It has been 15 years since Phillipa Mdluli met her maker here on the gallows of Africa's mile-high kingdom.
A mother and notable businesswoman, Mdluli was hanged for the ritual murder of her domestic worker's daughter, whose body had been mutilated in the mystic belief that certain human flesh carries magical powers.
This month, Daniel Mbhundlana Dlamini was handed an appointment with the executioner for an equally grisly crime. The cattle farmer was sentenced to hang for the ritual slaying of a 9-year-old boy.
Mdluli is long dead, the last person to be executed in Swaziland. Dlamini is supposed to join her soon. But Swazi officials have stumbled upon an awkward problem: They have no hangman to slip the knot.
To put it more precisely, says Justice Minister Maweni Simelane, Swaziland is in urgent need of a "hangperson"--an able-bodied man or woman "who has what it takes" to clear death row at the crowded Matsapha Central Prison.
"I must indicate that women are welcome," Maweni recently announced to the media. "I therefore advise them to try their luck."
Swaziland, a towering notch of a country carved from the rugged high veld on the eastern edge of South Africa, wants to put its executioner to work before the end of the year.
But although Maweni has revealed that "most people are over the moon with excitement" about the opening--inquiries have come from across southern Africa, government officials say--the public search has caught just about everyone in Swaziland by surprise because it has been so long since the last hanging.
Death Penalty Hasn't Been Significant Issue
The unusual job posting has also had the unintended effect of drawing attention to the country's intractable problems of crime and punishment, something Swazi officials would just as soon keep quiet.
"If you get the vibes in this country, crime is such that you can feel the time is not far off when people will start demanding executions," said Cosmo Nkonyeni, director of the Swaziland Assn. for Crime Prevention and the Rehabilitation of Offenders. "There is a feeling that there must be that stick hanging overhead for people not to let the devil run in them."
For most of the past 15 years, no one spoke much about the country's death penalty because it was rarely imposed and never carried out.
Although King Mswati III does not rule with an iron fist, the country's cumbersome marriage of traditional and quasi-parliamentary governance leaves little room for questioning royal prerogatives, which include choosing wives--he has six--and having final say over when to tighten the noose.
"So far the [condemned] people have just been sitting in prison," said Jabulani Maseko, the country's senior prosecutor. "The king is head of all organs of government: the judiciary, the executive and the legislative. . . . The king is the main man. Nothing can happen without him."
So little attention has been paid to those on death row that the king's legal advisor says he had no idea that the gallows were even untended.
Prosecutor Maseko said no one told him that the position was going to be filled. Human rights advocates said they are furious about the prospect of renewed executions. And the prison chief, irritated by all the sudden fuss, refused to discuss the subject.
"When it happens, it is going to be done quietly and professionally, and no one is going to know," said Mnguni Simelane, commissioner for correctional services. "We don't have public executions, and we don't advertise in newspapers for hangmen."
The general confusion extends to questions about the previous holder of the gallows post, whom no one can recall seeing much after he disposed of Mdluli in 1983. One popular explanation has him quitting out of boredom. Another version has him mysteriously missing. Still another says he slipped back to his native South Africa, where he remained on call until the new African National Congress-led government outlawed capital punishment and forced him into retirement.
Since details about the country's executioner, above all his identity, are official state secrets, authorities offer only cryptic clues.
"If you are the hangman, no one wants to get close to you," said Muntu Mswane, minister of public service and information. "You have no friends. It is a lonely job."
With the sentencing of Dlamini on March 4, death row at the red brick Matsapha Central Prison has swollen to nine, a modest number by American standards but overwhelming for a country of about a million--not much bigger than San Jose.
It is the largest death row contingent anyone can recall during the 12-year reign of Mswati, who has yet to authorize an execution.
Reluctance About Executions Declining
Until now, Mswati, who turns 30 next month, has developed a reputation for leniency, using official holidays and royal celebrations to commute death sentences to life terms and life terms to 15 or 20 years.
In at least one instance, officials said, a murderer sentenced to the gallows is once again walking the streets, thanks to the young king's compassion.
"Personally, the king is reluctant to be associated with an event that leads to carrying out the death penalty," said James Dlamini, a legal advisor to the monarch and a former attorney general. "Being a small society, people in Swaziland tend to have that partiality. Even the authorities are reluctant to put criminals on death row."
But times have been changing.
Officials say most of the country's condemned murderers have been handed their fateful sentences in the past several years, a grim reflection of persistent violent crime in the kingdom and the growing perception that the courts need to crack down on it.
The criminal activity, which includes about five armed robberies a day and an equal number of homicides each week, is blamed on unemployment of 22% and spillover from neighboring South Africa, which has one of the world's highest recorded crime rates.
During the first two months of this year, Swazi authorities reported last week, there were 101 rapes, about half of the yearly total in 1992.
"Too many people are unemployed, too many people are idle in the streets, and the few with work are underpaid," said Zonke Magagula, a defense lawyer who represented an out-of-work security guard sentenced to death in 1996. "Crime is getting to the point where we need a law to deal with mob justice. People are taking the law into their own hands."
In one recent incident, a visiting South African motorist was clubbed to death by an angry crowd after his vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian. In other cases, authorities say, criminals given sentences deemed too light by the community have been attacked, or their families have been beaten and run out of town.
Several of the death row inmates, including newcomer Daniel Dlamini, were convicted of muti murders, the ritual killing for body parts that is an age-old practice here and in some other regions of Africa. But officials said the others are common criminals sentenced to the gallows after showing no remorse for having killed while committing armed robbery and other more contemporary offenses.
"Right now, about 80% of the cases before the High Court of Swaziland deal with murder," prosecutor Maseko said. "Even in carjackings, people are now getting killed. There is no end to it."
Some See Economic Benefits in New Policy
The sudden spotlight on the gallows may be directed at a larger audience as well. Swaziland has long struggled in the shadow of its giant neighbor to the west, in both good times and bad. The death penalty, some here say, is emerging as a distinguishing trait for the underdog in its unavoidably David-versus-Goliath-style relationship with South Africa.
"The trend now is for our government to try to capitalize on South Africa's unpopularity," said Magagula, the defense attorney. "The thinking is that maybe the many people in South Africa who still support the death penalty will consider coming here--people with money and people who want to invest."
Mswati has not said if the search for an executioner comes with a royal blessing.
The first test will come later in the year, when the country marks its 30th year of independence. Not so long ago, such an occasion would be highlighted by royal gestures of clemency.
The inmates on death row are hoping that the benevolent tradition continues, but other Swazis are doubtful.
The showy search for a hangman, many here suspect, is meant to scare potential criminals into behaving, even if the government has no real intention of reopening the gallows.
In the words of royal advisor Dlamini: "It may just be a matter of giving people the impression that they can't get away with murder."