 Nov 02 | Africa
17 Oct 02 | Africa
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