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Page last updated at 22:08 GMT, Saturday, 6 September 2008 23:08 UK

Swaziland king celebrates in style

One of the world's last remaining absolute monarchs, King Mswati III of Swaziland, has held lavish celebrations to mark his 40th birthday and 40 years of independence from Britain, reports the BBC's Orla Guerin.

King Mswati III
King Mswati III was flanked by dignitaries as he delivered his speech

Mswati III arrived in the stadium framed by mountains in the capital Mbabane in a brand new BMW - one of 20 bought just for the occasion.

The king, dressed in traditional clothing and wearing a beaded necklace, was welcomed by cheering, flag-waving supporters.

"We all trust him," said a young man with a front-row seat, also in traditional dress.

"He's a good man. He believes in his country. He loves everybody. We are all like the royal family."

The king has a taste for the finer things in life - something he shares with his 13 wives.

Some of them arrived for the so-called "40-40" celebrations fresh from a shopping trip to Dubai.

With marching bands and dancing troupes, and a garden party to follow, it was a party fit for a king.

But can his impoverished kingdom afford it?

Contempt

The official budget is $2.5m (£1.4m) but some estimates claim the real cost could be five times that.

Critics say that it is money that could have been better spent elsewhere - on education, on health, and on saving lives.

People wave the National flag of Swaziland
Cheering crowds turned out to welcome the king to the stadium

With the world's highest rate of HIV (adult prevalence of 26.1%), many believe there is nothing to celebrate.

For two days this week trade unions and civic groups took to the streets in protest calling for change and for multi-party democracy.

"We condemn this party with the contempt it deserves," said Swazi Trade Union leader Jan Sithole, as he marched in the capital.

"People feel so strongly because this is a plundering of the country's resources in the height of grinding poverty for most of the Swazi masses.

"People feel their money is being wasted, with arrogance."

Powerlessness

Take a drive into the bush, and poverty is written all over the landscape - dirt roads, rundown homes, and hungry children.

President of Uganda Yoweri Moseveni and President of Botswana Ian Khama
A collection of African heads of state made the trip to Mbabane

Sibusiso Mamba is one of them. His name means blessing. Sibusiso is an Aids orphan, who is HIV positive himself. Now aged 14, he looks more like a seven-year-old.

For the past two months he has been on anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs).

They brought him back from death's door, according to his grandmother, Ntsambose, who is caring for him at a remote homestead - 80km (49.7 miles) from the nearest hospital.

Now, as the king is having a banquet, she has run out of food.

"I feel bad when I see that he's hungry," she said. "It hurts me. He's better because of the medicine. But the problem of hunger will make him sick again."

Ntsambose knew nothing of the celebrations in the capital, or of the money being spent.

"Who am I to say anything?" she asked. "There's nothing I can say about what is done by the king."

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe was among those present

Many feel powerless to speak up against the monarch - criticism of Mswati is still frowned upon here.

Ntsambose can hardly see, so she relies on her grandson to gather firewood.

It takes all his strength to carry a few sticks. He dreams of being well enough for school next year, and of growing up to be a policemen. But he may not live to his next birthday.

Aids campaigners Tengetile Hlope, whose has been helping Sibusiso and his grandmother, believes this is no time for parties.

"HIV is killing the country. When you think of the budget that is being used for the 40-40 celebrations, you just feel like crying," she said.

"There are people here who don't have water, food or transport to a clinic.

"They are just out in the rural areas on their own. The people who are organising and celebrating the 40-40, they don't even know about this place."

'40 years of poverty'

The government denies that the birthday party is extravagant, and insists it's a fitting way to mark a milestone.

"I think the nation can celebrate the achievements of the past 40 years," said Percy Simelane, a government spokesman.

Women who took part in the birthday celebrations for Swaziland"s King Mswati III stand in line for food
After the celebrations, many of those who attended waited in line for food

"The country has changed tremendously. At independence we used to get teachers, doctors and nurses from other countries. Now we export them. ARVs are provided free.

"Aids orphans go to school free of charge, and the government pays for meals."

But a short distance from Sibusiso's homestead we found more evidence of the hardships many face, at a neighbourhood children's centre.

About 60 children visit the centre every day - more than half of them are Aids orphans.

The volunteers who run the centre feed them when they can - that is about two days a month.

On the day of our visit, there were songs, games and informal education for the children, but nothing to eat.

Tengetile Hlope believes this is the reality of life for many in rural Swaziland, four decades on.

"I feel like I am just celebrating 40 years of poverty and hunger in this country," she said.


SEE ALSO
Swazi king picks young new wife
26 Sep 05 |  Africa
Ten BMWs for Swazi king's wives
14 Feb 05 |  Africa
Profile: Troubled King Mswati
04 Dec 01 |  Africa
Country profile: Swaziland
18 Jun 08 |  Country profiles


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