Africa’s last absolute monarch wants to ban divorce

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

King Mswati III of Swaziland is Africa’s last absolute monarch. The 49-year old king who calls himself ngweyama, “the lion,” owns most of the country’s land and rules by decree, appointing all of the government’s top positions. Now he may make Swaziland the first country in Africa to outlaw divorce.

“In our culture, once you marry someone, there is no turning back,” he said speaking at an Easter ceremony earlier this month, according to a local paper, Times of Swaziland. There is no word for “divorce” in Siswati, the official language of Swaziland, the king added.

Swaziland officials have been quick to clarify that divorce has not been officially banned. The king’s comments, which are not a decree until he officially tables them, run counter to a recently submitted marriage bill by Swaziland’s attorney general that allows for divorce on certain grounds. Divorce is not permitted under current legislation but a process called Kumbuyisela ekhaya, which refers to reuniting a married woman with her family, is allowed.

Swaziland's King Mswati III waves as he arrives for celebrations marking his 40th birthday and the country's 40th year of independence at the Somhlolo national stadium outside Mbabane September 6, 2008. Swaziland, one of the world's last absolute monarchies, is holding a multi-million dollar celebration of the king's 40th birthday and its 40th year of independence on Saturday after rare protests over poverty. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (SWAZILAND)
Swaziland’s King Mswati III is one of Africa’s few remaining national monarchs. (Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)

Miswati himself has at least 15 wives and is entitled to a new one every year, chosen at an eight day festival known as the reed dance. Polygamy is common in Swaziland where women are considered the property of their husbands. Domestic abuse and sexual violence are prevalent. Leaders often criticize ideas of equal rights for women as foreign values that should be subordinated to Swazi culture, according to Human Rights Watch.

The Philippines is the only country in the world where divorce is illegal for most of the country’s population. (Muslims are allowed to divorce and the country’s mostly Catholic population can annul marriages.) In Vatican City, there are also no procedures for divorce.

Sign up for the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief — the most important and interesting news from across the continent, in your inbox.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search