Wed, Dec 15, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Fit for a king: Swaziland hungers for a Maybach 62

THE GUARDIAN , JOHANNESBURG

Models pose next to the DaimlerChrysler Maybach 62 at a Seoul hotel in June. ``Our customers are exclusive people -- that is, the super rich, the kings and queens, oil-rich countries, North Africans and massive lottery winners,'' a company spokesman said.

PHOTO: AFP

Assembled by hand in Germany. Powered by a six-liter, bio-turbo engine. Fitted with a television, a 21-speaker surround-sound system, a heated steering wheel. Champagne flutes within reach from fully reclinable seats.

The basic DaimlerChrysler Maybach 62 costs US$537,000, but the one bound for Swaziland has enough extra trimmings to add another US$192,000 to the price. Which can mean only one thing: King Mswati III has been shopping again.

One-third of the population needs food aid. Almost 40 percent of adults have HIV, the highest rate in the world. And one-tenth of all households are headed by children.

Swaziland's average per capita income is US$1,181, a figure distorted by huge inequality.

Some aid agencies estimate that more than 80 percent of the population is living in absolute poverty, earning less than US$1 a day.

None of which has deterred King Mswati from another bout of conspicuous consumption. The king's vehicle reportedly includes a refrigerator, a cordless telephone, a golf bag and a pollen and dust filter.

Yesterday critics took a dim view of the monarch's automotive taste.

Mario Masuku, leader of the opposition People's United Democratic Movement, said: "It is puzzling how a head of state could buy a car for just about US$500,000 when his nation is surviving on food aid."

Royal aides declined to respond to the criticism.

The World Food Program said that in the first half of next year, about one-third of the population of Swaziland will receive emergency food assistance.

"Poverty, unemployment, HIV/AIDS and poor farming practice has left large numbers of households with no food stocks or unable to provide for themselves," a spokesman said.

This is not a classic dictatorship. Swaziland has been in a state of emergency since 1973 when the constitutional monarchy bequeathed by Britain became absolutist, but the king is adored by his subjects, and the country remains a placid tourist haven.

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