King cancels World Aids Day in Swaziland

Events marking World Aids Day were cancelled by royal decree on Thursday in Africa’s last absolute monarchy because they clashed with a traditional ceremony scheduled for the same day.

The announcement shocked activists in a country where more than 38% of the one-million population are infected with HIV, the virus that causes Aids.

Prime Minister Themba Dlamini had been expected to give a speech about the crisis at an event marked by traditional dancing and drama in the rural Mtfongwani area, about 55km east of the capital, Mbabane.

But at the last minute, Jim Gama, the governor of Ludzidzini royal residence, announced the start of the month-long Incwala ritual culminating with the presentation of the first fruits of the harvest to King Mswati III. No other events are allowed to take place during this sacred period.

Health Minister Sipho Shongwe, who is also a traditional chief, promised the kingdom would hold its own HIV/Aids day events at an unspecified date next year.

But a consortium of non-governmental groups decided to defy the royal order and mark the day with the rest of the world at a dinner on Thursday night in Mbabane.

Mswati has drawn criticism for his lavish lifestyle at a time of widespread poverty and for resisting international pressure to introduce democracy into the tiny Southern African country.

Activists also expressed alarm on Thursday at critical shortages of life-prolonging anti-retroviral medicines after the United Nations-backed Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria withdrew funding for the government’s treatment programme.

“Counseling and testing centres have run out of ARVs, thus placing HIV-positive people in a precarious position,” said Hannie Dlamini, who is also infected.

Derek Von Wissel, head of Swaziland’s National Emergency Response Council on HIV/Aids, said funding was cut recently because the country lacked proper drug and patient management systems.
- Sapa-AP

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