Ngwenyama Sobhuza II became king before he could take his first step; the infant was crowned when he was just four months old. He would keep the job for 82 years.
King Sobhuza II saw Swaziland, as it was then known, gain its independence from Britain in 1968. That same year, he helped write a constitution which he ditched in 1973.
Sobhuza II is the longest-reigning monarch in recorded history at 82 years, 254 days. He married 70 wives, who bore him 210 children between 1920 and 1970. At his death in 1982, he had more than 1000 grandchildren. His 18-year-old son, Mswati III succeeded him as king and still rules Swaziland, now Eswatini, as an absolute monarch, the last of its kind in Africa.
In this article, we shall take a look at how King Sobhuza II became the longest-reigning monarch in recorded history.
King Sobhuza II, the eldest son of King Ngwame V and his wife, Inkhosikati Lomawa Ndwandwe was born on July 22, 1899, at the Royal Residence in Zombodze, then Swaziland.
At the time of his birth, there were threats of war between the Boers and the Swazis. This prompted his father to name him Nkhotfotjeni, which means stone lizard. The name actually tells a story. As a result of the war threats between the Boers and the Swazis when the child was conceived, the father was living among stones like a lizard.
In addition to the name, his grandmother, Labotsibeni, who eventually became Queen Mother, named him Mona – meaning jealousy. This was because of the jealousy that ensued between the Boers and the British, between the Whites and the Swazis, and among the Swazi royalty itself.
At exactly four months old, Nkhotfotjeni’s father passed away while dancing Incwala – the main ritual of kingship in the kingdom. The Incwala, according to Hilda Kuper, a social anthropologist who is most notable for her works on the Swazi culture, “is the heavy play of the people“. It is highly recognised by the Swazi as the most important of all national ceremonies and the most essential event of the year.
Becoming King Sobhuza II
After the death of his father, the royal council met in the byre, debated, and eventually chose Nkhotfotjeni as the king. He was proclaimed king at only four months old. As a mark of distinction, the kingly name Sobhuza II, a name only his great-great-grandfather, Sobhuza I, had borne, was selected and deemed fit for him.
However, being a minor and unfit to rule at the time, his grandmother, the Queen Mother, Labotsibeni became regent. She was assisted by her third son, Prince Malunge – an uncle to the infant king.
According to the Swazi custom, Nkhotfotjeni was separated from his mother as she was in mourning. He was sent to his mother’s home at Zikhoteni. A year after, Labotsibeni decided that he should be brought back to the Royal Residence at Zombodze.
The young monarch was sent to Zombodze Primary School, Swaziland. It was the first national school and it was one that Labotsibeni had wanted to be built for the young king in order to have him schooled formally. In 1916, he proceeded to Lovedale College in the Cape Province, South Africa, to complete his secondary education.
On December 22, 1921, at the age of 22, the Queen Mother, Labotsibeni handed over the reins of leadership to Nkhotfotjeni at Zombodze Royal Residence. He was to become known as Ngwenyama (King) Sobhuza II.
The Fight with the British
During the interim reign of Sobhuza II’s grandmother, Labotsibeni, there was considerable strife between the British and the Swazis as a result of the land partitioning which saw the British carting away a larger percentage of the land that originally belonged to the Swazis.
As a result of this strife, Labotsibeni not only ensured that Sobhuza II was educated formally, she instilled in him the passion for his people and the desire to fight for the lands that they had been deprived of by the British.
Swaziland had become a British protectorate in 1903 and had been stripped of its autonomy. King Sobhuza II sought to address the issue of land partitioning and deprivation which was set up by the British High Commissioner.
In 1922, together with a Swazi delegation, the king travelled to Britain to meet with King George V and petitioned him to restore the lands to the Swazi people. King George refused his petition. Sobhuza II, unrelenting, bought his case before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1929. However, he lost the case due to the terms of the Foreign Jurisdictions Act, which kind effectively placed the actions of the British administration in protectorates beyond the jurisdiction of the British courts.
Another report, however, claimed that King George V, seeing his relentless pursuit, agreed to help him secure part of the land and the percentage of land owned by the Swazis went up further than before.
Personal Life and Reign
Sobhuza II, as a result of his education in European ways, was comfortable in both traditional African clothing and settings and in European-style military dress. The Swazi king often led traditional Swazi rituals. He valued his people’s traditions, particularly the royal rights to name and dismiss chiefs, establish courts, regulate the country’s constitution, and control the Swazi treasury.
King Sobhuza II’s reign spanned most of the major events and turning points in the history of modern Africa in the twentieth century. During the height of colonial rule, when the struggle for African independence was starting to gain momentum, Sobhuza II foregrounded the importance of education and ensured that the Swazi people were formally educated, knowing fully well that a time would come when the Swazis would have to take over the reins of leadership, the duties of self-government, and the responsibilities of independence.
His belief in peace and the efforts employed by him in ensuring that Swaziland was a peaceful country spanned beyond the confines of his borders. King Sobhuza II fully supported the movement for change and independence in the African continent. His quest for unity made him lead his country into the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union (AU).
As one who is committed to peaceful change and renunciation of violence, Swaziland became a member of the Non-Aligned Movement under his tutelage. Also, he succeeded in creating a harmonious and non-racial society in Swaziland.
The Journey to Independence
King Sobhuza II played a mediating role in finding solutions to the political problems besetting the continent of Africa, always negotiating unity among African leaders. His astute efforts allowed his country to negotiate successfully the difficulties of adjusting to a rapidly modernising world while continuing to draw on the strength and wisdom of African belief systems and pride in Swazi heritage and culture.
In addition to these feats, one of his greatest achievements as a monarch was the negotiation of Swaziland’s independence from the British.
In 1963, Sobuza II created the political party – Imbokadvo (Royal) Party and a year later, the party won control of all but one seat in the nation’s 1964 legislative elections. He proved himself to be a proficient leader and veteran politician as he secured complete control of the National Assembly for his political party. A firm believer in peaceful discuss and war against violence, Sobhuza II masterminded the independence of his country from the British through skilled negotiation.
On September 6, 1968, Swaziland became an independent nation and King Sobhuza II then became the nation’s head of state. At this time, the county of Swaziland had been a British protectorate for about 65 years (1903-1968).
Becoming an absolute monarch
However, in 1973, his leadership was challenged by political opponents in a legislative election. He responded to this challenge by suspending the rules of the constitution, one which had been inherited from England, dissolved the country’s parliament, and banned all political parties and trade unions, viewing all these things as a threat to his authority.
According to the king, his opponents were getting into government and acting like “hyenas urinating upwind.”
Thus, Sobhuza II became an absolute monarch, making all judicial, executive, and legislative decisions. As a result of his strong rule, there was a reduction in strife among various tribes and this helped maintain national unity. Unlike many other African nations of the time, Swaziland was a model of political and economic stability.
The Death of King Sobhuza II
Ngwenyama Sobhuza II was known by various nicknames including The Lion (meaning of Ngwenyama), The Great Mountain, The Son of the She-Elephant, The Inexplicable, and most profoundly, The Bull as a result of his harem of wives and numerous children.
He adhered strictly to the tradition of polygamy. According to Swaziland National Trust Commission, as of July 2000, it was recorded that King Sobhuza II married 70 wives who bore him 210 children (an average of three children per wife). The king is also an ancestor to over 1,000 grandchildren. In fact, he was literally the father of about one-tenth of his country’s population at the time of his reign. According to the Swazis, the custom of taking two new wives each year was believed to preserve the political balance of the kingdom.
In September 1981, Sobhuza II celebrated the Diamond Jubilee (60 years) of his reign; the celebration was attended by Princess Margaret on behalf of Queen Elizabeth of England.
The monarch then celebrated his 83rd birthday a year later on July 22, 1982, where he gave a speech with the theme: “Unity is Strength.” Unfortunately, this would be the last time King Sobhuza II would appear in public. After reigning for a much part of his life, he died on August 21, 1982, at the Embo State House. He was 83.
The Legacy of Ngwenyama Sobhuza II
Ngwenyama Sobhuza II, throughout his long reign, with a mastery of leadership, depth of insight, and sublime wisdom, ably guided his country from colonial subservience to independence. He was able to establish diplomatic missions in a number of African and Western countries. A selfless and wise leader, he helped create a great nation that still takes pride in its culture, its stability, and its peaceful demeanour.
At the time of his death, he was one of the world’s most-loved monarchs. As a sign of mourning and a way to show their grief, everyone in the Swazi kingdom, both male and female, shaved their heads. His funeral was attended by many foreign dignitaries, including England’s Prince Michael of Kent, and the South African foreign minister, Pik Botha.
Also, his funeral parade was graced with hundreds of royal warriors, with his body paraded in a glass-covered casket that moved past his more than 25,000 subjects.
At his death, Sobhuza II had not groomed anyone to succeed him as the Swazi culture does not permit this. Rather, according to the Swazi culture, after the death of a king, the royal family meets to decide which of the wives of the late king shall be the “Great Wife” and Ndlovukazi, that is, Queen Mother. This is because her son is who will become the next crowned king.
According to the Swazis, “a king is a king through his mother.” Eventually, after four years, in 1986, Prince Makhosetive was crowned King, taking the regnal name Mswati III.
On April 20, 2006, Ngwenyama Sobhuza II was posthumously honoured by South Africa for his exceptional contribution to the struggle against apartheid by supporting the liberation movement in times of need.
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Eswatini National Trust Commission (2001). King Sobhuza II. Eswatini National Trust Commission. Retrieved from http://eswatininaturereserves.com/cultural/king_sobhuza.asp
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