How Liqoqo usurped power, contravened culture and made Mswati our king (Part 1)

One of the well-researched yet hardly discussed subject in Swaziland is the period after the death of King Sobhuza II in 1982. The events that followed the late king’s death transformed the country and set in motion events that continue to shape contemporary Swaziland.

The questions often discussed in hushed tones is what happened to Queen Regent Dzeliwe? Why was she removed and in the manner it was done? How did Prince Mfanasibili and his Liqoqo become the villains of the interregnum? 

How did different factions of the royal family manage the period after King Sobhuza’s death? What are the beans Prince Mfanasibili died claiming he shall one day spill? Important among these questions is how did King Mswati become king if his mother was never Inkhosikati?

To answer these questions one has to submerge himself to the vast research and writings done by different scholars, researchers and journalists who observed and wrote extensively about this period. It also helps when one was around during the period and managed to see and experience these events first hand.


The late King Sobhuza pictured here with one of his wives Unabo Elizabeth (Ula Mgunundvu) next to Princess Gcinaphi. The write claims the present Queen mother was never an official wife to the late king.

To understand succession in the country’s history one must appreciate that the 1968 independence constitution had special provisions on succession in the royal family should the king die in office. These provisions were specifically saved and not repealed by King Sobhuza’s 1973 decree. 

In terms of these provisions, Inkhosikati Dzeliwe Shongwe was to assume the double role of Head of State and Queen Regent until the successor to the throne had been identified. This law also provided for the establishment of the office of the authorized person. This office, however, could only be activated if the Queen Regent (or Indlovukazi in siSwati) was to die in office or become mentally unstable or disabled. 

Even Swazi tradition provided that the mother of the crown prince could only become Indlovukazi once the soon to be king was crowned. This tradition had historical precedent; LaNgolotsheni Ndwandwe, better known as Lomawa in Swaziland, only became Indlovukazi in 1922 after the long reign of Labotsibeni Mdluli.  Lomawa was mother to the late King Sobhuza II.

When King Sobhuza died on August 21, 1982 then Prime Minister, Prince Mabandla, acting in accordance with the provisions of the law (and precedence on royal succession), signed an extra-ordinary Government Gazette titled ‘Assumption of Regency by Indlovukazi’ (legal Notice no.95 of 1982). 

This law elevated Queen Dzeliwe to the status of Ndlovukazi, effectively becoming head of state. Prince Mabandla’s decision did not go down well within certain powerful figures in the royal family. Even though supported by the laws of the country, this move was seen as defiance of the views of Liqoqo  who wanted to determine who must be the new head of state. Liqoqo was revised by King Sobhuza into a Supreme Council of state just before he died. 

A legal instrument was issued that established Liqoqo as a body consisting of senior Princes and chiefs meant to run the affairs of the royal family and increasingly the state during the incapacitated years of King Sobhuza II. It’s most powerful figures were the late Prince Mfanasibili and Prince Bhekimpi. 

In fact, Liqoqo felt they were being left in the cold and given little to no influence over the succession process. To Prime Minister Mabandla, however, Liqoqo was nothing else but mere advisors with no executive function. The writing was on the wall that newly appointed Queen Regent would be assuming the absolute powers previously enjoyed by King Sobhuza. This was a position hard to fathom for the conservatives within Liqoqo.  

At the same time there were rumours that Pretoria was pressuring Mabandla and Dzeliwe to accept a long standing land deal incorporating Ka Ngwane and Ngwavuma into Swaziland. It would appear Dzeliwe and Mabandla resisted Pretoria’s overtures much to the chagrin of Liqoqo who believed accepting the land deal would fulfill Sobhuza’s long held dream of redrawing the country’s borders.  

There is evidence that preparations were at an advance stage to incorporate KaNgwane and Ngwavuma into Swaziland when Sobhuza died in 1982.  Two months before his death, on June 14, 1982 to be exact, South Africa’s Minister of Cooperation and Development Dr. Pieter Koornhof had announced to the KwaZulu Legislative Assembly that the Ingwavuma district in the north of KwaZulu and the entire homeland of KaNgwane would become part of Swaziland. 

The people in the affected areas were told they would become Swazi citizens as soon as a written agreement was finalised. Unfortunately, Sobhuza died before completing the process.

It was also rumoured at the time that Liqoqo and Prince Mfanasibili were desperate to gain control over Tibiyo TakaNgwane, the country’s large investment company held in trust for the nation by the King. Tibiyo was at the time under the control of Dr Sishayi Nxumalo who was politically aligned with both Dzeliwe and Mabandla. 

Dzeliwe was an extremely intelligent woman who had surrounded herself with credible advisors. This made it difficult for the royal plotters to win her over. However, Prince Mfanasibili’s group proved resilient and determined to wrestle away control of the political and economic power away from Indlovukazi Dzeliwe and Mabandla. 

In pursuit of their political agenda, Mfanasibili and Liqoqo successfully roped to their corner the majority of the senior leadership of the army and a critical number of senior Police Officers. However, the Commissioner of Police Edgar Hillary together with the army commander Mngomeni Ndzimandze remained firmly behind Dzeliwe. 

Moderates within the royal family who were equally powerful like Prince Gabheni, Khuzulwandle and many others were totally out played by the quick minded and political machinations of Liqoqo.

Liqoqo camp was able to fatally weaken Dzeliwe by forcing her to fire Prince Mabandla on the grounds that he had usurped executive powers and resisting the land deal with Pretoria against Sobhuza’s wishes. They convinced her Mabandla was not the right person to lead government during the transition.

A young Crown Prince Makhosetive pictured in England in preparation for his new role as the future king of Swaziland

The publication of a special afternoon supplement of the Times of Swaziland carrying a long rumbling article on “Mabandla’s litany of betrayals” clearly demonstrated the desperation of Liqoqo to remove him.  Fearing for his life, Mabandla eventually fled to Pretoria and was quickly replaced by a pro-Liqoqo Prime Minister, Bhekimpi Dlamini.  

From then on Liqoqo embarked on a relentless and vicious campaign to capture executive power and crush dissent perceived to be against the wishes of the late Sobhuza. With Prince Mabandla out of the way, Liqoqo henchmen confronted Dzeliwe with a document written in English transferring many of her functions to an illegally appointed Authorized Person, Prince Sozisa. 

Dzeliwe refused to sign the document on two grounds; it was written in English, a language she did not understand and that only three instead of four chiefs were present to witness her signature. It is said on realising the intentions of the Liqoqo plotters, Dzeliwe took steps to revoke their authority and disband them. 

In turn, Mfanasibili and Liqoqo took a preemptive strike. They issued an extraordinary Government Gazette (legal Notice no.58) of 1983 titled ‘Revocation of Regency by the Indlovukazi’. 

Dzeliwe’s dismissal was announced on August 10, 1983 in a two-sentence paragraph signed by the so called Authorized Person. Dzeliwe challenged the legality of the Gazette. In court papers, she stated that she had already fired the applicants when the gazette purporting to fire her was published. 

When the case came for hearing at the High Court, the Liqoqo plotters forcefully assembled a number chiefs to testify that in terms of Swazi Law and Custom the decisions of labadzala and Liqoqo were above the provisions of western law. Appealing to the judge to dismiss the application, the Liqoqo group applied that the matter be referred to the so called elders of the nation—the royal council of state.

In response, a network of activists started to work with prominent lawyer Douglas Lukhele to support the under siege Queen Regent. Lukhele was by then a seasoned senior attorney who had been part of George Bizos’ legal team that defended former South African President Nelson Mandela during the Rivonia trial in South Africa. 

Lukhele took the matter with enthusiasm and brought to the stand an intimidated and visibly shaking but confident Chief Dambuza Lukhele. Dambuza was then Registrar at the University of Swaziland. He was to Lukhele not just a star witness but a Roll to the Royce and Ying to the Yang. Chief Dambuza’s role was to confirm that the dismissal of the Indlovukazi was illegal.  

Commenting at the preliminary stages of the trial, Chief Justice Nathan said the position of Queen Mother was unassailable and that there was no basis in law for it to be challenged by Liqoqo. Fearing the court’s ruling, Liqoqo pushed Prince Sozisa to issue a decree declaring the High Court incompetent to pronounce on Swazi law and custom.  

On August 24 of the same year the clearly intimidated Judge announced that he would not deliver any judgment because “it would not be in the interests of Swaziland for there to be a confrontation between the courts and the government on this issue.

King Mswati and his first wife Inkhosikati LaMbikiza. Writer argues King Mswati was ill prepared to assume the role of king .

The move to oust Dzeliwe was hugely unpopular in the country. Public frustration and anger was simmering. Even conservative Swazis felt the country was heading to the dogs. It was clear ordinary Swazis did not matter in the calculus of the greedy Liqoqo tyrants. 

Critically, there was no avenue or platform where ordinary people could voice their views owing to the draconian provisions of the 1973 decree that had criminalised political speech and opposition politics. The prevalent state of emergency that had been going on since 1973 gave Liqoqo all the power to ruthlessly deal with opponents. 

Senior Government officials who did not tore the line were quickly suspended, demoted, fired or detained. One prominent example was the arrest of former Attorney General and prominent lawyer Douglas Lukhele together with Arthur Khoza, then advisor to Queen Dzeliwe.  Fear of the state became commonplace. 

Anyone who dared challenge Mfanasibili and Liqoqo knew the consequences. To the network of underground activists working with Lukhele (later formalized as PUDEMO) this was a golden opportunity to mobilise and redirect the national anger and frustration towards a larger objective of transforming the country into a democracy. 

Accordingly, the activists ceased the moment and escalated the underground political campaigns by distributing pamphlets, politically charged graffiti and contact messaging across the country. The underground publication “Insika Yenkhululeko YeMaswati” started circulating in the country and was well received. 

This publication challenged Liqoqo’s legitimacy, asserting the people‘s right to choose their own leaders. People were soon talking about this mystical movement in hushed tones with pride; finally something positive was happening in the country.

Rumours of mercenaries  invading the country and a counter coup taking place spread like wild fire.  In a surprise move, Liqoqo dropped yet another bombshell this time issuing an extra ordinary Government Gazette legal (notice no.59) titled ‘Assumption of Regency by the Indlovukazi Notice’ published in August 1983.

It declared that Inkhosikati Ntombi Tfwala had, with immediate effect, assumed the office of Queen Regent. This effectively removed the reigning Regent, Dzeliwe. This announcement followed the decision by Liqoqo to endorse the appointment of Prince Makhosetive as crown prince. 

This announcement came as a shock because Makhosetive was a little known royal outsider born of King Sobhuza’s infidelity with Tfwala. Others argue, however, that the decision Makhosetive was to succeed his father was not made by Liqoqo.  

According to this version, it had already been made even before the names of the revised Liqoqo members were announced. Interesting about this development is that the new Indlovukazi had been  a domestic helper to one of King Sobhuza’s wives, Inkhosikati LaMasuku. LaTfwala never became an official wife to Sobhuza. In fact, Makhosetive had grown with his poor mother at Gundvwini with no inkling of an idea he would later be a future king.

The rationale of making LaTfwala the new Queen Mother was clearly an effort to halt the momentum for an uprising instigated by the underground activists who posed far more danger to the royal establishment than petty royal squabbles. 

This was because the ground swell of popular support the activists were receiving was based on a call for far reaching radical changes and the introduction of democracy in the country. The appointment of LaTfwala as Indlovukazi was as much astonishing as it was a calculated move by Liqoqo.  

According to those close to the late king, LaTfwala had not been in any form of relationship with the late king ever since she left her employ as a domestic helper to Inkhosikati LaMasuku in 1968 shortly after Makhosetive’s birth. 

It was clear, therefore, that the selection of Ntombi Thwala as the new Queen Mother was  to impose to the nation  an outsider with no orientation on Swazi Law and custom and unfamiliar with the traditions of the royal family. Ntombi Tfwala was therefore the right person to be at the mercy of Liqoqo for political and otherwise control.

It is also fair to acknowledge an alternative thinking that suggests that Makhosetive was installed to prevent another faction from installing a different candidate.

Similarly, the crown prince was totally ill-prepared for the role of king (even as this was not new in the history of the country). He was only rushed to Sherbone International School in the United Kingdom in 1983 after spending years at a poor school in Masundvwini doing his primary education. 

Even then, his education at the UK was more about royal etiquette and British culture than serious academic work. While this did not matter in the bigger scheme of things but for a monarchy who was going to assume absolute powers as enjoyed by his father this was surely a disadvantage to his own reign. 

Crown Prince Makhosetive was then quickly rushed back to the country at the young age of 18 to assume the role of king to quell royal squabbles and national anger at the machinations of Liqoqo. Crowning an 18 year old royal outsider ensured Liqoqo could run things from behind in true puppet master style. 

These appointments were not just daring but also challenged many traditionalists including some chiefs who had been living a privileged life under Sobhuza II. According to Swazi law and custom, a crown prince is appointed according to the ranking, reputation and general respect of the mother within the royal inner council or Ligunqa. 

This cardinal rule was grossly violated in the crowning of King Mswati III. It was not until March 1986, several years after the death of Sobhuza, that Ntombi’s traditional marriage ceremonies were conducted. This was meant to repair the irregularities of the succession processes ahead of the coronation of the new king on April 25, 1986.

Mandla Hlathwayo is former Illovo Chief Executive Officer. He contributes as part of our alternative history series. He writes in his personal capacity

Mandla Hlathwayo

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