Swaziland and its king are throwing a joint 40th birthday bash this weekend, but the mood is far from celebratory in this small Southern African land of paupers and princes, mud huts and palaces.
Although Africa’s last absolute monarch is widely revered among his one million subjects, the so-called 40-40 festivities have attracted less than flattering comparisons: 40% of the Swazi population is unemployed, nearly 40% of adults are living with HIV/Aids and only one in four people will survive to be 40 at current trends.
”What it is we are celebrating?” demanded critic Philile Mlotshwa.
”Is it the 600 000 who are hungry? Is it the world’s highest Aids rate? The collapse of the health and education system? What are we showing the world that we have achieved?”
Swaziland became independent from Britain 40 years ago, the same year that King Mswati III was born.
Mlotshwa, an activist with Swaziland Positive Living for Life, organised a demonstration for hundreds of mainly HIV-positive women last month to protest the cost of the celebrations — officially put at 20-million emalangeni (about $2,5-million, R20-million) though widely believed to be five times higher.
Many African heads of state, including Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, are expected and the government has purchased a large fleet of luxury cars to whisk them around.
Mlotshwa’s Aids support group — and many others — were particularly outraged that about eight of the king’s 13 wives had jetted off to Dubai for a birthday party shopping spree.
”We are dying while they are flying,” was the refrain.
About 5 000 trade unionists took to the streets on Wednesday to protest the lavishness of the festivities in a country where 70% of the population lives below the poverty line, and one in five depend on international food aid. Life expectancy has nearly halved since 1998 because of the Aids pandemic and is now less than 31 years, according to the most recent United Nations figures.
A smaller demonstration was held on Thursday.
The government sees the criticism as ”a political ploy to tarnish the image of the country during the upcoming 40-40 celebrations”, the prime minister’s office said in a full page newspaper advertisement on Thursday.
Mswati came to the throne in 1986 after the death of his father King Sobhuza II, who reigned after independence from Britain and who declared a state of emergency in 1973. Mswati never formally renounced the emergency but grudgingly ceded to a few pro-democracy pressures.
A new Constitution took effect in 2006, enshrining more civil liberties like freedom of assembly but still keeping a ban on opposition parties.
The king currently has 13 wives — each one entitled to her own royal palace and privileges. His father Sobhuza had more than 70 wives.
”The king does a lot of good things and the people love and respect him,” said Henry Dlamini, a 23-year-old student. But he added the royal family was too big and the king was surrounded by advisers who cared more about themselves than the good of the nation.
He also criticised the amount spent on the 40-40 festivities. The king was 40 earlier this year but delayed his party.
”Fine, have a big celebration but this is too much. They could have channeled the money toward a lot of things because Swaziland has a lot of problems,” Dlamini said as he stood on the sidelines of Wednesday’s protest.
The fact that the demonstrations were tolerated by police — who were out in force but remained good-natured — was a sign that things are changing, even in the world’s last absolute monarchy.
Most Swazis bristle when South African-based exile movements liken Swaziland to Zimbabwe. They say there is no comparison.
Indeed, despite its deep poverty and the high burden of Aids-related disease, Swaziland is relaxed and friendly. The streets of its two key cities throng with new cars and shoppers at modern malls.
Swazis are deeply proud of their culture, especially the annual reed dance, which typically features more than 10 000 bare-breasted maidens dancing for the king. Mswati used to pick a bride each year from among the dancers but faced criticism that this set a bad example to his Aids-ravaged society.
Most observers agree there is no credible political alternative to the king and even Mswati’s most critical opponents say they don’t want to overthrow the monarchy.
”He can be a king, but with fewer powers,” suggested 32-year-old Moses Gama, a member of an opposition group.
”It’s only the royal family which has been liberated by independence from Britain,” he added. ”Not the whole nation.” – Sapa-AP