by Thulani Gumede
(IPS) -- Said to be one of the ten most expensive cars in the world, the Maybach 62 is sleek, glamorous and some might argue -- a little out of place in a country where two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line.
But if that country is Swaziland -- and the person behind the wheel, so to speak, is King Mswati the Third -- this argument would not stand in the way of him signing on the dotted line. The Maybach, produced by the German-American car manufacturer Daimler-Chrysler, has become the latest addition to the royal fleet and Mswati took his first spin in the vehicle last week.
"The king drove up the main street of the capital in this beautiful car, and he was flanked on either side by bodyguards in cars which were almost as magnificent," said cashier Martha Dlamini, who witnessed the motorcade passing through Mbabane en route to Mswati's palace at Nkayoyo, on the outskirts of the city.
According to Daimler-Chrysler, the Maybach's features include a DVD player, television set and cordless telephone. To this, the king has added a few features of his own choosing: heated leather seats, a refrigerator and a bar.
Only 1,000 of the hand-built cars are assembled annually, at a cost of about $350,000s. However, the version bought by Mswati has apparently cost $500,000.
His purchase of the Maybach comes at a time when over a quarter of Swaziland's 970,000 people are dependent on non-governmental organizations for food aid, and many who are HIV-positive go without the anti-retroviral drugs needed to prolong their lives. The Southern African kingdom currently has the world's highest HIV prevalence rate, of about 39 percent.
At the same time, increased competition abroad is undermining Swazi exports, while foreign investment in the country is static and unemployment put at 40 percent. Mswati's recent decision to sign into law a bill that taxes charitable and educational organizations, which had previously been exempt, reveals the budgetary shortfall that government is facing.
Small wonder then that as the king was getting the feel of his luxury sedan last week, the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) was conducting a march just a few blocks away. This was to lobby against a proposed constitution that would reportedly enternch the system of absolute monarchy which has allowed Mswati to indulge his lavish tastes.
"Government expenditure remains insensitive to the concerns and priorities of poverty reduction. Fiscal indiscipline starts from the top down," said SFTU Secretary General Jan Sithole.
Swaziland's present constitution was suspended in 1973 by Mswati's father, King Sobhuza, who also banned political parties.
Other examples of the "fiscal indiscipline" referred to by Sithole include the king's plans to build palaces for a number of his 12 wives, at a reported cost of about $14 million.
In 2002, Mswati also sought to buy a 45-million-dollar luxury jet. While protests from donors and Swazis caused this plan to be abandoned, a deposit of almost $4.7 million has yet to be accounted for.
The People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), the largest of the banned political parties, has called on the international community to institute sanctions against the royal family. "Invitations to major events and travel restrictions must be imposed, for Europe and particularly South Africa," a PUDEMO spokesperson said.
South African President Thabo Mbeki has spearheaded the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) which seeks to eradicate the poor governance that Swaziland stands accused of this in return for vast increases in foreign investment.
The Maybach has also made waves elsewhere in Southern Africa over the past few days. In South Africa, former union leader and businessman Cyril Ramaphosa started a law suit against Daimler-Chrysler -- this after the company reportedly said that he too had purchased one of the cars. Ramaphosa claimed he had been embarrassed by the assertion that he would buy such an expensive car in the midst of widespread poverty in South Africa.
Tokyo Sexwale, another businessman who took a leading role in the fight against apartheid, was also named by Daimler-Chrysler, along with mining magnate Patrice Motsepe. Swazi palace officials who refused to be identified have told IPS that it would be discreet for the king to keep his new car in the garage for a while.
Even so, the question will remain: what is it about King Mswati that seems to make him blind to the plight of his citizens and insensitive to the fact that buying a Maybach is viewed as inappropriate?
February 3, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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