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Tiny mountain kingdom is a land of contrasts between royalty and the poor.
MANZINI, Swaziland — The personal fortune of King Mswati III of Swaziland has been estimated at around $200 million.
The personal fortune of Sibusiso Mamba is a shiny red bicycle and the little jar of antiretroviral drugs which keep him alive.
Fourteen-year-old Sibusiso received both gifts late last year from a support group that helps Swazis swept up in the AIDS pandemic that hit this southern African nation harder than any place on the planet.
King Mswati celebrated his birthday in style back in August with nationwide festivities coinciding with the country's 40th anniversary of independence from Britain. The jamboree cost an estimated $12 million, not including the pre-party shopping trip to the Middle East for eight of his 13 wives.
Sibusiso is one of the estimated 60,000 children left orphans by the virus that has decimated a generation of Swazis. Like many in the rural areas he lives in dire poverty, sharing a dusty mud-and-thatch homestead with his elderly grandmother and younger sister. Like one in three Swazi families, his depends on handouts to survive.
Swaziland has the world’s highest rate of HIV infection. Figures released last year showed that 42 percent of pregnant women tested positive. Over the past decade, life expectancy has been almost halved. Some estimates put it at less than 40 years. More than 60 percent of Swaziland's just over 1 million people live on less than $2 a day.
Against such grim statistics, there is growing resentment directed against the luxury lifestyle of King Mswati, one of the world's last absolute monarchs.
“All the powers are in the hands of the king. He has got executive powers, he’s got legislative powers and he’s got judicial powers,” complains A.T. Dlamini, president of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress, an opposition party.
“Whilst the king has all these powers to rule the country, almost single handed, a lot of wrong things are going on. The rule of law is a problem, misappropriation of funds and inappropriate allocation of funds away from services like education, health, water supply, sanitation,” Dlamini says over coffee in the capital city, Mbabane.
The government tolerates a certain level of dissent and carefully avoids the heavy-handed tactics that have earned international isolation for Robert Mugabe’s regime in nearby Zimbabwe. However, opponents of the Swazi royal elite say they are subjected to a systematic campaign of harassment aimed at silencing the pro-democracy movement.