Lobamba — 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 HIV, one of the world’s highest prevalence rates for the virus. Life expectancy is about 50. A recent drought and an infestation of armyworms devastated crops.
So the kingdom’s 1.4 million residents might have been surprised 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 UN General Assembly and the African Union. He said the kingdom was reverting to its original name, before the advent of British colonisation in 1906.
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.)
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.