King Mswati III of Swaziland has always had extravagant tastes. But as the tiny southern African kingdom sinks deeper into poverty and an AIDS crisis, the latest royal purchases 10 new BMW X5 4.4i sport-utility vehicles, worth around $800,000, one for each of his 10 official wives must qualify as a personal best. Africa's last absolute ruler presides over a land where 70% live in destitution and 38.8% are infected with HIV, the world's worst rate. And ordinary Swazis are increasingly fed up with Mswati's gold-plated insensitivity, profligate spending and authoritarian ways, says Jan Sithole, secretary-general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (S.F.T.U).
While S.F.T.U members marched last month to protest a proposed new constitution that would entrench the powers of the monarchy, Mswati was busy tooling around in his new $500,000 Maybach 62, complete with dvd player, surround-sound speakers, refrigerator and bar. Although the King appears impervious to pressure from his people, he has bowed to their demands in the past. In 2002, Mswati decided to buy himself a $45 million jet, but after aid groups protested and Swazis revolted in the streets, he finally backed down.