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.
The government calls them the 40-40 festivities, marking King Mswati III's birthday and the anniversary of Swaziland's independence from Britain. But the number 40 cuts both ways _ unemployment, 40 percent: HIV rates: nearly 40 percent among adults.
"What is it we are celebrating?" demanded Philile Mlotshwa. "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?"
Her advocacy group rallied hundreds of HIV-positive women last month to demonstrate against the cost of the celebrations, officially put at $2.5 million though widely believed to be five times higher.
Although Africa's last absolute monarch is widely revered among his 1 million subjects, there is particular public anger that about eight of his 13 wives flew to Dubai for a birthday party shopping spree.
"We are dying while they are flying," was the refrain at the demonstration.
The national stadium has been refurbished for the birthday festivities, which will feature military bands, traditional singing, dancing and drumming, a royal garden party and state banquet for VIPs, who are expected to include President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe among African heads of state.
The public seems to be particularly irked by the fleet of luxury cars bought by the government to chauffeur the birthday guests.
About 5,000 trade union members took to the streets Wednesday to protest against the expenditure by a country where 70 percent live below the poverty line, and one in five depend on international food aid.
Life expectancy has nearly halved since 1998 because of the AIDS epidemic and is now less than 31 years, according to the most recent U.N. figures.
A smaller demonstration was held Thursday.
The government in Mbabane, the capital, 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 ad Thursday.
Mswati's kingdom, two-thirds the size of Vermont, lies on South Africa's eastern border. He came to the throne in 1986 after the death of his father, King Sobhuza II. Sobhuza declared a state of emergency in 1973 which Mswati has never formally lifted.
A new constitution took effect in 2006 which enshrined more civil liberties like freedom of assembly but still maintained the ban on political opposition parties. The king appoints the prime minister and the cabinet.
Queen Mother Ntombi Thwala _ which means "She Elephant" _ wields huge influence behind the scenes and is consulted by the king on such matters as choosing a prime minister.
"The king does a lot of good things, and the people love and respect him," said Henry Dlamini, a 23 year-old student standing on the sidelines of Wednesday's protest. But he added that the royal family, with each wife entitled to her own palace, was too big, and that the king was surrounded by self-serving ministers and advisers.
"Fine, have a big celebration, but this is too much," he said. "They could have channeled the money toward a lot of things because Swaziland has a lot of problems."
Still, the signs of change are evident, starting with royal marital practice. Sobhuza had 70 wives. Mswati has sufficed with 13, apparently to set an example in the fight against AIDS.
The demonstrations so far have passed unhindered, and the government responds to its critics with newspaper ads, not truncheons. People are relaxed and friendly. City streets have shopping malls and are full of new cars.
Swazis bristle when exile groups compare their country to Zimbabwe, where opposition supporters are beaten and killed.
Most Swazis are fiercely protective of their traditions, highlighted last weekend by the annual Reed Dance of some 100,000 schoolgirls in traditional Zulu dress, dancing for the king, who could have _ but didn't _ select one as a bride.
Even Mswati's sharpest critics say they don't want to overthrow the monarchy.
"He can be a king, but with fewer powers," said 32-year-old Moses Gama, a member of a militant opposition group.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.