Without The King

Without The King

Without The King (Director: Michael Skolnik, USA, 2007): Swaziland has a population of just over a million people, and 42.6% of them are HIV positive, the highest infection rate in the world. In addition, more than half the population live on less than a dollar a day. Meanwhile, as the last functioning monarchy in Africa, the king and his many wives live in luxury oblivious to the suffering of their people.

Director Michael Skolnik, just 28 years of age, has known Swaziland’s King Mswati III since 1999. After taking a Zulu language class at UCLA and discovering that his teacher was an advisor to the king, he became interested in the Kingdom of Swaziland and its unique political situation. As the king got to know Michael’s work as a filmmaker better, he asked him to make a film about him. So this could very well have been called “About The King.”

Instead, when Skolnik spent time in the country, he discovered the grinding poverty, the soaring HIV rate, and the people’s simmering anger. Mswati’s father, King Sobhuza II, banned all political parties back in the 1970s, and the king appoints the prime minister, the cabinet, and a third of the members of the largely ineffectual parliament. Despite claiming to make his decisions based on consultation with “the people” and their representatives, King Mswati doesn’t really seem to know what’s going on outside his lavish palace. He acknowledges that when he goes out on ceremonial visits, he knows that officials clean things up and hide the reality from him. And yet, he seems to do nothing. In the interviews Skolnik conducted with him for the film, the king, not yet 40, seems affable but without much substance.

In contrast, his eldest daughter, Princess Sikhanyiso, introduces herself onscreen by performing a rap. At the age of 18, she is about to leave Swaziland to attend college in California, and at the beginning of the film, she seems spoiled and self-centred.

We also are introduced to several local political activists who speak candidly and at great risk about their frustration with the lack of democracy. A new constitution is approved but without any input from the people, and political parties are still banned. The situation seems to be escalating, and politicians’ offices are being bombed.

Meanwhile, with time away from her sheltered lifestyle, the princess begins to see some of the real problems facing her country. She repeats what many others do in the film, that the Swazi people don’t want to get rid of the monarchy, that it’s part of their culture. The film’s title comes from something she says: “Without the king, we have no culture.” However, at least for now, with the king they have no justice.

By the end of the film, she’s begun to grow up a little, and with her sister accompanies the film crew to one of the many AIDS orphanages in the country. She seems genuinely moved, and vows to make some needed changes. One wants to believe her.

The truth is that between AIDS, poverty, and a brewing rebellion, Swaziland could extinct itself within a generation. This film might actually make a difference. Not by shaming western audiences into more donations, though I’m sure that wouldn’t hurt, but because of the director’s intimate access to the royal family. When they see this film, they won’t be able to ignore the urgent needs of their country, willfully or otherwise.

For that reason, it doesn’t really matter what I think of the film. For the record, I’d say that it was a well-made but not necessarily innovative film. The use of mournful music over the scenes of poverty bothered me a little. But just because of the potential of the film to make a difference to an entire country, I’m grading it a little higher. Let’s hope the king agrees with me.

Here is the Q&A with director Michael Skolnik from after the screening:

Duration: 21:32


UPDATE: The film was awarded the Special Jury Prize International Feature Documentary at the Hot Docs Awards ceremony held on April 27. Congratulations to director Michael Skolnik and everyone involved in the film.

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8 Responses to Without The King

  1. Judith Marshall says:

    Dear Michael Skolnik

    I misread the time so arrived 20 minutes late to see your film yesterday. I have a sister living in Swaziland and her son, who lives in Toronto, is there as we speak, running basketball camps/youth leadership programmes with an AIDS focus for the third year in a row. Rap music is part of their camp and we were intrigued with the reference to Princess Sikhanyosi and rap.

    Is there a way to get a copy of the film?

    Judith Marshall
    (416) 544 5963 work
    (416) 968 3762 home

  2. Terra Dlamini says:

    Did you have any luck getting a copy?
    I missed the showing as well and would very much like to view this documentary.

  3. James McNally says:

    I’ve been in touch with director Michael Skolnik by email and he assures me that the film will be released on DVD this fall, so you shouldn’t have long to wait.

  4. Dumezweni says:


    I am a Swazi citizen and no I am not part of the royal family. However judging from the trailer of your movie, I think to most extent you have tarnished the king of Swaziland’s image and have exaggerated too much. Yes I agree that poverty does exist in Swaziland and so do HIV and AIDS but I don’t think the king should be blamed and for your own information the king does know what is happening and for many years if you paid attention Sir, he has tried his very best to do something about it together with other high ranking officials and non governmental organizations.

    The royal family is fully involved in fighting poverty as well as HIV and AIDS. Just recently, the king embarked on a huge march with thousands of Swazi citizens for HIV and AIDS awareness. The king has initiated the job creation fund which is worth around USD200 million, he has traveled the world to lure investors to come to Swaziland to invest so that at the same time more jobs can be created, the queen mother established a fund that helps any Swazi citizen to get medical help free of charge and another organization which helps to take care of the needy. Sir I can go on and on about the positive things that the royal family and government have done for the people of Swaziland until now.

    Last but not least, the HIV infection rate in Swaziland has been exaggerated also. The way I see it, you have been talking to the wrong people and have interpreted the situation in Swaziland the wrong way. Swaziland has a middle class accodring to our standard of living and a poor class like most countries and there are rich people who have earned their wealth honestly and it’s not just the royal family that is rich. Why didn’t you make a documentary about the US government? A government which spends billions a year for a stupid War in iraq and forgets about the people in the ghettos, the old bridges which need improvements and so on.

    Many parts of Swaziland are improving and the number of poverty alleviation is also rising, the number of people getting anti retroviral drugs for HIV is also improving. Sir I’m saying this humbly, I hope you don’t earn a cent from your movie because it seems to me most it has full of exaggerations and I hope the world realizes that. Take care and may God through Jesus Christ be with you.

  5. reader says:

    For a number of years now the international media and community has labeled his majesty the king of Swaziland an “absolute monarch” and this term alone has made the king look like a dictator. Anything that looks bad in Swaziland has been connected to the king and the Tinkhundla system as the source of the problems. The international media itself has for many years appeared to be on one side, being that of the multiparty political associations in the kingdom.

    Why do the international media and community take one side? And why can’t these organizations take time to listen to both sides and also read the constitution of Swaziland ? And last but not least, why can’t they take time to see for themselves who the majority of Swazi citizens really support? Do the majority of Swazi citizens support the banned political parties or do they support the current Tinkhundla system of governance? What is sad about this is that the international media has focused too much on the minority which is the banned political parties and by focusing on them and putting aside the majority which supports the current system, it makes it as if all the people of Swaziland want change when in actual fact it is not the case. This has made the international community focus on the minority too.

    Let’s see what the term absolute monarch means. According to dictionary.com, this term means and I quote: “a ruler who governs alone and is not restrained by laws, a constitution, or custom”. True enough our constitution allows the king and the queen mother to be above the law and the Swazi law and custom; however, the king does not rule alone. Let us not forget that the queen mother the Indlovukazi (She elephant) is a joint head of state in Swaziland and there is a section in the constitution which supports this and likewise, the Swazi law and custom requires this.

    Let us look at some chapters and sections in the constitution which indicate that the king isn’t an absolute monarch and I will begin by quoting sections which talk about the judicature. Chapter 9 of the Swazi constitution in section 139 states: “Justice shall be administered in the name of the Crown by the Judiciary which shall be independent and subject only to this Constitution”. Now let us look back at section 139 just a portion of it where it says, (Judiciary which shall be INDEPENDENT and SUBJECT only to this CONSTITUTION), the same constitution which was approved by a majority of Swazi Citizens.

    Ask yourselves; is the judiciary subject to the king or does it say subject to the constitution? And does it say that the judiciary is not independent or independent? Remember that the judiciary has to be independent so that the rule of Law shall not be broken. Chapter 9 again section 142 of the constitution, states: “In the exercise of the judicial power of Swaziland, the Judiciary, in both its judicial and administrative functions, including financial administration, shall be independent and subject only to this Constitution, and shall not be subject to the control or direction of any person or authority”. Look back again at a portion of this clause: (Shall not be SUBJECT to the CONTROL or DIRECTION of any person or AUTHORITY). I believe you’re all beginning to see my point now. Does this so far sound like a state ruled by an absolute leader (dictator)? Obviously the answer is no.

    Moving along, Swaziland is a democratic state. It may not seem like the case to western nations and other democratic regions but we do have our own democracy and have the right as a sovereign nation to exercise this kind of democracy called the Tinkhundla system.

    Other countries should not have an input in our system except for the Swazis themselves, these countries should just respect our system and if they have opinions about it, then that’s ok but these opinions should not give them the right to have an input as if they are Swazi citizens. Any country has the right to make up its own system of governance as long as the majority of people within that particular country have the support for that system which is the case in the kingdom of Swaziland.

    His Excellency ambassador Mabude of the republic of South Africa once stated and I quote: “democracy indeed existed; anyone who disputed this fact was wasting their time. Democracy is there, he said, explaining that there were various types of democracy all aimed at enhancing the area of personal freedom. He said countries practiced their own form of democracy. Mabude said those who said democracy did not exist were totally off side”. This statement was posted in the Swazi observer news paper on April 27th, 2007, as part of an article about the commissioner referring to Swaziland’s democracy.

    Moving along, our head of state isn’t elected; however the citizens of Swaziland still reserve the right to representation. Chapter 8, part 1 (b) of the Swazi constitution talks about the representation of the people. I won’t go in detail but I will mention the sections which make up part of our democracy. Section 85 (right to representation) section 86 (right to vote at elections) section 87 (representation of women) section 88 (election by secret ballot), just to name a few. Is this how a country with an absolute leader (dictator) functions? Referring to section 87, women are fully represented and hold positions of high authority in Swaziland . This is evident within the judicial system, legislature, and executive and within royalty too.

    Please keep in mind that the purpose of this text, is to do away with the mentality that our head of state is an absolute leader (dictator), which has created an image of a country that has been ravaged by a totalitarian, communist and fascist system. If we look back in history, people in a totalitarian country were always monitored even in their places of privacy and the same in communist and fascist countries. They did not have the freedom of assembly and if they did, it was only in the interest for these systems I have just mentioned.

    If this is the case in Swaziland , then the people of Swaziland would not have the right to representation, our judicial system would not be independent according to the constitution and our constitution would not allow freedom of assembly.

    When I say freedom of assembly, I am referring to the unions of Swaziland who reserve the right to assemble every year on May Day and express whatever issues they have against the government or strike and send petitions to the government, the students of the university of Swaziland who also strike if they are not happy, the civil servants who strike in demand that they want salary increments, the banned political parties who block border posts and disrupt the day’s import and export in protest, just to name a few. To all Swazis, I humbly urge you all to come together and protect your king and the monarchy as a whole.

    Do not be fooled by the international media and international community that are determined to tarnish Swaziland, his majesty and monarchy nor should you feel suppressed by them. On a clear note, it is not the whole international community that is suppressing change in Swaziland, other parts of the world appreciates our current system and our monarchy especially for what it has done in trying to fight poverty, HIV, bringing in investments, the new constitution and so on.

    As for the banned political parties, I humbly urge you to always speak the truth outside of Swaziland and if you are about democracy, then in a democratic manner, accept and respect the majority which supports the current rule instead of making up lies claiming that the entire Swazi nation wants change, it is usually minds of dictatorship that do such things through false propaganda and that’s not democracy.

    Your lies have contributed in making the outside media focus on you (banned political parties) and claiming that his majesty is a dictator. I rest my case for now, thank you for your time.

  6. Sifiso says:

    As a Swazi myself, i congratulate the director and the producers for doing an excellent job on this documentary. Everything in it was spot on. And by the way, Dumezweni is a member of the royal family.

  7. Musa T Matse says:

    I’m a student at UNISWA (Kwaluseni Campus, IDE, Diploma in Law 3), I’ve been given an assignment by my Administrative Lecture, which is based on Article 58,79 & 80 of the Constitution of Swaziland 2005, and the question is that IS SWAZILAND A DEMOCRACY, ACCORDING TO TINKHUNDLA SYSTEM?

    I’m asking for your help in this assignment, please your send views to the above e-mail address. Thanks.

  8. swazicore says:

    What date is the DVD coming out, or is out already? where can it be purchased?

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