Southern Africa: Time for tough questions about the reed dances

Southern Africa: Time for tough questions about the reed dances

Date: October 21, 2015
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Johannesburg, 7 September: The Umkhosi woMhlanga reed dance takes place in KwaZulu-Natal this week, under the shadow of the terrible accident that led to dozens of Swazi maidens being thrown out of an open truck and crushed to death ahead of a similar ceremony in the mountain kingdom at the close of Women’s Month last week.

We say “dozens” because the true number will probably never be revealed. It ranges from the official figure of 13, to estimates by the South Africa-based Swazi Solidarity Network (SSN) of 65.

In most countries, the nation would come to a standstill, in respect of the dead. Not in Swaziland. King Mswati III deigned to acknowledge the accident and offer medical support to those with injuries. But the reed dance, at which he chooses yet another wife, went ahead. No shrine has been erected at the site of the tragedy. The lives of young women, according to this messaging, are worth nothing.

In South Africa, we are told that two of the ten buses due to transport young women from uMhlathuze City to the annual Reed Dance at the Enyokeni Royal Palace in Nongoma, failed a safety inspection. No doubt mindful of what happened in Swaziland, the city’s leadership says it will ensure the safety of 680 young women and their 36 minders.

President Jacob Zuma, a Zulu and polygamist, has offered his condolences to our Swazi cousins. The South African media has opined about the road carnage. No one, it seems, cares about the human rights violations raised by these annual rituals.

We were in Swaziland at the time of the accident. Listening to eyewitness accounts of young women packed standing in an open truck to go to a ceremony for the king’s pleasure, and meeting their end in such a horrific way, conjured images of the slave ships that plied the Atlantic with their human cargo thrown out in the rough seas when it seized to be useful.

Four centuries later what has changed for African women? Swaziland and even more so South Africa have Constitutions that guarantee rights and equality. Yet in South Africa, young women are subjected to virginity testing before they are allowed to participate in a royal dance.

The girls wear traditional attire, including beadwork, and izigege and izinculuba that show their bottoms. They also wear anklets, bracelets, necklaces, and colourful sashes. As part of the ceremony, the young women dance bare-breasted for their king, and each maiden carries a long reed, which is then deposited as they approach the king. The girls take care to choose only the longest and strongest reeds, and then carry them towering above their heads in a slow procession up the hill to Enyokeni Palace. If the reed should break before the girl reaches that point, she is considered not to be a virgin.

During the eight-day ceremony in Swaziland, young girls cut reeds, present them to the Queen Mother (Indlovukazi) – ostensibly to repair the windbreak around her royal residence – and then dance in celebration. Up to 40,000 girls take part, dressed up in brightly coloured attire- making it one of the biggest and most spectacular cultural events in Africa.

On day six, each group drops their reeds outside the Queen Mother’s quarters then moves to the main arena, where they dance and sing their songs. The dancing continues on day seven, when the king is present. Each regiment dances before him in turn. He chooses a wife and commands that a number of cattle (perhaps 20 -25) be slaughtered for the girls. They receive pieces of meat and go home.

Google the Swazi or Zulu reed dances and what you will mostly find are travel packages for watching the pageants, presented as age old and harmless traditions. Often the organisers clash with Western photographers whose photos find their way onto pornographic websites. The irony is palpable. Whichever way one views this, it’s about men having control over, and making decisions about women’s lives and bodies.

At the heart of human rights values is the right to choose. We are told repeatedly that the young women in these dances want to be part of the ceremonies, even to have their virginity tested.

What choice do they have when society dictates that this is what they must do? What power would a young woman have in KwaZulu Natal or Swaziland to say “no” if chosen for a reed dance? What right would a young woman have in Swaziland to refuse to be the umpteenth wife of the king, if she really did not want to? What say do young Zulu maidens have when a highly unreliable test determines whether or not they are virgins?

Apart from the human rights violations that arise due to the invasion of privacy and lack of fairness of the test, a litmus test of gender equality is whether men are subjected to a similar test. If the answer is no, it’s a sexist practise: period.

King Goodwill Zwelethini reintroduced the Zulu reed dance in 1991, on the pretext of encouraging young Zulu girls to delay sexual activity until marriage, and thus limit the possibility of HIV transmission. Hello, Mr King, girls do not have sex alone! Where are the young men in this conversation?

Both South Africa and Swaziland are signatories to numerous women’s rights Conventions and to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development. The Protocol states that gender equality should never be contradicted by custom, culture, tradition or religion.

Next year Swaziland will chair SADC. It will be the first year of the Post-2015 agenda, that aims to move us from a basic needs to a rights based approach to development by 2030. The Executive Director of UN Women and former Deputy President of South Africa Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has said that the real test of this period is to “dismantle patriarchy”, brick by brick.

Being concerned about the safety of young women bussed or trucked to ceremonies to perform for powerful men is important, but insufficient. Even if these young women do not die while dancing, what else are we killing in their lives, their right to be, their right to make choices, their right to be equal?

It’s no longer good enough to sign lofty conventions then endorse practices that undermine them. Custom, culture and tradition must adapt to the thinking and values of the time, not vice versa. Leaders must walk the talk of gender equality, or give way to those who will!

(Colleen Lowe Morna is CEO and Shamiso Chigorimbo research officer at Gender Links. This article is part of the GL News Service that offers fresh views on every day news).


6 thoughts on “Southern Africa: Time for tough questions about the reed dances”

Jacqueline mahlangu says:

Hi I really like umkhosi wonhlanga so much and I’m really looking forward to take my daughter at kzn but my problem is I’m staying very far at Gauteng ,how do I get there

Favour Onofelaga says:

My name is Favour Onofelaga a Nigerian who is so much interested about African cultures and values, just yesterday i had a heated argument with my friends on our Whatsapp group. They said the reed dance was bad, fetish and a whole lot, but I feel they are assimilationists who don’t care about the root of culture in Africa. I decided refreshing my memory today by asking why the ceremony is performed only to find out it was initiated 1991 in South Africa and 40s in Swaziland. I Want To know if these maidens are forced to go, are forcely taken as wives by the kings also. Thank you! here i saw the disadvantage also. Will Like to interact. whatsapp number +2349073334278

Favour Onofelaga says:


Madoda Mtshali says:

The perspective here is regrettable. I pick up a lot of negativity towards this cultural event. The writer must attend this programme in the wards way before the main event which is the reed dance. These maidens and parents sign indemnity form to participate.

Hariane says:

Hi I’m South African man from Limpopo. I really in love with reed dance as Zulus and Swatis remaining to respect their forefather’s custom.
But there’s something I wanna know, When a man recognise a lady while she’s in reed dance. It’s possible for a man to speak with the lady?

Zethu Khumalo says:

Hi I just wanted to know that do you only go to the Reed dance when you started your period

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