A year ago the eighth wife of King Mswati III died. Her death was ascribed to drug overdose. It was the first time that the Monarch had lost a wife ever since he took to the throne in 1986. Worse still, the circumstances of the death were spoken about in hushed tones.
Senteni Masango – known as Inkhosikati LaMasango – had killed herself in what we can only assume was suicide. Media reports alleged she had overdosed herself with about 40 capsules of amitriptyline- a drug commonly used to treat mental illnesses. The Swazi press did not report anything of significance to decipher the conditions that could have led to her untimely death.
What we do know, however, is that she lived a troubled life. Inkhosikati LaMasango stayed alone in her palace for over three years ostensibly after being abandoned by her husband. In a country with no free press and royal queens tied to highly backward and restrictive traditions and rules, it was only rumours that gave us a cameo peek into her life.
Abandoned and left to ‘rot’, Inkhosikati LaMasango decided on suicide as the ultimate act of rebellion because the deafening screams of her silence could not be heard by this nation.
Inkhosikati LaMasango killed herself a week after the burial of her sister, Nombuso. The straw that seemed to have broke the camel’s back was the royal family’s refusal that she bury her.
Frustrated, isolated, hopeless and quarantined in a lavish but meaningless palace, LaMasango must have mumbled, with tears streaming down her cheeks, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”.
In subsequent months, King Mswati was to lose yet another wife, this time Inkhosikati Nothando Dube. LaDube had been battling cancer for a while. She had been thrust into spotlight back in 2006 when the king married her as a 16 year old who had just made it as a finalist on the Miss Teen competition.
At the time, the King had introduced an age old custom called Umcwasho. Umcwasho is a traditional chastity rite re- introduced by King Mswati III in 2001 to try and curb the marauding scourge of HIV/AIDS in the country.
While the rite was active, unmarried women were not allowed to have sexual relations or come into any physical contact with males. In defiance of his own rules, the king married the then 16 year old Dube and then fined himself a cow.
It was a spectacular show of what happens when Swazi traditions or customs stand in the way of the monarchy’s interests.
Inkhosikati LaMasago herself had married King Mswati III in the year 2000. She was 18 years then and a high school dropout. She had been selected the previous year during the annual Royal Reed Dance ceremony.
The king is allowed by custom to choose a new wife from thousands of bare-breasted maidens who attend the Umhlanga ceremony. The new bride is then introduced as Liphovela and only assumes the status of Inkhosikati once officially married according to royal family traditions and custom.
It was a shock to the nation to lose a queen, it had not happened ever since the monarch took the throne. If the conditions of Inkhosikati LaMasango’s death were shocking then the response of the royal family and the king even more insulting.
At the time of her death, the royal family had planned a national 50/50 celebration to mark both the monarchy reaching half a century but also to commemorate the country’s 50 years of independence.
Tradition in Swaziland dictates that when someone dies she or he is given a mourning period, a minimum of a week, so that friends and relatives can travel to pay their last respect.
However, such dignity was not accorded Inkhosikati LaMasango. Instead, she was buried within two days in complete defiance of the very custom and tradition we are told to sanctify.
In fact, the planned festivities went ahead because the ‘minute’ inconvenience of a Queen’s death could not be allowed to stand on the celebratory mood of the royal family. Yet again, where tradition conflict with the king’s wishes only one bows down.
Previously, Putsoana Hwala and Delisa Magwaza had left the royal house in 2004. Even though it was never made official, it is now public record that Magwaza, better known as Inkhosikati LaMagwaza, fled the king’s palace first to London and later South Africa.
Inkhosikati LaMagwaza had caused a stir when details of her relationship with a 23-year-old Swazi national living in Soweto were sensationally reported in South Africa’s Sunday Times.
For her part, Inkhosikati LaHwala fled the royal family after being accused of attending parties without approval. The latest to desert the king is Angel Dlamini, known in Swaziland as Inkhosikati LaGija.
She left in 2012 after being unhappy at the royal household for a while. It is only recently that she reportedly came back.
The king has never officially spoken about his wives deserting him. However, his attitude towards them can be picked from a heavy rebuke then Times SUNDAY Editor Mbongeni Mbingo faced when he published pictures of Inkhosikati LaMagwaza on the front page of his newspaper in or around 2007.
At the time, the Queen had been pictured at the Matsapha International airport to welcome her first born daughter, Princess Temtsimba, who was coming from school in Europe. The Times SUNDAY was accused of ‘celebrating’ a royal deserter.
Inkhosikati LaDube was the unlucky one in many respects. She was once caught in a compromising position with one-time Minister of Justice Ndumiso Mamba in a hotel in Swaziland. That incident resulted in Mamba’s resignation from his ministerial position and Dube being quarantined in one of the royal houses to ‘rot’ alone.
Before her death, Inkhosikati LaDube had come out to detail the abuse she faced following this incident. In fact, pictures of her showing the beatings she received were splashed all over social media.The local press said nothing about this incident.
In 2011 she conducted an interview with the Mail & Guardian where she is reported to have cried for rescue from the clutches of the glittering royal prison that had caged her.
“My side of the story was not heard. Ever since that scandal happened, we haven’t been talking with this man that I married. Things have been bad and now they are worse. I really, really want out and I can’t, he is just not letting me go. It’s like I am in prison; I am under 24-hour surveillance,” she was quoted by the weekly publication.
“My friends and family have been banned from seeing me and I really feel like I don’t want to be here any more because I feel like I am in jail. This is not healthy and I can’t live like this forever and I see no point of sticking around,” she allegedly said.
Culturally no one can ‘divorce’ the king. Despite their so called desertion, it it is safe to say all these women are still considered the King’s wives. There is a slew of implications that comes with this.
One such consequence is that they cannot marry somewhere else. They also cannot take their children with them no matter how young.
It is every mother’s nightmare to have to choose between pursuing your own happiness and abandoning your children (especially when they young).
This must weigh very heavily for many of those who have ever contemplated leaving the king, specially when they know they risk being considered as persona non grata in the royal household.
Given the foregoing, we can then surmise that those who eventually walked away must have been stretched to the very limits. Even better, we can now piece together the conditions that must have made Inkhosikati LaMasango to think suicide was the only solution.
The experiences of King Mswati’s wives in particular, and women of the extended royal family in general, have therefore received little scrutiny or even sympathy. This is because to a majority of Swazis they are but part of the problem. After all, the King’s wives are (in)famous for their expensive taste and globetrotting the world in costly shopping sprees.
In fact, a recent statement issued by the Swaziland Solidarity Network’s Lucky Lukhele claimed that while the government is refusing to pay workers their Cost of Living Adjustment (CoLA) the king had sanctioned a shopping spree for the queens in Europe.
The progressive movement has blown hot and cold about the women of the royal family. In the main, they are viewed as enemies whose voices deserve to drown in the cesspit of royal subjugation. However, such a simplistic understanding of the life of the Emakhosikati is devoid of nuance at best and very pedestrian at worse.
First if all, most of the wives of King Mswati were married while young. In fact, most of them were teenagers with very little understanding of the implications of being married to such a powerful family beset by different factions vying for close proximity to the king.
Add the fact that most, if not all, of King Mswati’s wives came from impoverished families who believed joining the harem was an easy escape from poverty, one then begins to appreciate the limitations of their choices.
Being married to King Mswati III, the one important and powerful figure in the political life of the country, would have been enticing enough to any young girl. The possibility of birthing a future king could have been an icing on top of the cake.
Most of them were also uneducated with limited knowledge of life beyond the shadows of their poor upbringing.
What all these women have in common though is that they were unwitting victims of a family that has built a political order and institutions where women’s usefulness is only to birth children and then be relegated to being house wives who have no choice but watch as the king adds to his harem more younger and beautiful wives.
How do these women find themselves wives to the king in the first place? To answer this question we must roll back the clock to 2002. Lindiwe Dlamini discovered that her daughter, Zena Mahlangu–then a student at Mlalatini Training Centre–had been ‘abducted’ by the king’s emissaries Qethuka Dlamini and Tulujane Sikhondze.
She had found it odd that her then 18 years old daughter was dating the king and now supposedly on the verge of being his wife. Even if this was true, she must have expected that she would at least be accorded the courtesy of being informed of everything.
Instead, her child was taken from school and whisked to an unknown location. She took the matter to court but was told by then Chief Justice Stanely Sapire that such matters did not fall under the ambit of the court.
She had hit a snag. What this case managed to do is give us an idea of courting or marriage proposal royal family style. At the same time that Zena’s case was making the airwaves the king had reportedly taken a girl named Sandra Dlamini.
Dlamini allegedly did not make it as Liphovela and was parceled to the then 60 years old Mamba King, Maja II. In an interview with South African newspaper in November 2002 Sandra’s father, Sipho Dlamini, protested at this arrangement and called for her daughter to either be married to the king or come back home.
The difficulty with ascertaining how the king takes wives is that it is clouded in mystery and therefore prone to abuse.
Numerous times many young girls have been abducted and dumped at various royal houses and told they were being prepared to be the king’s wives.
One such girl was Ayanda who stayed with her parents next to William Pitcher Teacher Training College in Manzini. The Times SUNDAY reported that the then teenager was ‘abducted’ by the so called King’s emissaries under the pretext she would be the king’s new fiancee.
Several months later, she had not met the king nor become the Liphovela. If anything, she was dumped back home with no explanation whatsoever.
Her studies at St Michaels High School in Manzini were obviously disturbed.
Ayanda’s case was not an isolated incident. Paulette Bennet, a young beautiful girl from Fairview in Manzini became a regular and familiar face around royal events. Word was that she was also to be the new Liphovela.
She had also disappeared from home and kept at a secret location. Several months later nothing came to be and Bennet had to face the humiliation of going back home.
The obvious lesson to be picked here is that these women are handpicked by various factions of the large royal family and thrown to the king as bait for those seeking closer proximity to the Monarch.
At its crudest form this is a form of pimping. The worse part is that parents have no way of verifying if indeed their children are being eyed by the king or are being used as bait by the many royal errand boys.
Often times parents have to wait for months without any official communication from the royal family about the status of their children.
Within this complex web of competition to be in the king’s inner circle is a desire for marginalised members of the royal family to gain access to promotions in the civil service, being appointed into positions, getting tenders, having your relatives given jobs in the security cluster from among many other interests.
For example, Inkhosikati LaNkhambule was handpicked by a faction of the royal family who were at the periphery of influence.
She was continuously taken to the king as a part of a wider competition by the different ‘tindlu‘ to gain closer proximity to power. Many others go through the same process but few survive to become the official wives.
In some cases these women are not even taken to the king but given mere promises they would. They thus become vulnerable to the abuse, often sexual too, by those who claim to be carrying the king’s orders.
Once these women become Emaphovela or Emakhosikati they get to be limited in more ways than we can imagine. First, they are not allowed to go to school (those who obtained tertiary qualification via distant learning cant use their certificates for anything), cannot be seen in public without undergoing a tedious and bureaucratic process, cannot engage in social activities that will take them out of the confines of the palace and most of all have highly restricted visitations (especially males, relatives or not) and cannot attend family events (be it funerals or weddings).
Of course, there has been exceptions to the rule. However, in the main, the life of a Queen is to idle in the palace while waiting for official events where they expected to smile for the cameras and feign happiness.
Once the excitement of being a queen dies down most realise they are nothing else but trophy wives who can’t even speak in public without authority from powerful traditional figures who control their lives more than their own husband.
They come to the reality that they are supposed to be subservient to backward customs and archaic traditions built to limit the power of women in general and Emakhosikati in particular. Examples here are plenty.
In the now famous documentary ‘Without the king’ Inkhosikati LaMbikiza recounts how she was abused, insulted and threatened with death after being accused of poisoning the king.
At the time, the king had fallen sick and she became the obvious suspect pointed out by the many shady traditional healers the royal family obsessively believes in. In the documentary, she tells the horror she endured and how her sanity was saved by her strong Christian faith.
She could not protect herself from such insidious accusations because in the royal family belief in the inferiority of women and superstition are second to none.
If you do not believe this then you have to go back to 1982 when Queen Regent Dzeliwe Shongwe was removed from power to appreciate how the royal family operates.
The intersection of power, patriarchy and belief in superstition came to a head during the humiliation and ultimate removal of the then Queen Regent Dzeliwe by a faction led by the late Prince Mfanasibili.
All of the behind the scenes manoeuvres of Prince Mfanasibili and his co-conspirators were laid bare in the classified High Treason Judgement penned by Judge Nicholas Hannah. This judgement has been a subject of a protracted legal battle at the High Court involving the late Prince and others.
In 2011 the High Court ruled that the highly classified judgement be released to the litigants. Judge Hannah had relocated to Namibia and died there in December 2017. The local press has never reported about the content of the judgement and remains a state ‘secret’ to this day.
The judgement, now seen by Ulibambe Lingashoni, tells of a Hollywood like story of a besieged old matriarch at the receiving end of power squabbles between different factions of the royal family.
Judge Hannah recounts, for example, how the Queen Regent was called barren, a witch and then ultimately physically removed from power in the most spectacular of fashions.
Reads the judgement in part: “…The insult was made at Lobamba on 4th September 1983 when the Indlovukazi was removed physically from Lobamba. The insult was made by accused 5 and 6 calling her a barren woman and a witch.
A further insult was made by accused 11 at a meeting called between 13th of October 1983 and 15th October 1983. He called her a woman who does not listen to her in laws. According to Swazi Law and Custom the Indlovukazi is not referred as a woman and those women are wives of the king are not referred to as women but Emakhosikati.”
The judgement narrates in fine detail how the late Queen was treated by the late Prince Mfanasibili and his gang. She was threatened with death, harassed, belittled and physically humiliated and then deposed. Is it a wonder then that the judgement was kept a secret?
If this is not despicable enough, then consider the story of another of King Sobhuza’s wife, Inkhosikati LaMamba. Married to an aging monarch at a young age, Inkhosikati LaMamba found herself at sixes and sevens.
On the one end she had to deal with the fact that she had married an old monarch now unable to perform conjugal rights and on the other hand the demands of custom that dictated that she could not remarry somewhere else.
The Solution? Force her to have sex with one of King Sobhuza’s eldest sons. Court papers submitted at the High Court of Swaziland in 2011 claimed that King Sobhuza II allegedly ordered one of his sons to restore conjugal rights on his behalf.
Her views about this arrangement were never sought, her agency was denied and importantly she was forced to carry this heavy yoke of tradition. The consequences were devastating to the resultant children.
In the course of the performance of this ‘royal assignment’ Prince Sulumlomo, now late, allegedly brought to this world five children. In subsequent years the children were to squire up in court on who exactly is their father; the one whose blood runs in their veins or the the late king?
In an affidavit filed by the prince’s wife at the High Court, there was a document allegedly signed by the late prince where he confirms that his father (king Sobhuza II) requested him to procure conjugal rights on his behalf on Inkhosikati LaMamba.
“I was requested by the late king to procure conjugal rights on his behalf i.e. to be the king’s knees (emadvolo). In the event of Inkhosikati LaMamba conceiving, all the children born thereof were to be treated as children sired from the loins of His Majesty and not from me,” reads the document signed by Prince Sulumlomo.
“As a result of the late king’s request as above mentioned 5 (five) children were begotten. According to Swazi Law and Custom the said children belong to His Majesty King Sobhuza II and not to me.
It is my submission that the five children begotten as a result the late king’s request are the children of the King Sobhuza II, because this is part and parcel of keeping in accordance with Swazi Law and Custom,” further reads the late prince’s affidavit.
This was not an isolated incident. Members of the royal family dating and having children between and among themselves is common. In fact cousins have given birth to children all bearing the same Dlamini surname.
In true Swazi custom one cannot have sex with a relative or even someone of the same surname. However, in the royal family this rule does not apply.
Unconfirmed reports claim that one of Prince Khuzulwandle’s sons has a child with one of King Mswati’s daughters. Prince Khuzulwandle is brother to King Mswati III. The children are therefore cousins.
It is difficult to tell if some of these sexual relations are consensual but what we do know is that even if they were not the children would have no avenue to report these cases.
What this proves is that Professor Richard Levin was right that tradition is invented and twisted to suit certain interests in Swaziland.
However, the bigger lesson here is to ponder that if such horrors can happen to powerful people like the king’s wives or his children, we can only imagine what ordinary women in this extended family go through. What we do know, however, is that their silent ‘#MeToo’ screams fall on deaf ears.
NB: Nonkululeko Simelane is a lecturer at the University of Swaziland. She writes in her personal capacity.