A king is a king by his people’: understanding popular support for the monarchy in Swaziland

Vito Laterza, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo will deliver the lecture “‘A king is a king by his people’: understanding popular support for the monarchy in Swaziland”.

The seminar is open to all, including bachelor and master students. No registration is required. After the seminar, drinks and snacks will be served in our lunchroom.


A conundrum that is little understood by scholars and activists involved in pro-democracy struggles around the world is why the institution of the monarchy in Swaziland, where the king is firmly in control of the state apparatus, is still widely perceived as a legitimate sovereign. A historic presence of pro-democracy forces and a protracted economic decline negatively affecting people's livelihoods have not been able to significantly tarnish the monarchy’s grip on national politics.

I will explore two dimensions of this puzzle. The first is the ideological basis upon which the royal aristocracy lays their claim to power. Through an exploration of the classic problematic of The King's Two Bodies (Kantorowicz 1957), I will show that the Swazi king is much closer to his people in mind and flesh than generally assumed by Western observers. It is through communing with people and sharing Swaziness as substance in ritual and everyday life that Swazis and their king come together in the polity.

The main reason why multi-party democracy is still largely perceived as "alien" has to do with the mediating role that the monarchy plays in domesticating the influence of the Western (once colonial) other over Swazi tradition. The customary realm, constantly reinvented and adapted to contemporary conditions, remains the primary legal and social framework ordering social and political life in Swaziland. This leads to the second dimension, related to political economy. The king and his royal oligarchy play a mediating role between foreign investors and ordinary people, who are, on the whole, guaranteed land under customary rule as a modest welfare state to partially shield them from the precarity and exploitation of formal employment.



Vito Laterza is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo. He received his PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. His work focuses on labour, political economy, sustainable development and social and political mobilisation in southern and central Africa. He carried out long-term fieldwork in Swaziland on the intersections of politics, development and traditionalism, and more recently in South Africa on the university student protests (2015-2016), and in Zambia on the 2016 presidential elections.

His published work include: ‘Resilient Labour: Workplace Regimes, Globalization and Enclave Development in Swaziland’ (Journal of Development Studies, 2016); ‘Waves of Unrest: Wildcat Strikes and Possible Democratic Change in Swaziland’ (Berghahn book chapter, 2015); ‘Bringing Wood to Life: Lines, Flows and Materials in a Swazi Sawmill’ (Cambridge University Press book chapter, 2013). He regularly writes for international media like Al Jazeera English and Boston Review, and edits the Human Economy Blog.

Published Aug. 19, 2016 12:18 PM - Last modified Sep. 11, 2018 10:06 AM