Swaziland’s King Wants His Country to Be Called eSwatini
A landlocked, rural nation in southern Africa, Swaziland has significant problems. Nearly a third of the country’s population lives in extreme poverty, and about as many are infected with H.I.V., one of the world’s highest prevalence rates for the virus. Life expectancy is low, around 50. A recent drought and an infestation of armyworms, an invasive species, devastated crops.
So the kingdom’s 1.4 million residents might have been surprised on Thursday when King Mswati III, one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchs, announced the news: The country will henceforth be known as eSwatini, the kingdom’s name in the local language. (It means “land of the Swazis” in the Swazi — or siSwati — tongue.)
The king, who has reigned since 1986, announced the name change — an adjustment, really — during a ceremony in the city of Manzini on Thursday to mark his 50th birthday.
Many African countries upon independence “reverted to their ancient, native names,” The Associated Press quoted the king as saying. “We no longer shall be called Swaziland from today forward.”
According to Reuters, Mswati argued that the kingdom’s name had long caused confusion. “Whenever we go abroad, people refer to us as Switzerland,” the king said, according to Reuters.
The king had used the name eSwatini in recent years, including in addresses to his country’s Parliament, the United Nations General Assembly and the African Union. He said that the kingdom was reverting to its original name, before the advent of British colonization in 1906.
When Swaziland gained independence from Britain on Sept. 6, 1968, it retained its colonial-era name, unlike several other former British colonies in the region.
Nyasaland became Malawi on achieving independence in 1964. Months later, Northern Rhodesia achieved nationhood as the new republic of Zambia. In 1966, Bechuanaland was reborn as Botswana, and Basutoland changed its name to Lesotho. Rhodesia, following a 14-year period of white-minority rule that was not internationally recognized, became the new nation of Zimbabwe in 1980.
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But several former British colonies in Africa — like Uganda, Kenya and Gambia — did not change their names upon gaining independence.
A mountainous country slightly smaller than New Jersey, Swaziland is economically reliant on South Africa. For decades, Swazi men have worked in South African coal and gold mines.
Mswati inherited the kingdom from his father, Sobhuza II, who reigned for 82 years until his death in 1982. (His mother served as regent when Mswati was still a teenager, and officially remains a joint ruler of the kingdom.)
The king has parried calls for democratic reforms over his three-decade reign. Under a Constitution that was adopted in 2006, Swaziland is officially an absolute monarchy, though the king can no longer rule by decree. The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary and for human rights, but the status of political parties, which were formally banned in 1973, remains unclear. Parliamentary elections were held in 2008 and 2013 and are expected again in September.
Human rights observers have often faulted the kingdom for its lack of democracy and its suppression of dissent. The king has also developed a reputation as a playboy, with a taste for luxury cars and foreign travel. A New York Times correspondent who visited in 2012 found that Swazis accepted the monarchical tradition but desired more political openness.
Whether the name change will stick is another question. In 2016, Czech officials put forward Czechia as the preferred short version of the name of their country. The United Nations, the United States government and — crucially, in the digital age — Google Maps and Apple have complied, but the name Czech Republic remains in widespread use in English.
A version of this article appears in print on April 20, 2018, on Page A9 of the New York edition with the headline: Absolute King Of Swaziland Gives Realm A New Name. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe