The clash of customs and modernity in Swaziland has its focus this week on the disappearance of an 18-year-old taken from her high school without her parents' knowledge to become the wife of 34-year-old King Mswati III.
The king already has nine wives.
"It's actually abduction in the pure criminal sense," alleged Lomcebo Dlamini, acting national coordinator for Women in Law for Southern Africa's Swaziland branch.
The Swaziland Gender Consortium, whose membership includes the Family Life Association and other NGOs involved in children's and women's welfare, has lent its support to Lindiwe Dlamini, communications manager for Swaziland Posts and Telecommunications Corporation, in her lawsuit against two men sent by the palace to collect her 18-year-old daughter, Zena Mahlangu.
At the High Court this week, palace courtiers Tulujane Sikhondze and Qethuka Dlamini were accused of taking her and putting her in an unknown location where the men said she was to perform "royal duties".
Attorney-General Phesheya Dlamini, a palace appointee, has also asked to be a defendent and said he knew where she was but would not disclose her location. In an affidavit, he told the court that King Mswati, who was introduced to Mahlangu at last month's Reed Dance performed by young Swazi females, personally asked that she be prepared for her duties as his wife.
A palace official, Nftonjeni Dlamini, who oversees the women who attend the annual Reed Dance, told The Times of Swaziland he knew where Mahlangu was being held. "I know where all these children are being kept. I cannot tell you because it is the business of royalty," he told the newspaper.
The mother's lawsuit is unprecedented, but so too has become King Mswati's manner of picking new wives. In the past, according to historian JSM Matsebula, royal emissaries consulted with the families of a Swazi king's prospective fiancées. Traditional weddings, including the presentation of gifts, were planned through family palaver.
"Now, girls are snatched right from the schoolyard. The parents are hysterical with worry. Only later does an emissary tell them their girls are with the king, but they are not told the location," said Women in Law's Dlamini.
Three girls, including Mahlangu, currently await royal weddings to become emakhosikati (king's wives). Noliqhiwa Ntentesa was taken from her school in Mbabane last month without her parents' knowledge. She was permitted to telephone home after a week, but was not allowed to say where she was staying. A third girl, Sandra Dlamini, has also been taken into a network of royal villages and guests houses in preparation for her betrothal.
"None of these girls went to school that day knowing they were about to get married," Thobile Dlamini, director of the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse, a Gender Consortium member, told IRIN. "They were preparing for their final examinations, and then they were taken away by men dressed as Swazi warriors. These were abductions."
Chief Justice Stanley Sapire agreed that court papers filed by Mahlangu's mother indicated she was abducted. At a hearing presided over by a full bench of High Court Judges, including Justices Josiah Matsebula and Thomas Masuku, he asked: "I want to know what happens in a case where something is sanctioned by customary law yet it is a crime under common law."
The Swazi king and Queen Mother cannot be sued, arrested or prosecuted. The lawsuit filed by Mahlangu's mother seeking the return of her daughter names the two men who took her away from school. The strategy of government as stated in the Attorney-General's affidavit is to have King Mswati named as defendant.
"(The plaintiff) seeks an order that the two (defendants) return the child forthwith, yet it is clear they were agents of the Royal Kraal. This was cowardly of the applicants. Their attacking the messengers is clear cowardice. The Ingwenyama (king) must be joined in the matter because it is clear he is the principal," stated the Attorney-General.
Legal sources said that if the defence strategy succeeded and King Mswati was named as a defendant, the case would be thrown out of court on the grounds that the Swazi king cannot be sued.
However, another Gender Consortium group member, the Save Our Children foundation, felt that another law, the United Nations Convention on Children's Rights, was being broken. "The convention ensures the welfare of girls up to and including 18 years of age. Swaziland has signed and ratified this convention," Nomzamo Dlamini, child protection manager for the foundation, told IRIN.
"Our concern is the girls who are being taken away from their schools and families are all 17 and 18 years old," she said.
"The old way of choosing a king's wife is no longer observed, and the king chooses at random wherever his whim directs him," said attorney Lomcebo Dlamini.
"The lawsuit we hope will lay down a precedent. In the past, parents have expressed their worry when their daughters have gone missing, but this one's mother has taken the matter to court."
Dlamini is kept busy defending the rights of women in a country where women are legal minors, and cannot own property, take out loans or enter into contracts without their husbands' consent. She feels the lawsuit will draw international attention to the plight of women in Swaziland. "The palace elders never seem to realise how their actions are perceived outside. They are isolated and arrogant," she said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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