Compared with the woes besetting our own royal family, the problems faced by the Swazi monarchy in adapting to the 21st century are minor. King Mswati III has just chosen his tenth wife. The wedding will not affect his marriage to the existing nine. There may be lessons here for Prince Charles.
I have recently returned from a short visit to Swaziland, where I was educated as a boy. The country is about the size of Wales. Hilly, fertile and well-watered, and landlocked between the top right-hand corner of South Africa and the bottom left of Mozambique, this sweet and peaceful little place is unusual for being more or less conterminous with the modern homeland of a single tribe. Almost all the inhabitants of Swaziland are Swazis, and this has rescued their nation from the furies and fractures which beset so many African nations.
For much of its modern history Swaziland was a British protectorate, one which in many respects our colonial governors tactfully allowed to rule itself. The country sidestepped most of the struggles which ravaged southern Africa throughout the last century. This was and is in the most splendid sense a backwater: a mountain redoubt.
Partly as a result, and because the Swazi people’s own history and identity are so rich and strong, the nation’s monarchy – in reality an exceptionally well-defined and centralised African chieftainship – has survived remarkably intact. The Swazi royal family has turned itself into an apparatus of 21st-century government. On its surface the country is part-democratic but at its core governance there is characterised by that delicate and peculiarly African counterpoint of hierarchy and consensus – profoundly conservative, authoritarian yet somehow sensitised to the nerve-endings which are its rank and file – whose capture in language eludes European sociologists. A successful African chief is no democrat, but he is always listening.
The present king’s father, Sobhuza II, was one such. Born in 1899, he began his reign in 1921 and became the world’s longest-reigning living monarch. He ruled with a willowy command: an adroit balance of attentiveness, cunning and absolute decree. When in 1967 he came to bestow his blessing on Waterford school, he decided unilaterally and without warning to rename us, and the school has been Waterford-Kamhlaba ever since. The king arrived in a Rolls-Royce and a proto-grunge blend of morning dress and tribal raiment. His curiously ambiguous speech was delivered in the Swazi language, but Sobhuza roughly interrupted his wretched Swazi interpreter throughout, to correct his English. He steered his country deftly to independence from Britain in 1968. After a 60-year reign, he was said to have more than 80 wives when he died in 1982.
So far his son has only nine. Being king will be harder for Mswati III, and I should not give the impression that there are no clouds on the horizon. Somewhere between absolutism and democracy, and almost without African precedent to guide him, this young Sherborne-educated king must establish the model for a 21st-century African monarch. There are some worries about the way things have been going – but this is no place for an earnest screed.
Less earnestly, let us ask about lessons for royals: not whether the Swazi royal family has any to learn from ours, but whether ours might copy them. In particular I think the Prince of Wales should take a look at the Ceremony of the Reed Dance.
The dance is performed ostensibly for the Queen Mother. This lady is not, as might appear, the mother of a queen, but, being the king’s first and therefore senior wife, she becomes in time old enough to be the mother (or eventually grandmother) of the young wives the king continues into old age to choose. She is known to the Swazi as the Indlovukazi or ‘Great She-Elephant’, a name which the late Julian Critchley, MP used unkindly about the then leader of his party, but which in African parlance is a term of unqualified respect.
The Queen Mother being, as it were, in charge of the monarch’s wives department (they all live in a royal village), it is she who watches as every year the entire maidenhood of the Swazi nation perform for her an elaborate dance at Lobamba, the royal HQ. Young women – some 30,000 of them – come from all over the country to take part, and the ceremonies are lengthy and apparently spectacular. The dancing, which is performed bare-breasted and undressed, apart from a beaded belt and a limited number of tassels, is in the nature of an act of communal respect by womanhood generally towards the nation’s senior woman. Essentially this is a girl-to-girl thing, and it is vulgar and wrong for European commentators to say that all the country’s virgins dance naked for the king; but the king does watch too, and it is true the girls do not wear much.
If the fancy takes him, and it usually does, he chooses one. She then has the honour to become his wife.
Could Buckingham Palace not take a leaf from Lobamba’s book? We do not have a king, but the ceremony could be adapted for the Prince of Wales. The Swazi procedure strikes me as superior to our own in a number of important respects. First, in the selection of his first wife it would have given Prince Charles more say in the matter than appears to have been the case. Second, should the royal eye continue to rove thereafter, it involves the senior wife in the selection of appropriate new consorts. Third, it brings within the folds of tradition and propriety what might otherwise and by the ignorant be called philandering. Finally (and in our modern market economy, where consumer choice is paramount, this is important), it permits the royal customer to scrutinise the whole range on offer before a decision is made. At present, British royals have to rely on meeting people at parties: horribly haphazard.
Unlike Swaziland, where reluctance by some maidens to dance has been whispered of, we would not need to make attendance at a British Royal Reed Dance compulsory. Indeed, the right kind of girl would be hard to restrain. Could there be any among the daughters of Country Life’s many subscribers who would not rush up to town, throw her kit off, and don a beady G-string and a couple of tassels to dance in front of Prince Charles? Wembley Arena could hardly contain them. The ceremony could replace the debutantes’ balls at which young ladies used to come out.
The television coverage would be glorious. Sir David Dimbleby would lead us through it, scarcely a county nipple escaping the respected royal commentator’s deferential attention.
Come on, you Palace fuddy-duddies, it is not too late. Camilla Parker Bowles for Indlovukazi!
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.