Crossing the Oshoek Border Post from South Africa to Swaziland, I was excited to be visiting the realm of Africa’s last absolute monarchy. Not realizing that it was the Easter weekend, I got caught standing alongside Swazis trying to re-enter their country for the holidays.
I also realized that I was entering a country with the highest incidence of HIV in Africa with a stabilized number reported at up to 30% of the population. While this is not the subject of this article, I must satisfy the curiosity of the reader nevertheless. Social scientists have determined that the itinerant workers with whom I was lining up were one of the major reasons for this scourge.
Being away from home and working in the mines and timber industries of South Africa, these men infect their many wives in a polygamous society, along with their girlfriends. In addition, traditions such as the inheritance of widows from a deceased brother, does not help HIV’s continuing spread.
The border crossing was smooth confirming my notion that the Swazis were a relaxed and nice people. Though lacking in size, this interesting country makes up for it with its rich culture. While the monarchy has its critics, the history of Swazi resistance to the British, Boers and the Zulus has fostered national pride. As a result, local culture is flourishing along with Christianity.
Many Swazis combine Christianity with indigenous beliefs, and religious freedoms are written into the country’s 2005 constitution. However in January, the education ministry instructed all head teachers to ensure that the syllabus would not mention any religion other than Christianity, including Islam and Judaism.
Driving into Mbabane, the capital city, I found it to be an attractive and functional place perched in the cool highveld (4,000ft) of the Dlangeni Hills. Swaziland with its population of 1.5 million is a low middle income country where most citizens are ethnic Swazis. The official languages are both Swati and English.
Its ruler, King Mswati III, is one of the world’s last absolute monarchs, and a man who is not too keen on handing his throne over entirely to parliament. The Borgen Project, a nonprofit organization, reports that about half of Swazis live in poverty. Forty percent of Swazis are unemployed and 70% of the workforce is employed in sustenance farming. But it’s not all bad news. Roads are well-paved and far-reaching. The literacy rate is over 91%, which might be expected when 8.3% of the GDP is spent on education; which is why I saw the entire city swarming with nicely-uniformed schoolchildren in the afternoon.
In order to find the old Swaziland, which has rapidly modernized itself, I went in search of old villages and cultural events. More than 70% of Swaziland’s population is of ethnic roots, which means that all the traditions and beliefs are upheld throughout the year and are evident in daily life through dress and other activities.
I soon arrived in Mantetenga Swazi Cultural Village, a living museum of old traditions and representing a classic Swazi lifestyle during the 1850s. The village is a large family homestead of 16 huts, each with its own specific purpose as well as kraals for cattle and goats, reed fences that serve as windbreaks and various other structures. The building material is strictly traditional: poles, grass, reeds, leather stripes, earth and dried cow dung. The adjacent 725-acre Mantenga Nature Reserve is made of a combination of middle and highveld habitat, and more than a third of the reserve is covered by eucalyptus (gum) forest. I explored the reserve by foot, with two walking trails leading up the mountain towards the summit of Sheba’s Breast, made famous by the book King Solomon’s Mines written by Sir Rider Haggard, a Victorian adventure writer in 1885. Birdlife in the reserve was good, with wildlife such as baboons, vervet monkeys, nyala, duiker and mongoose regularly seen.
After visiting the village, I patiently waited for a large contingent of dancers to perform the Umhlanga followed by the Incwala dance. There are two main kinds of dances, each done by women and men respectively and done at most of the celebrations and gatherings throughout the year, but predominantly at the two most popular events: Umhlanga in August and Incwala in December. The spectacle I enjoyed seemed to be a hybrid version of both.
Umhlanga attracts thousands or women from near and far and once the entire group has concluded dancing and singing, different villages take center stage and put on a display as a sign of respect for the Queen mother. The different villages are distinguishable by their beaded outfits and jewelry. Even the king’s daughters are involved and distinguishable by the bright red feathers they wear in their hair. The king will usually pick his new wife from the crowd of dancers.
Incwala, which means first fruits, is probably the most important and significant of the two. Dancing plays a prominent role here as men gather at the Royal Kraal at Ludzidzini and dance for a few days. Known to be the most honorable on the Swazi events calendar, the Incwala dates are determined by the phases of the moon and begins with a journey to the Indian Ocean to collect water. The third day sees the men slaughter a bull with the fourth day welcoming the arrival of the king who dons his traditional dress and joins in on dances with the other men before returning to his hut to enjoy the first fruit of the season.
However, these aren’t the only dances in Swaziland; other events boast their own dances such as the Sibhaca dance performed by groups of men throughout the country at any opportunity. One cannot but appreciate this gentle land with its handsome men and women and their penchant for dance.
Emerging Economies, But Weaker Passports
Africa dominates the bottom of the rung in the 2020 Henley Passport Index. A majority of the continent’s passport-holders don’t have the luxury of visa-free travel around the world.
The African Union may be gearing for a common African passport, but for now, it seems like most African passports don’t have what it takes to get to other parts of the world.
In the recently-released Henley Passport Index, which measures all the world’s passports according to the number of destinations their holders can access without a prior visa, only two African countries –Seychelles and Mauritius — are in the top 50.
The rest of the continent dominates the bottom quarter of the rankings with weaker passports than most, pointing to difficult and intensive visa processes in most cases.
Africa’s biggest economy and one of its most influential, Nigeria, is at the end of the travel freedom spectrum, at a pitiful number 95 with Djibouti. Nigeria’s population of 200 million can only travel to 46 countries without obtaining a visa in advance.
Even passport-holders from Samoa and Serbia have a better chance of traveling to most places in the world, visa-free, than those in South Africa, the African continent’s second biggest economy.
Ranked 56, the number of global destinations South African passport-holders can travel to is 100.
It is followed by its southern African neighbor, Botswana, ranking at 62 with a score of 84.
Seychelles, the archipelago country in the Indian Ocean, is Africa’s top-ranking African passport in this regard, at 29 with access to 151 destinations worldwide.
It is quickly followed by Mauritius which is at 32 with a score of 146 destinations passport-holders of this country can visit.
The lowest-ranking African country is Somalia at 104. Passport-holders from this tiny nation in the Horn of Africa can only visit 32 countries without a pre-departure visa
Globally, Asia dominates the list. For the third consecutive year, Japan has secured the top spot on the index — which is based on exclusive data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) — with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 191. Singapore holds on to its second place position with a score of 190.
Executive Travel: Slikour’s Mexico
The South African hip-hop artist and entrepreneur experienced a hurricane and a seismic spiritual shift in the city of Cancun.
It has been a journey, a lot to learn and a lot learned,” says Siyabonga Metane, popularly known on South African hip-hop stages as ‘Slikour’.
The learnings have been in music and business, but the journeys have been beyond both.
Just two years post South Africa’s democratic elections in 1994, Slikour was part of a rap group named Skwatta Kamp, formed on the streets of the country’s Gauteng province, with the aim of commercializing the local hip-hop scene.
The group consisted of seven members and most of them went on to release solo albums. Slikour released two, Ventilation Mix Tape Vol.1 and 2, in 2005 and 2007. Long before that, in 2002, Slikour had turned entrepreneur, co-founding Buttabing Entertainment, a record label and artist management organization.
Today, he is also the founder of SlikourOnLife, a prominent urban culture online publication that he started in 2014 catering to music lovers.
Returning to the word ‘journey’, it especially sparks memories of a trip he undertook in 2011 to Cancun, a Mexican city on the Yucatán Peninsula bordering the Caribbean Sea, known for its beaches, resorts and nightlife. Slikour was there for a television shoot as part of a group. The trip still stands out in his mind.
He was not blown away by the city initially, but as he visited some of Cancun’s tourism attractions, he began to change his perception.
Ultimately, it proved to be what he calls an amazing rendezvous.
“The people were pretty much speaking Spanish,” he chuckles, recalling being immersed in the local culture.
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“There are a lot of laborers there and the people are beautiful and accommodating, but we never really spoke or interacted with the community.”
Slikour decided to savor the city’s famed nightlife instead and see for himself what all the hype was about.
It all began and ended with tequila, a distilled alcoholic drink and one of Mexico’s most famous exports, made of the blue agave plant from the city of Tequila in Mexico.
“Everything you do there is done with tequila. I don’t drink alcohol, but I had to accept and apply myself because there, they don’t use tomato sauce, they use tequila; I literally had to get into the tequila swag; it’s everything there. Tequila started there,” Slikour says.
Mexico is known for its recurring hurricanes too, which Slikour also got a taste of while there.
“After a few days of getting there, we were warned of a hurricane, and asked to close our doors and windows, and because these things happen regularly, there’s a drill to follow. The hurricane wasn’t a major one but I was excited because I wanted to see it. I had to look through the window,” he says.
The hurricanes are so frequent in Mexico that he likens the precautions taken to lighting a candle during South Africa’s frequent power cuts.
Despite this exhilarating encounter with nature, the real earth-shaking experience for him, however, happened deep inside a cave in the city of Cancun – and also deep inside him.
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“My spiritual [epiphany] was when I went into those caves. You go in there with your self-assurance, claiming you understand everything. Thereon, they tell you where everything comes from and all of a sudden, you become this very small thing in this big ecosystem. It just shows how everything affects everything,” Slikour says.
The tour guides explained how everything inside the cave came from rain, elaborating how it was connected to the core of the earth; which is where they were at the time.
Slikour was in Cancun for two weeks, and also visited the pyramids.
“The Mexicans didn’t have all the mathematics that we have now but the pyramids were built to perfection. It just showed you how forward-thinking they were and how behind we are in as much as we think we are forward; we just have technology. We don’t think the way historic societies used to think,” says Slikour, in deep reflection.
Mexico is a place he would return to, anyday, in a heartbeat.
Executive Travel: Reneilwe Letsholonyane’s Manchester
The 37-year-old South African soccer midfielder says he could move to the English city for its sense of serenity and calm.
South Africa’s former national football player Reneilwe ‘Yeye’ Letsholonyane started playing in the streets of Soweto but his fame has often taken him beyond the soccer pitches of South Africa.
Also a fashion entrepreneur and co-founder of the newly-established ShaYe lounge, the veteran midfielder recounts the indelible memories of his most recent holiday to Manchester with his wife, sports presenter Mpho Letsholonyane.
“In the off season of 2018, I had just gotten married. I personally love Jay-Z and my wife loves Beyoncé; and they were having their On The Run 2 tour in Manchester; a major city in the northwest of England.”
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Letsholonyane had also always wanted to go to Paris, a major European city and global center for art, fashion, food and culture, so flew to Manchester via the French capital.
The newly-weds spent a few days in Paris and thereon proceeded to Manchester for the concert, flying Air France on both sectors.
“Funnily enough, the economy class on Air France is not as squashed as the economy class on South African Airlines. You’d expect an uncomfortable flight, but that wasn’t the case. There was enough room to stretch your legs and recline your seat,” says the footballer.
Upon landing and clearing customs, a shuttle was waiting for the two to be chauffeured through the city to their hotel. The 40-minute drive was what the 37-year-old says he enjoyed the most. It made him reflect and draw comparisons between his home country and Europe.
At the age of 23, Letsholonyane’s professional career had kicked-started, but it was in 2008 that he joined one of South Africa’s biggest teams, the Kaizer Chiefs Football Club, for an eight-year stint.
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Receiving the call to represent Bafana Bafana for the 2010 World Cup was a moment he recalls vividly.
“We were at camp, and told to check out from the hotel and go home. We were to find out from the media, like other citizens, if we had been selected to play. I remember I was in the streets and didn’t want to focus on the media because I was nervous, panicking and excited.
“My parents broke the news to me, but there was more cheering in my hometown and outside my parent’s home. A soccer pitch and jersey with my number and surname were painted in the streets.”
It was a moment that led to fame and more travels. He flips back to Manchester, gushing about the city’s architecture as he was equally captivated by the serenity of the city and its mild-mannered people.
“The standalone houses are the kind you see on television, with no walls. People that side don’t seem to be worried about burglaries. It seems like the crime rate is low. It’s quiet and it’s the quiet that I like. I remember saying to my wife, ‘I could stay here’.”
Letsholonyane admits to seeking alone time to think and ruminate.
Ironically, for the footballer, the Beyoncé and Jay-Z concert was in the home of a football club.
Like all tourists, the couple traveled to Etihad Stadium, the home of Manchester City Football Club, where the musical extravaganza was to take place.
“We were told to use the train; luckily, it was a five-minute walk to the station. We got there but the people around us showed us what to do and where to go. We got off at a station, only to find out we had to wait for another train and it was packed. Then I started thinking about the hassle of getting into the stadium,” he says.
Letsholonyane and his wife dribbled their way through busy subways in Manchester to watch their favorite musicians on stage.
“Getting to Etihad Stadium was a pain-free experience. We got there early and people were idling outside. We went straight in and got seats in the front. There was no opening act, just the artists’ music playing.
Then the lights went dimmer and dimmer.
“It was time, we were about 10 meters away, and we saw them closely. Then it started raining. You’d think people would run for cover but no, people were just enjoying themselves. It was two and half hours of Beyoncé and Jay-Z and an experience never to be forgotten,” he says.
It was well after 1AM when the couple reached their hotel. “There was nothing that made us uncomfortable about walking the streets of Manchester at night. It felt like day.”
The night ended with rain, rounding off a day so different from playing under the hot African sun in the soccer fields of South Africa.
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