Mswati III

'IT has been our advice to the King that he must concentrate on one thing at a time,' admitted a senior Prince close to King Mswati III of Swaziland. 'He must stop mixing family affairs with national issues because that's the thing that has caused him the stress.'

King Mswati himself was not so sure. 'I find very little time with my family most of the time,' he revealed. 'I normally work until 11.00 pm... and this makes me feel stressed because I'm being over-worked.'

Pacifying his 200 siblings, 13 wives and 24 children is a major undertaking for the stressedout 37-year-old. He still has some way to go to match his father, King Sobhuza II, who had 70 wives and ruled for 61 years, from 1921 to his death in 1982 at the age of 82. But the relatively youthful Mswati is in deep trouble already. His first wife, Queen LaMbikiza, defied royal tradition and trained as a lawyer. She is now trying to ensure that her first-born son, Prince Lindani, succeeds to the throne. Scandal erupted when Mswati abducted his 18-year-old tenth wife, whose mother took him to court. The incident prompted vigorous protests from Swaziland's women's movement.

Though publicly he keeps a beatific royal smile firmly in place, things don't look set to get much easier for the morose monarch. He frequently resorts to consumer therapy, including $16 million on palaces for each of his spouses and a proposed $45 million on a royal jet to get him away from it all. Having acquired the world's most expensive car for himself - the $500,000 'Maybach', complete with DVD player, 21-speaker surround-sound system, fridge and silver champagne flutes - in 2004 he lavished $820,000 on a fleet of luxury BMW saloons for his wives. His birthday party for 10,000 guests in the national football stadium cost an estimated $600,000.

In 2003 (when Mswati planned to buy his royal jet) the World Food Programme announced that 250,000 people - a quarter of the population - were facing starvation. The year before, Swaziland was named by the UN as the most HIV-infected country in the world - almost 40 per cent are now HIV positive. Life expectancy, which a decade ago was 61, has fallen to 37 and will soon hit 30. Mswati's response was to send a prospective wife to South Africa for HIV screening, to forbid all men (except himself ) from sleeping with teenage girls and to propose a concert by Michael Jackson to raise funds for an orphanage.

By the age of five Mswati is said to have shown a precocious interest in military uniforms. He was dispatched to the British 'public' school Sherborne - 'for those who seek an all-round high quality education, based on Christian principles, in a non-urban environment' - which charges fees of almost $30,000 a year. After his father's death he returned home to await his coming of age in 1986, when he was crowned.

At the time, the monarchy in Swaziland had two great assets. The first was that, as South Africa's neighbour, the country received plentiful cash from businesses out to evade economic sanctions against the apartheid regime. South African Premier PW Botha attended Mswati's coronation. That first advantage was lost with the overthrow of apartheid in 1994. But the second - the suspension of the Constitution and the banning of political parties - has survived intact since 1973.

The people of Swaziland are often described as 'naturally conservative' and 'loyal' to the monarchy. Mswati has surely been testing that loyalty to the limit. He has, for example, instructed soldiers to patrol the streets of the capital, Mbabane, and 'strip the trousers from women in pants and tear them in pieces'. All schoolchildren - except the King's, who are privately educated - are required to weed 10 vast royal 'fields' once a year for a least a week, which on a whim he sometimes extends to two or more, even into school terms.

Mswati recently told a gathering of 500 religious leaders that democracy was, in his view, 'a fashion unsuitable for Swaziland'. Opposition, by the banned Pudemo party and from the women's movement, continues unabated. The Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions organizes frequent strikes and its leader, Jan Sithole, has spent many years in jail.

This 'island of dictatorship in a sea of democracy', as Swaziland is sometimes now described, seems unlikely to keep Mswati afloat - and in the style to which he is accustomed - for very much longer.