MBABANE, Swaziland - Swaziland exiles called for a boycott of the 6th annual Bushfire festival this weekend to protest the kingdom's government policies. But the boycott did not appear to slow the three-day musical and cultural event.
Thousands of people happily dance on the grass to the tune of a local Swazi band, with few appearing to worry about the boycott call that put Swaziland's Bushfire Festival in the middle of controversy.
For the second year, the Swaziland Solidarity Network, an association of Swazi people living in South Africa, has targeted the festival to try to put pressure on the kingdom's government.
Network spokesperson Lucky Lukhele said, "It is mainly to show some support that not everything is normal as it is publicly portrayed in Swaziland."
Swaziland is one of the poorest countries in the world, and has one of the world's highest rate of HIV/AIDS, with one Swazi out of four HIV positive. The country's monarch, King Mswati III, is often criticized for leading a luxurious life, in stark contrast with most of his people. He has come under international criticism for pursuing his personal interests at the expense of his country.
Recent violent crackdowns on opposition protests have increased social tension.
The opposition Network's Lukhele explains the Bushfire festival is sponsored by Swazi telecommunications company MTN and was not targeted randomly.
"The Swazi government owns 51 percent now of the MTN Swaziland, and MTN Swaziland is a sponsor. So effectively, the king is sponsoring this thing," he said.
But according to Bushfire director Jiggs Thorne, the exile network is aiming at the wrong target, and boycotting the festival would do more harm than good for the Swazi people.
"Since our inception, we have been very keen to make a difference, through our Call to Action campaign. We facilitate this gathering of people, and exchange of ideas, with a very clear conscience," he said.
He says the festival gives artists and performers a platform for diversity of cultural expression and creates opportunities for open debate.
In response to the boycott effort, the festival has opened "The Barn," a place where politics and social issues are discussed during the three days.
Only a handful of artists honored the boycott, but they include the popular singers Zahara and Lira. As for those artists who came, especially international singers, some did not know about the boycott.
Swazi singer Bholoja knew about it, but says he feels it was uncalled for, because the festival has a lot of charity projects.
"I think it is very unfair what is happening because Bushfire is not about only having fun, taking ourselves out there, but there is a mission behind it. It is serving people who are in need, orphans. Bushfire provides accommodation, means, futures for the children," he said.
About 20,000 people attend the Bushfire Festival each year and the call for a boycott has not deterred people from coming.