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Will the Despot King of Swaziland Last?

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You know a monarchy is feeling the heat when errant subjects face a beating with spikes. Last month, the prime minister of Swaziland, Barnabas Dlamini, threatened to use "sipakatane" -- the beating of the feet with of metal or wooden spikes -- to cow pro-democracy activists into submission. His comments came after a protest march triggered fifty arrests and the deportation of several South African trade unionists from Africa's last absolute monarchy.

King Mswati III has led Swaziland, the tiny country wedged between South Africa and Mozambique, since 1986. Ruling by decree, he has maintained the state of emergency his father, King Sobhuza II, instituted in 1973 -- five years after independence.

Forbes magazine estimates Mswati's wealth to be $200 million, making him the world's 15th richest monarch. In a country with the world's highest prevalence of HIV (at 40%), and with seven out of ten citizens living in poverty, Mswati's lavish lifestyle (funded by an annual allocation larger than the education budget) has provoked outrage. Plans to buy a $45 million Bombardier jet in 2002 were shelved but the king's penchant for heavy metal persists, with a purchase of ten BMWs (one for each of his wives) in 2005 and 20 armor-plated Mercedes last year.

The Swazis are losing patience with this conspicuous consumption, however. In August 2008, hundreds of women marched through the streets of Mbabane, the capital, to protest against a shopping trip for nine of the king's wives to Europe.

In February this year, the Swazi Democracy Coalition, an umbrella body of Swazi and South African organizations, including trade unions, churches and NGOs, was formed. The organization rallied hundreds to march for democracy during a common market of Eastern and Southern Africa summit on the seventh of September, as Mswati played host to 19 African heads of state.

The police responded in brutal fashion. Mario Masuku, president of Swaziland's banned political party, PUDEMO, was put under house arrest while his deputy, Sikhumbuzo Phakathi, was arrested at the border. Phakathi remains in detention, fuelling concerns he will meet the same fate as Sipho Jele, a fellow activist who died in police detention earlier this year.

Zanele Matebula, the deputy international secretary of South Africa's largest trade union, COSATU, was one of the 50 activists detained. After four hours of being questioned by police, she and four colleagues were booted out of the country.

"To deport five people, they mobilized about 300 members of the police, military and other officials. It was ridiculous. It was all about the pretence of a strong state," Steve Faulkner, a union spokesman, told the Mail & Guardian newspaper. "But this is a turning point for Swaziland," he added. "In spite of the intimidatory behaviour, the confidence of the people is soaring and they're really getting organized."

Swaziland's future is uncertain, but what is clear is that its nascent civil rights movement is gathering a momentum not seen since independence. With Swaziland economically reliant on its powerhouse neighbor, South Africa, the latter is ideally placed to capitalize on this momentum and pressurise Mswati to reform. But as its approach to Zimbabwe shows, South Africa is notoriously reluctant to step on the toes of her neighbors. It will be up to the rest of the international community to put encourage Swaziland's monarchy to modernize.

According to the Swaziland Solidarity Network, the EU provides £65 million in aid to Swaziland annually, while the US donates approximately $200 million. A blend of targeted sanctions, governance-conditional aid packages and economic incentives could be what it takes to nudge the kingdom towards democracy.