The Swazi government is to pay the primary school fees of 60,000 orphans and vulnerable children (OVC).
The Ministry of Economic Planning and Development revealed on Thursday that in the national population of 960,000 people, there were 200,000 OVC.
Primary education is not free, and according to the United Nations Development Programme, school fees are a principal burden for the two-thirds of Swazis who live in chronic poverty.
About 80 percent of the people live on communal farms under palace-appointed chiefs, and as Janice Nxumalo, a third grade teacher near the northern citrus growing district of Tshaneni, explained: "The feudal system has never reconciled itself to the needs of an 'educated peasantry', and there are few opportunities for subsistence farmers to raise cash for school fees."
Educationalists feel the government's plan to pay for orphans and vulnerable children is the first step toward state-sponsored education for all children.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has criticised government for subsidising tertiary education that mostly benefits affluent students, while primary education is neglected.
UNICEF also noted that a special fund inaugurated by King Mswati in 2001 to meet the educational needs of destitute children was skewed towards those living in urban areas, where the school fees are triple those of rural schools.
Announcing the new policy on OVC education recently, Minister of Education Candice Simelane said some of the money would come from the King's Fund for destitute children, while further funding is to be requested from parliament.
The National Emergency Committee on HIV/AIDS, set up by government two years ago to coordinate the distribution of funds to health groups combating AIDS, said AIDS orphans would number 120,000 by 2010.
Last week the education minister ordered school headmasters to waive school fees for all OVCs seeking admission, but headmasters insisted that the government would have to pay instead.
"We are on the razor's edge of insolvency anyway, and our main source of funding is school fees. Yes, we are educationalists, not business people, and we are failing if a single child is left outside our gate. But the alternative is closing our gate, and then no child learns," a headmaster in the commercial town of Manzini told IRIN.
Pro-democracy groups noted that government, constantly under attack for its spending priorities, was attempting to improve its image. The banned political opposition is questioning what they call the government's new-found interest in OVC.
"Has the education ministry just discovered orphans this week? That seems suspicious," said Thab'sile Ndlovu, a member of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress, a political party banned by royal decree.
In a paid statement published in the country's two daily newspapers on Thursday, Prime Minister Themba Dlamini said the government would be spending R20 million (US $2.8 million) on palace renovations - not R100 million (US $14.2 million) as reported in the local media. The media had cited leaked government documents as the source of information.
The government responded to the reports on palace renovations nearly three weeks after they were published. The delay has caused some leading government opponents to suggest that the palace, taken aback by adverse reaction to the spending, had reacted by scaling back the programme.
However, Dlamini said the R20 million price tag had always been the correct one. He criticised the press in his statement, and said government officials who leaked documents to the media would be arrested.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa condemned the prime minister's statement.
A child welfare worker, Pauline Dube, told IRIN she was happy the controversy has resulted in more state resources being allocated to OVC. "Who cares if it is public relations? For once, the poorest and the most vulnerable Swazis, the invisible ones, are being seen. There is no way government can now back away from its commitment to the education of orphans."