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One Mother’s Fight To Get Her Daughter Back: The LaMahlangu Scandal

By Kaden Pradhan

London, United Kingdom

Zena Mahlangu next to King Mswati III (front row, right) at an event in 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)

On the morning of October 9, 2002, Lindiwe Dlamini dropped her daughter off at school. She would not see her again for months.

Her daughter, an eighteen-year-old girl named Zena Mahlangu, had fallen victim to an abduction. Special agents of the King of Eswatini, Mswati III, had plucked her from her school and taken her to a restricted site in order to eventually become the King’s bride.

This is the story of one mother’s battle against an absolute monarchy, a constrained judiciary, and a government rife with corruption and human rights violations.

When Dlamini returned to school that evening to pick Zena up, she was surprised to find her daughter had already left. Thinking she might have made her own way, Dlamini headed home, but was shocked when she did not find her there either. That night, stricken with worry, she received a call from her cousin—who informed her that an aide to the King had just admitted over the phone that they had taken Zena.

Dlamini called the aide. She asked him about Zena and he laughed at her. When she told him that she would do anything to get Zena back, he laughed again. Without giving any more details, he told her that Zena was indeed being held by royal authorities.

The next day, Dlamini filed a report with the police. She had learned that the two special agents were named Qethuka Sgombeni Dlamini and Tulujani Sikhondze. She had also discovered that the secure area that Zena was being held at was in the Royal Palace itself, at Ludzidzini. The police never got back to her.

The following day, the two agents-cum-aides paid a visit to Dlamini at her home. They told her that Zena had been given “royal duties” and would be unavailable. Dlamini told them they should not have seized her at her school, and that they should release her right away. The two agents left without any indication they would comply.

Dlamini reflected on what she knew about her daughter’s relationship with Mswati III. The King had first met Zena through a mutual friend, Nozipho Shabangu, first at a reed dance, and then at an official Palace ceremony in September 2002. It is unclear how much contact the two had over these two occasions—whether they spoke at all, or the King merely admired her from afar. Either way, Dlamini knew that what he had done was well out of line and likely illegal.

After speaking to the rest of Zena’s family, Dlamini decided to seek legal advice. After conferring with an attorney, they served a letter to the two agents. It demanded that they return Zena by 5pm the next day, or face a lawsuit. The letter was also forwarded to the Attorney-General of Eswatini.

They received no response, and the deadline was ignored.

The morning after, October 14, Dlamini lodged an emergency application with the High Court. In an affidavit, she told the Court: “I have been denied access to her and her whereabouts have been hidden from me.” She said she was greatly worried about her daughter’s safety due to “the manner of Zena’s abduction.” She asked the judges to obligate the agents to bring Zena to the Court, and subsequently restore her to her mother’s care.

As this case progressed through the legal system, it would become clear that the unspoken power of the royal house severely limited the judges’ authority. Over the next few weeks, the Courts descended into juridical chaos, and Dlamini found herself unable to continue. The case was postponed indefinitely in November 2002. What were the key milestones in the case that led up to this moment?

Qethuka Sgombeni Dlamini and Tulujani Sikhondze both filed affidavits in response to Dlamini’s High Court application. The former denied that he had abducted Zena, instead insisting he had essentially escorted her to the Palace of her own free will. He argued that Zena was in pursuit of the King and looking to start a relationship, so if anyone was at fault, it was Zena herself. The latter stated his only role had been to secure her accommodation.

They both refused to return Zena to Dlamini’s custody, declaring that she was in a “sacred place where no male may enter.”

Dlamini informed the Court that the allegations against her daughter were “false and speculative” and noted that it was easy for them “to make allegations about [her] whilst she [was] detained and no one [had] access to her to ascertain the truth of the allegations.”

The aides said that they did what they did “after getting an instruction from the Ngwenyama (the King). It was only on receiving such instructions that [they] realized that the said Zena may be taken as a bride to His Majesty.”

If it were the case that they were acting on orders of the King, argued Dlamini, then the nation itself was violating international law. Such a situation required immediate rectification. She asked the Court to authorize “the Deputy-Sheriff to proceed to the place where the said child is kept and to take her and restore her to the custody of the Applicant forthwith.”

The Chief Justice of the High Court, Stanley Sapire, consulted with his colleagues over how to proceed. The first indication of difficulty for the Court came when the Attorney-General, Phesheya Dlamini, requested to act as legal counsel for the two special agents. As an official delegate of the King himself, by doing so, the King’s immunity would be waived for the duration of the case. Justice Sapire was worried about the precedent this would set, and so denied the application, instead denoting the Attorney-General pro amicus curiae, essentially an independent advisor to the Court, on questions of Eswatini customs.

This appointment was against the rules of the Court. Worse, Dlamini’s lawyers were not even informed.

Unsurprisingly, the Attorney-General wrote a legal opinion in which he argued that, under Eswatini customs, the King had the right to take girls to be his wives without the consent of a parent. Nonetheless, civil law trumps customary law in the High Court, and Dlaimini’s attorney noted that because Zena was below the age of majority, 21 at the time, parental consent would still be necessary under civil statutes.

The judges needed Zena in court, but the agents-cum-aides continuously denied they had access to the secure site she was being held at. The Court therefore permitted Dlamini’s team to serve an injunctionary document to whoever was in charge at the site.

Dlamini, with attorneys in tow, drove down to the Royal Guest House on the night of October 22. The police officers guarding the restricted area did not allow them access, and would not call their commander to the gate. They rejected the court papers. Eventually, the officers manhandled Dlamini and her team back into their vehicle and forced them to leave.

Two days later, Dlamini was back in front of the judges, requesting a court order to be served to the supervisor of the Guest House, requiring them to bring Zena to court directly. The Court, wary of overreaching into areas of royal authority, did not do this directly but instead sent two court officials, known as ‘curators’, to the site to seek Zena out. The officials were blocked from seeing Zena by Palace supervisors, apparently on the grounds of ‘protocol’. The judges felt they could not act any further in this matter without risk of provoking the King himself, but the confrontation between High Court and Palace officials had already sent serious waves across the Eswatini government. Trouble was brewing.

Soon after the incident, the Attorney-General, together with the Chiefs of Staff of the Royal Eswatini Police Service, the Umbutfo Eswatini Defense Force (a.k.a., the Army), and the Correctional Services, traveled to the High Court judges’ chambers.

There, they repeatedly pressured the judges to either terminate the case, or resign from their posts. They stated this was a “message” from the King.

The judges sought the advice of their superiors in the Appellate Court, who urged them not to discontinue. After conferring further, Chief Justice Sapire announced their decision on October 31. Bravely, they had decided to flout the external strain they were under. They would see the case through.

The Attorney-General responded in a letter that “in the event that you [the judges] elect to proceed with the case, as informed you are expected to tender your resignation immediately upon passing your decision on the matter. In case your resignation letters are not received as stipulated, the Office of the Attorney-General is under strict instructions to submit the relevant instruments for your removal from office.”

Amnesty International later averred that this was a blatant violation of the United Nations Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary, as the Attorney-General had a vested interest in the case and had expressed their willingness to represent the aides.

Amnesty also stated: “These two extraordinary acts of intimidation against the judiciary were an indication of the extent to which the traditional authorities saw as threatening even the somewhat equivocal interventions of the High Court on behalf of the applicant and her daughter. The pattern of intimidation and obstruction showed just how difficult it was to protect the internationally recognized human rights of women and girls, particularly where their rights were violated by unaccountable authorities and in a context of longstanding discrimination and subordination of women.”

After receiving the letter, the Court remained in crisis mode for a few days, unable to ensure its own authority and security of tenure. Eventually, the Attorney-General apologized and retracted his letter, and the Court prepared to proceed—but it was too late. Zena had been publicly announced as the King’s fiancée (liphovela), and had been allowed to speak to her mother over the phone. Dlamini was still barred from face-to-face contact.

If you were expecting a happy ending—a heroic redemption of some kind, or a triumphant moment where the Court sends a SWAT team to recover Zena—then you may be disappointed. This is no fairytale, or primetime CBS show. The corruption, the concealed autocracy of the royal house, the absolute power conferred on the King to violate girls’ and womens’ rights and international laws, ensures the lack of a happy ending.

An exhausted Dlamini asked that the case be postponed, and the Court agreed, suspending it indefinitely. Her daughter became the King’s tenth wife, Queen LaMahlangu Zena, and had two children with him.

Chief Justice Sapire made a formal complaint against the Attorney-General for interfering in the judicial process, and the latter was charged by Lincoln Ng’arua, the Director of Public Prosecutions, with defeating the ends of justice and sedition. Shortly after, however, Ng’arua was forced into a late-night meeting of the mysterious, secretive, and unchecked ‘Thursday Committee.’

Officially known as the Special Committee on Justice, this shadowy group has been chaired by the Prime Minister and usually includes Cabinet Ministers, the Attorney-General, the Police Commissioner, heads of other security services, and royal advisers.

In this meeting, with the accused Attorney-General present, Ng’arua was placed under serious pressure to retract the charges. Later, his office was twice broken into and ransacked by associates of Moi Moi Masilela, a Swazi National Council member and ally of the Attorney-General. Ng’arua was also maliciously prosecuted on an old matter. He couldn’t continue with the constant intimidation and threats. He soon resigned and fled the country. The Attorney-General faced no further action for his alleged offenses.

Dlamini later spoke about all that had occurred. “I love her. Nothing will come in the way of that. I am not happy, but I just want the best for her,” she said. “Fighting now will not help so, in a way, I have lost. The one thing I wanted—to get my daughter back—did not happen. To try and bring her out now, I would have to consider the effect it would have on her … I have been trying to protect her, and the best thing now is to leave her.”

“Is it possible to put the pain into words? I would not like to live through it again, although I have no regrets about the action I took. Fortunately I do not have another daughter for anybody else to try and take away.”

“Although reports say Zena is happy in her new role, I will only be able to judge when we sit down and talk. Over the phone, you can't judge. The king cannot shun me. By virtue of him taking my daughter, we have become family and we must put aside any bad feelings. I will be courteous to him—he is the king of the country.”

“I must just hold Zena's hand through all this, and reassure her that I am here whenever she needs me. I must promise her that I will do the best I can to help her. I don't know what I will be allowed to do or say when I get permission to see her. I will give her a hug, I know that. I am waiting for that day.”

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