Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 25, 2008

Without the King

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 7:22 pm

Now playing at the Quad Cinema in New York, Michael Skolnik’s documentary “Without the King” is a study of Swaziland, the poorest country on the African continent and the last absolute monarchy on earth. It has a lot in common with another monarchy in Africa–Ethiopia–whose ruler also lived in opulence while his subjects suffered in abject misery.

Swaziland is ruled by King Mswati III, who has fourteen wives each with their own palace, owns a fleet of Mercedes Benzes, wears designer clothing and sends his 22 children abroad for schooling, including his eldest daughter Princess Sikhayiso, aka Pashu. Along with her father, Pashu dominates Skolnik’s penetrating examination of the wages of greed. She is utterly oblivious to the plight of her fellow Swazis, who have the lowest life expectancy in the world (31 years) and suffer from the highest incidence of AIDS (42.6%). Sounding like the typical airhead that show up on reality shows on the cable networks in the U.S., Pashu portrays being King as hard work: “You have to listen to people all the time, any time of day or night.”

Princess Pashu

As the film progresses, we learn that the King might listen to all sorts of people, but not the poor who make up 99 percent of the population. Skolnik allows a number of them, including one activist who is forced to cover his face for self-preservation, to make their case against the monarchy. Although paying high taxes (relative to their meager income), they get nothing back in return from the government. Villagers have no access to running water and are forced to drink from stagnant ponds. While any government should be in the forefront of the fight against AIDS in the face of such abysmal statistics, King Mswati has neither promoted safe sex nor has he provided the kind of medical care that is needed for its victims. In the course of the film, we learn that he inherited a Swiss bank account totaling billions of dollars from his father. Since the total population of Swaziland is only 1.1 million (the country is about the size of New Jersey), that bank account can go a long way to reducing the misery of his people.

Towards the end of the film, the reality of life in Swaziland begins to sink in on Princess Pashu. Even though she participates (barebreasted) in a ritual dance of 75,000 virgins for the benefit of her father, she eventually feels disgusted by the whole thing, especially her father picking two teenaged brides out of the procession. She spits out, “They were younger than me.” Her alienation deepens when she visits an orphanage for children whose parents died of AIDS. Her disillusionment has reached the point where she openly entertains the possibility of, if not the need for, revolution.

Swaziland is embedded between South Africa and Mozambique. I strongly suspect that its continuing existence as a feudal society can be explained by the failure of the revolutionary process to reach a natural conclusion in the bordering countries. Mozambique was torn apart by apartheid South Africa-backed terrorist counter-revolutionaries (RENAMO) and post-apartheid South Africa has not challenged the property relations that keep the overwhelming Black majority impoverished. This is not to speak of President Thabo Mbeki’s failure to adequately address his own country’s AIDS crisis. Such a political environment is not conducive to change in Swaziland, although the fearless and dedicated activists in Skolnik’s documentary remain undaunted. For them, it is a choice of dying in struggle or dying from poverty.

While it is understandable that “Without the King” could not immerse itself in Swazi history, there are lessons to be learned about why the country’s ruling class chooses to emphasize tradition. Indeed, in interviews with the King and with Pashu (before she begins to wise up), there are constant references to “Swazi ways”. While the British were working overtime to impose forced labor on the population, they never forcibly assimilated the Swazis into British culture. Men were permitted to wear animal skins and carry spears as long as they didn’t challenge white capitalist exploitation.

The residue of feudal culture persisted into the 1960s when the country gained its independence as a monarchy. In these turbulent times, the elite felt threatened by the South African liberation movement to its West and forged an alliance with white settlers and multinational business interests. Both the King and the settlers were suspicious of slogans like “one man, one vote”. As you watch the modern day activists marching rhymically-almost dancelike-in the streets against the Swazi monarchy, you will be reminded of the ANC toyi toyi.

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