Ezulwini, Swaziland, Sept 3, 2012 (AFP) - Thousands of half-naked maidens danced for Swaziland's King Mwsati III Monday but a dire economic crisis is threatening to dampen popular fervour at the annual "reed dance" celebration.
For long hours, the call-and-response songs that accompanied the dancing rang out around the royal residence at Ludzidzini, the focal point of the Umhlanga festivities.
Until 2004, King Mswati III had a habit of taking a new bride among the bare-breasted dancers. He has 13 wives.
Brought in on lorries, the number of dancers topped 60,000 this year, according to the authorities, who tend to exaggerate the figures.
Though usually a success in a country of about a million people with few daily distractions, the charm of the folkloric ritual has begun to wane in times of economic crisis and political discontent, with rumbling challenges to the king's authority.
"I used to go when I was a teen. I liked being in the camp, far away from home. Almost everyone of the area was there, that's basically what I enjoyed... I used to be in the front line. To be in the front line you need to be the best dressed and with the full attire," said Khosi, asking not to be named in full.
This 24-year-old student began to see matters differently when she went to university and found out how difficult it was to obtain a grant and to take classes at regular hours.
"The Umhlanga is about (being) loyal to the king. I started looking at the problems we have, students losing scholarships, so I said why should we serve the king? Even now, the king has never said anything about the education crisis," she added.
The failure of public services in this potential paradise affects all sectors of the ailing economy, including vital services, according to Khosi.
"You hardly find anything in hospitals, not even basic antibiotics or cough syrup and you can't get medication for a snake bite in rural areas."
Poverty is endemic in a country which has the highest HIV prevalence in the world, with 26 percent of the population infected by the virus.
--- "The king takes advantage" ---
"But there is so much in the dark, there is no link between the problem we have and the political system," said Khosi, whose grandparents were alarmed to see her taking part in mounting protests that have shaken the kingdom since 2011. She spent several hours in a police station in April last year.
"The king takes advantage to show and say how many people support (the monarchy) and say that progressives are crazy."
At the royal palace, an elderly Swazi of 79, Bulunga, confirmed that she has never seen such a large number of women, from a three-year-old baby to a young lady in her 30s.
"In the days of Sobhuza II (the king's father), we were not that many."
Thelumusa Hlophe, 18, was delighted. "I have met new friends," she said, adding that she "adores the king" and was proud to dance bare-breasted, while modestly adjusting the scarf with red, yellow and blue woollen pom-poms that crosses her chest and is the token of her virginity.
In a statement, the banned opposition Pudemo party denounced the reed dance as nothing "but a forum for the poor masses to let off steam as opposed to a genuine process to find solutions on fundamental issues raised by the people".
Political parties are outlawed under Swaziland's royal Tinkhundla system of government, in which candidates are chosen by local chiefs, seen as tightly controlled by the monarchy.
But one father, whilst denouncing nepotism in Africa's last absolute monarchy, argued that attacking the reed dance to criticise the king was a waste of time.
"If you think of denying your kid to go to the reed dance to solve the economic crisis, it cannot work that way. The financial problem will still be there, so you can't deprive your daughter," said Simphiwe Mngometulu, 35.