King Mswati III of eSwatini arrives at Bole International Airport ahead of the 29th African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on July 2 2017. File Picture: GETTY/MINASSE WONDIMU HAILU/ANADOLU AGENCY
King Mswati III of eSwatini arrives at Bole International Airport ahead of the 29th African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on July 2 2017. File Picture: GETTY/MINASSE WONDIMU HAILU/ANADOLU AGENCY

At the main campus entrance, a large concrete sign welcomes students and visitors to "The University of..." followed by a blank space.

After Swaziland changed its name earlier in 2018 to eSwatini, the nine letters spelling out the old name of the country were removed from the university sign, and new letters have not yet arrived.

"We are still waiting," said a security guard at the gate.

On the other side of the road, Banele Syabonga contemplated his country's sudden change of name in April, which took many citizens by surprise.

"I like the new name — it is more African," Syabonga, who is unemployed, said, standing outside Lucky's Hair Cut shop, a tin shack in Manzini, the second city of what is now known as eSwatini.

"Swaziland was the British name. Now we have our own," he said, addressing one of the contentious debates about the new title.

In April, King Mswati III — one of the world's last absolute rulers — marked 50 years since his country's independence from British colonial rule by announcing that it would now be known as eSwatini ("land of the Swazis").

The monarch's decision, taken without warning or consultation, revealed much about his autocratic rule and his country's history — as well as posing a logistical challenge as the name change came into immediate effect. Six weeks after the king's pronouncement, the country's representative informed the UN headquarters in New York, and the UN soon adopted the new nomenclature.

Regional bodies, including the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), have also quickly changed to eSwatini — though they sometimes swap between names in the same statement.

The adjustment has taken some getting used to inside eSwatini, a landlocked nation of just 1.3-million residents between SA and Mozambique. Senior Swazi officials speaking to AFP during a visit last week repeatedly had to stop and correct themselves mid-sentence.

It is "Swaziland" on the banknotes, but the central bank now uses "eSwatini", while police stations are gradually changing their signs.

‘Name is your identity’

Unlike many countries, such as Zimbabwe — called Southern Rhodesia under British rule — did not change its name when it became independent in 1968.

"African countries on getting independence reverted to their ancient names before they were colonised," the king said when he announced the change, having previously complained that Swaziland was often confused with Switzerland.

But the king's claim that eSwatini was Swaziland's old "authentic" name is fiercely disputed.

“There is disagreement over the pre-colonial name  — many say it was actually ‘Ngwane’,” Thulani Maseko, an activist and lawyer who is challenging the name change in court, said in the capital Mbabane.

Ngwane was an ancient name for the Swazi people who settled in the south of the country under King Ngwane III, who ruled in the 18th century. Swaziland takes its name from King Mswati II, who ruled between 1840 and 1868. The area came under joint British and Boer rule in 1894 before becoming a British territory in 1907.

"The name of your country is your identity, so it should not be changed by just one person issuing a royal command," Maseko said.

"It tells you that the king does not consult with the people when he makes fundamental decisions."

Maseko spent 15 months in jail in 2014-2015 for contempt of court after writing about lack of judicial independence, and he accepts that his legal battle over his country's name faces tough odds.

But he wants to take a stand against the king's all-encompassing authority. The country held elections in September in a vote that was dismissed as a farce by critics because the constitution grants the king complete control over parliament and all branches of the state.

The country is impoverished — in sharp contrast to the king's lavish lifestyle —and the name change is estimated to cost the government up to $6m.

Percy Simelane, the government spokesperson, declined to comment to AFP, saying the court case made the matter subjudice.

The name "eSwatini" did not come out of the blue. It is used in the local siSwati language and has appeared for years as the country's sub-title on national passports.

But for souvenir seller Thoko Nkambule, it has been an unwelcome disruption to business. She offers beaded necklaces, leather bracelets and carved wooden fridge magnets all skilfully spelling out "Swaziland" or now increasingly "eSwatini".

"We are changing step by step," she said. "Some buyers want the old name, some want the new name. Personally, I prefer the old one."