A quiet palace revolution last month removed from office the mildly reformist prime minister of this independent African kingdom sandwiched between white-ruled South Africa and black Marxist Mozambique.

Prince Mabandla Dlamini, who was specially chosen for the job three years ago by the aging King Sobhuza II, was dismissed by order of Queen Regent Dzeliwe on March 18, eight months after Sobhuza's death.

Five days later he was replaced by Bhekimpi Dlamini, another prince of the dominant clan and a more traditionalist figure who had been an obscure assistant minister in the deputy prime minister's office.

Despite a flurry of speculation here that South Africa may have had a hand in the palace revolt, because it claims Swaziland is a conduit for insurgents and because Mabandla was opposed to Pretoria's homelands policy, well-placed local and diplomatic observers say there is no evidence of outside interference.

Mabandla's loss came as a surprise not only to him but also to most Swazis. Only a week before, he had seemed to be winning against his enemies in the Supreme National Council, or Liqoqo, a conservatory of tribal traditionalism that was reconstituted by the king three years ago and that had grown into a rival government after Sobhuza's death.

Sobhuza, who throughout his long rule sought to reconcile his deep attachment to Swazi tradition and modern-day needs, appointed Mabandla at a meeting of all Swazi chiefs in 1979. During the gathering at his cattle corral here in a valley below the hillside capital of Mbabane, the king--clad in animal skins--was reported to have suddenly pointed his fighting stick at Mabandla and to have proclaimed, "There, chiefs of Swaziland, is your new prime minister."

Mabandla, then in his mid-forties, had no political experience. He had a bachelor's degree in commerce from a South African university and was the successful managing director of a large sugar estate.

The traditionalist restraints of the job irked Mabandla. Insiders say he began clashing with Sobhuza early in his job. One of his first acts was to appoint a commission to investigate corruption, which alarmed several members of the Liqoqo. Sobhuza overruled him and disbanded the commission.

After Sobhuza's death, the political vacuum was made greater by the complicated and drawn-out succession procedure. It had been nearly 80 years since it was last used, to select Sobhuza, and there was nobody around who remembered the details. The late king was chosen in infancy in 1899 and was not crowned until he reached 21 on Dec. 22, 1921.

To complicate matters more, Sobhuza had based his statesmanship on a complex pattern of kinship ties between the royal house and the main Swazi clans, which left him with about 70 wives and 150 children. Selecting a successor from all those claimants was a long and difficult business, particularly since the choice is supposed to fall on an infant son, but there was none.

The job fell to the Liqoqo. Observers believe it has made a choice, but nothing has been announced. It is considered disrespectful to speculate on the succession, but foreigners here say the choice is an 11-year-old named either Prince Makhosetive or Makhosemuele. He is said to be in school in Britain and will be named officially only when his schooling is finished.

Mabandla won most of the early rounds in the rivalry, mainly because of the support of Dzeliwe and the police force. He dismissed a key member of the Liqoqo, Prince Polycarp Dlamini, from his Cabinet and named him ambassador to Washington.

On Feb. 15 he suspended parliament and began ruling by decree, claiming there had been an attempted coup against him. He ordered the arrest for sedition of two royal members of the Liqoqo, and both were refused bail and kept in a Mbabane jail.

The queen regent endorsed all these moves.

Then subtly the tide began to turn against Mabandla. The queen regent changed her mind about Prince Polycarp and ordered his reinstatement.

And a leopard, something not seen in Swaziland for years, was shot outside Mabandla's home on the outskirts of Mbabane by one of his guards. According to Swazi lore, this is a bad omen. A zoologist who examined the body said the leopard looked like an animal from a zoo or game farm.

On March 15, Dzeliwe summoned Swaziland's 400 chiefs to her royal cattle corral at Lebamba, in the picturesque Heavenly Valley below Mbabane, to make clear her support for Mbandla.

But during the next 48 hours great pressure apparently was exerted on Dzeliwe to change her mind. George Msibi, a powerful member of the Liqoqo and one of Mabandla's arch-opponents, admitted in an interview that other members of the royal family had called on the queen regent on the morning of March 17.

"They asked her to explain certain things about the procedure she had followed at the meeting on the 15th," Msibi said. "I don't think they threatened her. I don't think it came to that."

Whatever was said, it clearly had a dramatic effect on Dzeliwe.

By that evening she had agreed to sign the dismissal order, which was published in a special issue of the Government Gazette the next day.

Mabandla, bewildered by the sudden turn of events, clung tentatively to office through the weekend. But on March 21, when it became evident the police force that had been firmly behind him was not going to back him against the queen regent's order, Mabandla slipped away to his remote mountain home near Piggs Peak, north of Mbabane. He later fled with his family to South Africa.

The quiet coup ended when Dzeliwe again summoned the chiefs to her corral and named Bhekimpi as the new prime minister.

Msibi, in the interview, hinted that the meeting had been about the arrest of the two family members for sedition. It seems Mabandla may have incurred the wrath of the royal family, which put the queen regent at odds with them--and herself in danger.

Some observers think the pressure on her may simply have been a hint from the Liqoqo that unless she stopped backing Mabandla they might change their plans and name the new king now.

If they did that, his own mother would immediately become ndluvukazi (she-elephant) in Dzeliwe's place and take over as regent until the young prince turns 21.

But others more versed in the tribal lore say it would be improper to make so direct a threat against the monarch, and that more subtle hints may have been left in the air. Msibi seemed to confirm that.