Mbabane, Swaziland | 23 July 2014
One thing that a foreigner learns quickly in Swaziland is that the name Sobhuza II is synonymous with the Kingdom. Despite his passing in 1982, his shadow looms large over modern life and conversation.
To use the cliché, His is more than a name. Indeed, in Swaziland, the mere allusion to King Sobhuza II – the man who delicately and diplomatically oversaw independence from Britain in 1968 – runs deep into the soul of the nation.
Yesterday marked the 115th anniversary since his birth in 1899. He entered a world pregnant with the modern age, and departed it after bearing witness to great upheaval, tragedy and progress.
The only other two people of history who might claim to have served as a monarch longer are Pepi II Neferkare of Ancient Egypt and Taejo of the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo. But these claims cannot be verified, so, regardless of how one views his overall achievements, the gold medal for longest serving monarch must go to Sobhuza II.
In learning of his life and often-contested legacy, one begins to put a finger on a key that unlocks some of the mysteries and confusion that many outsiders encounter when grappling with local customs. Or, moreover, how local customs interact with today’s world.
Richard Levin, author of When the Sleeping Grass Awakens, a book on Swazi history, wrote the following: “In October of 1960 King Sobhuza made his views on party politics clear. He said that political parties could only lead Africans to hardship, and had caused ‘the crisis and confusion in the Congo’. He also argued that the ‘policy of one man one vote can only lead us to hardship’, giving as examples the systems ‘practised in Russia and Nazi Germany’.”
Many Swazis have also told me that Sobhuza believed that if something wasn’t working, then – after true consultation, research, and peaceful and honest discussion – things must change. I have also been told of his belief in quality education and his love of learning for learning’s sake. Swazis have also told me of his distaste for shows of opulence and his unyielding belief in humility.
Perhaps the most repeated attributes associated with him touch on tolerance and friendship. In a 2011 Times of Swaziland article by Alpheous Nxumalo, the former king’s legacy is evaluated. On the topic of diplomacy, Sobhuza reportedly said: “Why should a person fail to correct another one who may be going astray through friendship and trust, instead of hostility?”
In the same article Nxumalo says that Sobhuza warned against the “blind adoption of other cultures, ideologies and ways of life”, while encouraging “selectivity so that people could take what is good and reject what is bad”. Reading more of Sobhuza’s quotes, one is struck by his literary allusions and his refreshing lack of jargon. “The melody in a piano is only beautiful when both black and white keys are used to produce it,” said Sobhuza addressing issues of racial harmony.
In beginning to learn a little of the man, one comes to understand the country in a new light; just as one might come to understand America in a new light after studying the life of liberation hero and first president George Washington. Or, for that matter, how one comes to see South Africa in a new light after delving into the history of liberation icons Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe.
This is not to directly compare these people to King Sobhuza II, for there are many glaring differences between them, not least of all how each man viewed and acted upon the idea of freedom.
The point being, however, is that whatever opinion one holds of these historical-yet-living figures, one cannot begin to understand modern times without knowing something of them. In other words, they can be liked or disliked – or anything in between – but they cannot be ignored.
This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland on 23 July 2014