Reporter: Tara Brown
Producer: Stephen Taylor
He's Mswati The Third, the absolute ruler of Swaziland. And he's on the lookout for another bride.
Now Mswati's no ordinary monarch. He leads an extraordinary, exotic life. At 38, he's accumulated 12 or 13 wives and, we think, 27 children. We think because royal protocol forbids mere commoners knowing such personal details.
But in a rare audience with His Majesty, we were able to raise these and other, more serious, questions about the king and his kingdom.
TARA BROWN: Once a year, the stunning young women of Swaziland do what they've done for centuries. In wave after wave, they come from all corners of the country to perform in the reed festival, a spectacular dance of pride. This has to be one of the great sights. It's colourful, it's noisy, and it's the real thing. This celebration isn't being put on for the tourist there are hardly any tourists here. All these young women and there are something like 100,000 of them are dancing for their king and their country. Why is the modern woman doing this?
SWAZI WOMAN: I'm a Swazi and it's my culture, so I have to do it.
TARA BROWN: And Swaziland's ruler, His Majesty King Mswati III, clearly likes what he sees. It's not often you get so close to a culture so different to ours. It's even rarer to be invited to meet a king.
Hello, Your Majesty, nice to meet you. My name is Tara.
KING MSWATI III: How are you?
TARA BROWN: I'm very well, thank you. Greetings from Australia.
Protocol and politeness make this a slightly awkward audience between King and commoner, until we compare countries.
KING MSWATI III: And, of course, you've managed to overcome all the problems, the challenges of unemployment, poverty. We are still going through that process of fighting them.
TARA BROWN: He's right. His tiny, impoverished country faces huge problems, but King Mswati is also condemned. The critics say he's a despot.
Some of the criticism about you is that you are running the country into the ground.
KING MSWATI III: That's right.
TARA BROWN: And that you are one of the 10 worst dictators in the world.
KING MSWATI III: Well, I was surprised when I saw that and I even asked myself, "What is a dictator in this world?" I don't know if people know the definition of a dictator.
TARA BROWN: So you are not a dictator?
KING MSWATI III: I don't consider myself to be a dictator, never at all.
TARA BROWN: Certainly he is an absolute monarch, but in my time in Swaziland, the king didn't show any signs of running the place like a dictator, certainly not like Africa's supreme tyrant Robert Mugabe. At 38, King Mswati III is a young man ruling an old culture.
first met King Mswati as a gentle 18-year-old. It was his coronation and it was 20 years ago.
KING MSWATI III: It's interesting to see myself, that I used to look like this, so young.
TARA BROWN: This is the first time he's seen our footage of the day he became the 'Lion King' of Swaziland. You look a bit unsure of yourself here.
KING MSWATI III: When people are looking at you, it's something to worry sometimes.
TARA BROWN: It's something you have to get used to as a king.
KING MSWATI III: Now I've got used to it. At that time, I was really not used to it.
TARA BROWN: But, 20 years on, he's become very used to the regal lifestyle, according to those who say his legacy is one of lavish excess, while 70 percent of the population is destitute.
One big criticism is that you are a big spender despite the poverty of your people. Is that true?
KING MSWATI III: They don't know what they are talking about. They haven't got that information. Speculation, that's what they do, they speculate, saying I'm a big spender.
TARA BROWN: Are you a big spender?
KING MSWATI III: I am not a big spender. It's not true.
TARA BROWN: Do you call her "Your Majesty"?
SIHLE DLAMINI: Yes, it's "Your Majesty".
TARA BROWN: Having met the most important man in the land, I'm now invited to meet the most important woman, not any of the king's wives, they are off-limit, but the king's mother the Queen mother.
Hello, Your Majesty, it's very nice to meet you.
My translator is the urbane Sihle Dlamini, who, when in the presence of the King and the Queen Mother, is, as you can see, on his knees.
SIHLE DLAMINI: It's a sign of respect.
TARA BROWN: But you are a professional man, you are an adult. Do you sometimes feel like you are not being shown respect?
SIHLE DLAMINI: No, it's a part of us. If I don't kneel, I feel I'm very disrespectful.
TARA BROWN: Swaziland is a kingdom of just over 1 million people. It's a tiny pocket, a quarter the size of Tasmania, tucked between South Africa and Mozambique. With little industry, tourism is the great hope. This rhinoceros breeding program is a pet project of the king's, but it's His Majesty's personal life and his country's practice of polygamy that raises eyebrows and opposition. Polygamy is something we find very difficult to understand in our culture.
KING MSWATI III: The society, at the moment they feel that it is important to continue practising that.
TARA BROWN: And why is that?
KING MSWATI III: Well, you have to ask the society, so I don't know.
TARA BROWN: But you are part of the society, you are the leader of Swaziland.
KING MSWATI III: Yes, that's right.
TARA BROWN: You don't know why it's a good idea?
KING MSWATI III: I have to really ask them myself that why, why they think it's such a good idea.
TARA BROWN: You are not supposed to talk to the King about these sorts of things, but we believe he has 12 wives and one fiancée, still a long way off his father's tally of 70 or so wives, and word is already King Mswati has almost 30 royal children. I understand that protocol stops me from asking you how many wives you have.
KING MSWATI III: Yes.
TARA BROWN: But can I ask you how many wives you would like to have?
KING MSWATI III: Well, even then, still, protocol would not allow us to say how many we would like to have.
TARA BROWN: And I know I cannot ask you how many children you have, but can I ask you how many children you would like to have?
KING MSWATI III: I think I would like to have, you know, a good number.
TARA BROWN: What is a good number?
KING MSWATI III: It's just a very good number. That's what I would like to have.
TARA BROWN: For all the tradition and ancient rituals of Swaziland, this country is being decimated by a very modern disease, and the figures are tragic. If you are a woman, your life expectancy is 33.
If you are man, chances are you won't make it past 32. That's right, 32. These people are being cut down in their prime by HIV, and despite a very intense education program like this, infection rates are still one of the highest in the world. What would you say the rate of HIV is in this country at the moment?
DR AUSTIN EZEOGU: Between 40 percent to 46 percent.
TARA BROWN: That's very, very high.
DR AUSTIN EZEOGU: I know, it is.
TARA BROWN: Can you believe 40-46 percent?
Dr Austin Ezeogu is taking me on a tour of one of Swaziland's best hospitals, but still, it's awful. The overcrowding, the sickness, the deaths of so many, so young. But HIV doesn't have to be a death sentence, does it?
DR AUSTIN EZEOGU: No.
TARA BROWN: So why is it still taking lives here?
DR AUSTIN EZEOGU: The fear of the stigma, so by the time they come it's already too late.
TARA BROWN: And they've infected other people.
DR AUSTIN EZEOGU: Other people, yes.
TARA BROWN: And these are the children left behind. There's something like 100,000 orphans in Swaziland. That's 10 percent of the population. Again, because of stigma, children aren't tested for HIV. But the king has decreed these little ones will be looked after. He's ordered the chief's wives to set up orphanages across the country.
TARA BROWN: To think that the average child won't reach the age of 40 is shocking, isn't it?
KING MSWATI III: Yes, it is definitely shocking. And when you see the many young ones dying and all that, it's something which really touches our heart.
TARA BROWN: The reed festival is a chance for these young Swazi virgins to celebrate their chastity. But the King has gone a step further. To fight HIV, he introduced a program of abstinence girls under 18 asked to give up sex for five years.
KING MSWATI III: And I was so happy to see that the figures of the HIV AIDS rate from their age group, it decreased a lot. So it helped the country very much.
TARA BROWN: Did you worry at all that the young people might say, 'Well the King has so many wives, he has so many children, and yet we must abstain?'
KING MSWATI III: We don't discuss how the King should take, and how he should not take. It's not something we debate.
TARA BROWN: Does the King get much criticism in Swaziland?
KING MSWATI III: I don't know.
SIHLE DLAMINI: The King is trying his level best with the Government to provide services and delivery to the people.
TARA BROWN: Would you tell me if you thought he was a bad king?
SIHLE DLAMINI: I would tell you.
TARA BROWN: No, you wouldn't.
SIHLE DLAMINI: I would tell you. I would tell you, but as far as I'm concerned, the King is doing all his best.
TARA BROWN: Clearly, the Swazi girls see the reed festival as a time for celebration. It's a breathtaking spectacle and legend has it the King may even choose his next queen from their ranks.
As part of tradition, the girls must cut a reed for their king.
This year the first to do so is his eldest child, 19-year-old Princess Sikhanyiso.
You might have guessed, she's currently studying in California.
PRINCESS SIKHANYISO: Thank you.
TARA BROWN: What does your dad think of the rap?
PRINCESS SIKHANYISO: My dad thinks I'm sick with it. He thinks I'm good.
TARA BROWN: Standing here, you look like a child of America.
PRINCESS SIKHANYISO: Oh, really?
TARA BROWN: A little, yeah.
PRINCESS SIKHANYISO: They always are shocked when I tell them I'm from Africa. Like 'No, you're not', 'Yes, I am.'
TARA BROWN: Are you proud to be from Africa?
PRINCESS SIKHANYISO: Of course. Gosh, I don't like the way they think they are the only ones that look good. Not that I'm saying I look good, but I don't look too shabby either.
TARA BROWN: You don't look shabby at all.
Leading the dancing on the last day of the festival, the globetrotting princess is first and foremost a proud Swazi.
Has your daughter taught you a bit of rap?
KING MSWATI III: She had sung for me, did a bit of rapping for me, but me, I don't know how to do it.
TARA BROWN: But this dancing king isn't a monarch stuck in the past. With all his nation's problems, he knows he needs to rule a modern Swaziland if both King and country are to survive.
KING MSWATI III: It is a big challenge, but we have to balance it. I always like to make an example, as a piano you play one key, it will not produce very nice music, so in order to produce good music, you need the both keys to play in a piano. So the same thing with our case, if you have the traditions and the modernity you mix it together, it works well.
TARA BROWN: But you have to get the notes right for the music to sound good.
KING MSWATI III: Definitely, yes.
TARA BROWN: So you are getting the notes right, are you?
KING MSWATI III: I'm trying my best.