NAIROBI — King Mswati III of Swaziland is an absolute monarch, so what he says goes. But over the course of his 32-year rule, he has mostly gained international attention for how he has spent the royal treasury. While his populace is one of the poorest in the world, and has the highest rate of HIV in the world, Mswati's royal holdings include fleets of luxury vehicles and two private planes.
But the king's powers are not limitless. A new constitution, signed by Mswati in 2005, reiterates that Swaziland is an absolute monarchy, but it bars ruling by decree.
That makes his most recent pronouncement — uttered from a stage where he and international dignitaries and thousands of dancers celebrated both his and his kingdom's 50th birthdays — a little complicated.
“We no longer shall be called Swaziland from today forward,” the Associated Press quoted the king as saying. Instead, Swaziland would go the way of Lesotho and Botswana, naming itself in its local language, after its main ethnic group: eSwatini, or “land of the Swati” in the siSwati language that is predominant in the landlocked, southern African kingdom.
The name is not new. The king has used it on many previous occasions, including his address to the U.N. General Assembly last year. But, according to Reuters, the king announced during his speech that he had grown tired of people confusing his country with Switzerland.
Whether the name will stick with locals is another matter. More important still — for the king's pride at least — is whether the United Nations will adopt the new name, which could lead companies like Google to follow.
The last country to officially change its name was Czechia, formerly known (and certainly still known to most people) as the Czech Republic. Uptake in spoken English has been slow, and The Washington Post, for example, still refers to the home of Prague by its old name.
Then again, the rechristening of the Czech Republic came out of a long, bureaucratic process. Swaziland's attempt has a powerful king and post-colonial history on its side.
When countries across Africa gained independence from European colonizers in the mid-20th century, many chose to shed the names bestowed upon them by outsiders. Others, like Swaziland, Kenya, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and plenty of others, did not.
Nearby Lesotho and Botswana opted to rename themselves using an indigenous linguistic template: a prefix denoting “land of” and then an ethnic subject. Swaziland hopes to join them in that tradition.
For most of the king's subjects, however, strong cultural pride is tempered by the dire circumstances in which most of their countrymen live. Most eke out a living farming small plots or work in neighboring South Africa's mines. Life expectancy is a full 12 years lower than it was in the mid-1990s.
To change that, Mswati will have to do much more than just say it on stage and make it so.