Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain died in 2022 after reigning for over seventy years. Her rule was the second-longest of European monarchs after Louis XIV of France. Sobhuza II left both in the dust. Chosen king as a baby, he was king of Swaziland for eighty-two years (1899-1982), the longest-reigning monarch in written history. His legacy was an ability to unify and modernize Swaziland while preserving its cultural traditions.
“Ngwenyama Sobhuza” is regularly translated as King Sobhuza. The title comes from a Swazi word for “lion,” a suitable sign of respect for a man of authority.
The Swazi people settled in their current homeland in Southern Africa in the 1700s. Swaziland is a small African country (slightly smaller than New Jersey) between Mozambique and South Africa.
King Mswati II (1840-68), known as the land’s greatest fighting king, is the source of its name. It soon became caught amidst Europe’s race to divide Africa.
Its capital is Mbabane. English and Swazi (or siSwati) are spoken there. Most people are Christian.
“A picturesque land of lush valleys and rolling blue hills,” Swaziland became a major tourist attraction for neighboring South Africa. King Mswati III, in honor of fifty years of independence, renamed the country Eswantini (“land of Swazis”).
Sobhuza Becomes King
The eldest son of King Ngwane V and Queen Lomawa Ndwandwe was born on July 22, 1899, in Zombodze (the royal village). The king named his son Nkhotfotjeni (stone lizard) because the king lived among the stones like a lizard as the Boers threatened war on the Swazis.
The king died on December 10th while dancing Incwala, a royal ceremony. The royal council met and proclaimed his son King Sobhuza II, named after an earlier king of the land.
His grandmother served as his regent. She ensured a local school was available to provide him with a good education. Sobuza went to college in nearby South Africa.
Young King Demands Justice For His People
Sobhuza did not independently reign over his country as long as Queen Elizabeth II. He was still king for nearly all his life. He officially took the throne in 1921 at age twenty-two.
When King Sobhuza II started his reign, Swaziland was a protectorate of Great Britain, having some local autonomy but not an independent nation.
His role before independence was often largely ceremonial while playing an important cultural role for his people.
Conflict arose between the British and Swazi people over land. The young king led a delegation to Great Britain and petitioned King George V for relief.
He argued that Swazi tribal law only gave the British the right to use the land, not own it. Sobhuza argued the British had a moral obligation to his people.
The Swazi people were denied relief because of British colonial laws, which increased anti-British sentiment. It was an early incident of a theme: the king appealed to the traditional ways of his people over foreign British policies he argued were “un-Swazi.”
He later attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. A few years before, Seretse Khama (future ruler of the South African country Botswana) married Ruth Williams, an Englishwoman.
King Sobhuza was not monogamous. He followed tribal practices that accepted polygamy, officially having seventy wives and over two hundred children, including the current king. The “bull of Swazi” unofficially had many more wives and children.
The king was liberal in filling official positions with family members. In time, the primary opposition to his rule would be people who wanted the positions held by his many kinfolk.
Sobhuza was comfortable both in honoring local customs and adopting Western ways. He was equally at ease in a Western tailcoat or walking barefoot among his people in tribal attire.
Sobhuza changed roles as situations required, wearing native garb, for instance, when challenging the British constitutional procedures assigned after independence.
Swaziland traditionally had an absolute monarch. The king had a large amount of power.
Sobhuza opposed the British model of a parliament (legislature) with a king with limited power. He worked within the British system to retain power, including starting a political party that won all the seats in the new parliament. The country gained its independence in 1968.
The parliament soon had a few seats held by the opposition. King Sobhuza (then 73) secretly put together an army. He declared political parties “cultivate dissension” and that the parliamentary system went against traditional ways.
In 1973, Sobhuza announced that the parliament dissolved and the constitution was repealed. Sobhuza became an absolute monarch.
King Sobhuza carefully followed a foreign policy that balanced respect for African nationalism while still supporting largely white-controlled foreign investment.
Swaziland is rich in mineral resources. Sobhuza carefully made sure that his country’s mineral wealth benefited his people. He did so even though a small number of whites controlled mining.
He joined the Organization of African Unity, welcoming refugees from the South African regime. But, white tourists from nearby South Africa also enjoyed vacating in Swaziland. Sobhuza carefully balanced racially segregated South Africa, which surrounds Swaziland on three sides, and the Marxist Mozambique. His flexibility served him and his people well.
Sobhuza celebrated his Diamond Jubilee (75 years in office) in 1981.
He tried to expand his country’s territory by obtaining nearby KaNgwane, land set aside by South Africa as a semi-independent homeland (a “Bantustan”) for the Swazi people. The two nations negotiated, but local opposition helped to prevent the transfer.
King Sobhuza II died in 1983, the official length of his reign being 82 years and 254 days.