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The Royal Family of Swaziland Raises Awareness About AIDS

In 1995 the Apartheid era came to an end in South Africa, yet many still found themselves shouldering Apartheid’s tragic legacy. Their escape was Swaziland. The landlocked country within South Africa became a destination for South Africans, both Black and White, to unwind and seek a different perspective on South Africa’s remaining tensions. However, Swaziland was not without its own hardships.

An AIDS/HIV Awareness Billboard in Swaziland (2007) | HEARD
An AIDS/HIV Awareness Billboard in Swaziland (2007) | HEARD

At the time, approximately 22 percent of Swaziland was infected with HIV/AIDS—a daunting number that almost went unrecognized. People traveling back and forth from South Africa to Swaziland would carry and spread the disease, not knowing if they were infected or not. The infection rate was later estimated to be around 25 or 30 percent, giving it the highest prevalence of infection out of any nation in the world. Swaziland’s marginalized and criminalized groups, such as sex workers, were estimated to have the world’s highest prevalence at 60.8 percent. With the stigma surrounding the disease and the lack of public knowledge about its transmission, the silent epidemic ravaged the nation; hospitals were overwhelmed with an excess of patients disguised as TB (tuberculosis) diagnoses.

Salvation came in the form of Swaziland’s royal family. The young and curious King Mswati III was a stark contrast to the traditionalist Queen Mother. In this “moment” in diplomatic history, we see that King Mswati III, in coordination with the U.S. Chief of Mission for Swaziland, raised awareness of the epidemic.

John T. Sprott was appointed Ambassador to Swaziland and arrived at his post in February 1994.

John T. Sprott’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on October 15,1998.

Read John T. Sprott’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Joyce Ma

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Excerpts:

“So the whole idea was that until the king and the royal family recognized this, the average Swazi either chose not to believe it.”

           
King Mswati III | Britannica
King Mswati III | Britannica

How the AIDS Epidemic in Swaziland Came to Be:
Q: In Swaziland you were there from when to when?

SPROTT: I arrived there in January of 1994 and left in August of 1996.

Q: When you went out there, what were you getting from the country desk.You know, you read in and all that, were there any issues, problems, concerns?

SPROTT: Well, there were several issues, I guess. Remember that 1995 was the year scheduled for the elections in South Africa, so there was a focus on that. Swaziland was and remains to a degree still, but was especially then, a country to which a lot of South Africans went for relaxation away from some of the tensions that existed in South Africa. It is also a country in which there were a fair number of Coloreds and mixed-marriage people who worked in South Africa and lived in Swaziland because they wouldn’t have been able to live in South Africa. The nature of the country itself provided an ideal kind of location to listen and watch what was going on and get a slightly different dimension on some of the things that were taking place in South Africa.

SPROTT: What, HIV/AIDS (Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)? Well, it’s the infection of the immune system, where the immune system doesn’t work. Anyway, in Swaziland we were calculating when I got there that the rate of infection and the number of people with the HIV or AIDS—I guess you call them HIV-infected and AIDS patients—was running around 22 per cent of the population. I’ve since seen numbers that are now claiming that it’s closer to 25 and perhaps 30 percent, which is kind of where a plateau is reached, I gather, in the epidemic of this sort. At any rate, there was almost no recognition of this at all, and yet you could go to a hospital, which I did in several cases, and you see these huge wards of TB (tuberculosis) patients, and TB is one of the outcomes of HIV infection in many of these countries—even doctors got TB. I can remember two hospitals I went into. The room was probably 20 feet wide, something of that nature, and had rows of these beds, those little cots that you probably would associate with the military, and they had people sleeping on 110 top of those cots and below the cots on the floor, and you couldn’t walk, hardly, between the beds, they were so close. This was jam-packed with people, all with TB.

In fact, a doctor admitted to me privately that a good portion of these people were in fact HIV or AIDS patients, but they were not so recognized publicly because the system didn’t want to. We finally were able to get the Swazis, the king, to mention this in his annual opening of parliament, and that was like a floodgate in permitting people to talk about it openly, and we got the royal family to do some family planning, led by the queen mother, and this, too, began to have its impact. So the whole idea was that until the king and the royal family recognized this, the average Swazi either chose not to believe it, couldn’t believe it openly, because that would be going against the beliefs of the royal family, the king and queen mother—which is the way they think on many issues—so we couldn’t do as much. You would have to rely upon the monarchists.

So HIV/AIDS was one issue. The next issue was family planning which we were doing through AID in this case, but other sources as well. The family planning program was as much about HIV/AIDS as it was anything, although it sought to educate families on ways in which they could better plan, the traditional reason for family planning. But the impetus, I think, in many respects, was the HIV/AIDS infection, to try to help reduce that, although, frankly, one of the causes of it, the spread of that infection, was the large number of Swazis who were miners in South Africa, and the infection rate amongst those miners is quite high, largely because they work in the mine area for fairly long periods of time, and the use of prostitution is very high.

The families were not permitted to accompany them, and so they would go off. Sometimes they didn’t ever come back, but in many cases they did come back. They would come back for short periods of time and infect the family and then leave again. The miners were unaware of the infection, so it wasn’t something that they did deliberately. Studies have now shown also that truckers have been responsible for a fair amount of this, too, and there was a fair amount of truck traffic that went through from Swaziland into South Africa and vice versa and through other countries, into Botswana, for example, and ultimately also from Mozambique over and back and forth.

The Royal Family of Swaziland:
Q: The king was obviously the center of things. Would you talk about the king, how you saw him, how he operated, and our relationship with him?

SPROTT: Well, first, I think, our relationship with the king was very good, certainly by all external accounts, that is accounts by people who knew him and knew about relations with various countries, including the U.S. King Mswati III. He’s a young man. At that point he was 25 or had just turned 26 when I arrived. At that point he had been king since he was 18, and at that point he had six wives, had six and reputedly has gained a new one in 1998, which would give him seven wives. But he had been king then long enough to have a fair number of ideas of his own, to have established himself within the royal family in certain policy areas, and to have developed some kinds of dependable power relationships within the royal family. The royal family is very large, and it’s fairly powerful. There are really kind of, I think, two sides. There is the queen mother, who rules with the king, and they are equal in terms of ruling, but she tends to be more on the traditional side than he. Her public is on tradition and those things that make a difference on the traditional side, which is not to say he is not traditional, that he isn’t interested—it’s just that that’s her area of prime interest. In that way, she would control things that he would do, or the others, who were the traditionals, would through her impact on him and his decision making if they saw a decision that he might make that would affect the tradition.

For example, what we were just talking about in terms of commerce. If there was a threat to the area of the chiefs or the chieftainships, that would show up first in the traditional area, and the queen mother and others would put pressure on him not to move quickly or not to dramatically change, because that’s where they got their support and their power. So there was this playing of different political positions generated from the traditional side of the society as well as those from the more modern side of society that the king found himself having to manage. I think by the time I got there, he had positioned himself so that he had much more ability to manage that set of relationships than he had certainly when he first was king at age 18. This made things much easier, but it also made him more thoughtful about the speed with which he would be able to make change.

I was able to develop a relationship fairly quickly for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. I think he was comfortable with me, we were able to at the very outset have long solitary (that is, no one around us) discussions ranging from raising cattle. . . . Remember having come from northern Arizona. . . . Incidentally, the land area around Swaziland, particularly the middle veldt and the upper veldt—well, I guess the southern veldt a little bit, too—was very much like my home area, and cattle raising was also very much what took place where I came from, as was high country farming. So I was not totally ignorant of a lot of the things that people were dealing with there; and perhaps that gave me something to talk to him about. So we dealt with environmental issues, I was able to make a connection between the cattle or the sheep or the pigs or chickens, or whatever it may have been, in ways that were less academic and more practical in terms of the dirt farmer. Maybe that was part of it.

Maybe a part of it was that, I guess, having been a teacher for enough years I was able to talk with him in a way that wasn’t talking down to him on the one hand and wasn’t using, from his point of view, “diplomatic-speak.” I was able to be straightforward, and I very often used examples to explain things rather than jumping right into something and saying, “This is the way it has to be.” So I generated the discussion around and moved it in a direction, and it was helpful to him, I think, to have those discussions and have that interchange, and he would very often say, “I can’t do it that way. Don’t you see? This will interfere with the chiefs in that area who are very strong, and at this point I can’t get them to do this,” or “This will affect the way the agreement with the sugar companies had been set up, and if I change that, then I have to change something else, and this impacts on . . .”—and that’s the kind of discussion we were able to have in many cases. But some of that was generated by him to kind of try in his own way to work out what was possible. So that relationship, I think, started almost—I think I’d been there only about a month, and he called me down to the palace, the main palace, and I went there and after waiting a few minutes, noticing a large number of senators and parliamentarians and others sitting around, I was called, and we went and sat under a big tree out in the palace grounds, which was a very fascinating thing to do with probably 20 people off maybe 20 yards from us—he shooed them all off. Some of them tried to sit down around him, and he said, “No, no, go away.” And so that was the beginning. We talked for almost two hours under that tree, and it was a wide-ranging discussion. I didn’t try to impose on him in any way. What I try to do is use that opportunity to get to know him and for him to get to know me.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA, Northern Arizona University 1955–1959
PhD in Economics, University of Colorado 1959–1964
Joined the Foreign Service 1965
Arlington, VA—Dean of FSI School of Professional Studies 1975–1981
Chile—Head of Joint Economic Section 1968–1971
Arlington, VA—Deputy Director of FSI 1981–1993
Swaziland—Ambassador 1994–1996