Swazi columnist criticizes king, gets fined … in cows

About two weeks ago, traditional authorities in the mountain kingdom of Swaziland slapped the nation’s most outspoken political columnist, Mfomfo Nkambule, with a fine–to be paid in cows–for criticism of the administration of King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute ruler. 

I caught up the other day with Nkambule, a former member of Parliament and opposition politician whose weekly columns appear in the leading independent daily, the Times of Swaziland. From the capital, Mbabane, he spoke to me about the fine in the context of an ongoing clash between freedom of the press as guaranteed by Article 24 of the Swazi Constitution and traditional customs calling for absolute reverence of the King.

Tensions came to a head last month when Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini threatened to charge Nkambule and other media commentators under the country’s Sedition and Subversive Activities Act for critizing a royal address to Parliament. In a column, Nkambule had contended that the monarch’s speech failed to address crucial national issues, including the world’s highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate (at 26.1 percent, according to United Nations statistics), and increasing poverty.

About a month ago, Nkambule received a warning from security forces. “I was summoned by the head of national intelligence and his deputies,” he told me. “They said there has been a serious complaint from the powers about articles I’ve been writing.”

Since then, traditional authorities have summoned Nkambule three times with warnings to self-censor his writings. He told me he was recently ordered to buy between four and six cows as a fine to appease the king. He wrote in a column that such a fine could be “disastrous” for his family. Failure to pay the fine could result in the eviction of his family from their homestead under traditional customs but “outside of the jurisdiction of any court,” he said.

Nkambule told me the challenges of writing critically about issues of national interest in Swaziland since September 2007 have humbled him about the risks facing professional journalists. “I wasn’t aware of what difficulties these guys went through,” he said.

“Now I understand why it’s a difficult and dangerous profession.” Nkambule remained undeterred. “If I pay this fine, then it means I’m apologizing to the king,” he went on. “Then I’m forfeiting my freedom of expression. I can’t forfeit that right.”