Sunday, September 7, 2008


With all of the banners and streamers that have been placed around Mbabane the past week, it’s been hard not to think two things. First: something big is happening. And second: this is a country that knows how to celebrate.

Yesterday was the big 40-40 event here, the double celebration of Swaziland’s 40th year of independence (actual date, September 6, 1968), and King Mswati III’s 40th birthday (actual date, sometime last April). To commemorate the occasion, there was a big party in the main stadium, complete with entertainment, marching and military displays, and heads of states and other dignitaries from a number of (mainly southern African) nations. The party also fell on my 29th birthday.

Nick, Shubha, and I went out to the stadium at around 9am yesterday and found some space in one of the bleachers. The ceremony took a long time, as the dignitaries’ arrivals stretched for over an hour. Heads of state from Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and the SA Zulu Nation all arrived and were announced to the crowd, which was close to 100,000. The largest cheers – besides for Mswati – went to the Vice President of Taiwan to Zimbabwe’s Mugabe.

Swaziland is one of the few countries to recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty, and reaps a lot of benefits in terms of aid and investment from throwing its weight around on Taiwan’s behalf in the UN and other multilateral bodies. The Taiwanese have a big presence here, and it’s clear that the crowd was responding to them. It’s less clear to me why Mugabe got such a big hand, as most of what I’ve heard from locals about him isn’t at all positive.

The 40-40 celebrations have been controversial here as a large, vocal group has seen it as a big indulgence. I haven’t seen a price tag put on the event in the papers here, but a lot of money has been thrown into it – and not always wisely.

Each of the visiting dignitaries rolled into the stadium in a brand-new USD$100,000+ BMW. The government bought 20 new cars, and – after the news of the expense made its way into the paper – a minister announced that they had always intended to sell the cars immediately after the 40-40. Five of the BMWs have since been taken off the sale block, and will likely end up in the garages of the royal family, ministers, or other connected people. There have been other grandiose expenditures, including a shopping trip in Dubai for 8 of Mswati’s wives. (This article in the NYT recounts Mswati’s extravagance in the face of the nation’s poverty, and captures a lot of the complicated sentiment here about the King and his spending.)

Nick, Shubha, and I lasted through the introductions, a lengthy marching band session, and a few speeches, before ducking out at around 1pm. After the event, I felt the itch to get out of Mbabane and drove down to Maputo for the night. I caught some live music, met some bribe-loving Maputo police officers (once for taking an “illegal” U-turn, and the second time for Driving While White), and toured around the city before heading back to the Swaz.