There is deep suspicion in Swaziland that King Mswati III’s regime is not telling the truth about the number of deaths in the Reed Dance road smash on Friday (28 August 2015).
Official police figures put the number of deaths at 13, but one pro-democracy group has said it is as high as 65.
Police initially were reluctant to give any information about the accident on the main Mbabane to Manzini highway at Matsapha. Reports circulated on the Internet that journalists had been prohibited from reporting the incident.
The news was first broken on Friday by the Swaziland Solidarity network (SSN), a group banned in Swaziland where King Mswati rules as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. The SSN said the number of deaths was 38.
The Associated Press (AP) later reported SSN spokesperson Lucky Lukhele saying members of the Swaziland Defence Force alerted the rights group to the accident and gave the number of deaths.
By Sunday, the SSN was reporting the death toll had risen to 65. Lukhele told the Anadolu Agency that 38 girls had been killed instantly on Friday when the trucks they were travelling in collided with another vehicle.
‘And on midnight Saturday, we received information that another 27 girls had died in hospital,’ Lukhele added.
He told the Daily Telegraph, a UK-based newspaper, ‘According to our reports from military and medical officials, at least 65 girls were dead by midnight on Saturday.’
The girls were travelling on the back of open trucks in a convoy. They were on their way to attend the Reed Dance where tens of thousands of topless virgins dance in front of the King.
According to reports in Swazi newspapers, a car or a van hit the back of one truck which resulted in a pileup. The dead were reportedly thrown from the back of the truck which was usually used for transporting building materials and some were said to have been hit by on-coming cars.
Police spokesperson Assistant Superintendent Khulani Mamba told the Observer on Sunday newspaper in Swaziland that not all the girls died on the spot.
By Monday, police were insisting that the death toll was no higher than 13. It released some details, but no names, of the dead. The youngest was 11 years old and seven were aged 16 or under.
Reports circulated on social media all weekend that the figure was greater than 13 and that scores of children had been taken to hospital, some to South Africa. The Observer on Sunday, quoting government sources, reported that at least 66 girls, including the 13 dead, had been taken to Raleigh Fitkin Memorial hospital.
It was confirmed by international media that there was a clampdown on journalists who tried to report news of the deaths.
The Daily Telegraph, a UK-based newspaper, on Saturday quoted Bheki Gama, a freelance journalist who was at the scene of the accident. Gama disputed the government’s claims that only 13 people had died.
The Telegraph reported, ‘He said paramedics had told him that dozens of young women had died at the scene or on the way to hospital.
‘He said he saw at least five bodies strewn across the on-ramp, which was covered with blood.
‘“It was absolutely terrible,” he said. “There were bodies everywhere. The tar was covered with blood. Many of the bodies had been collected by the time I arrived.”’
The Telegraph added, ‘Mr Gama said the government blacked out coverage of the accident and is refusing to release information to journalists.’
The AP also reported, ‘Press photographers were prevented from taking pictures at the scene, said a Swazi journalist who insisted on anonymity for security reasons. However some people managed to take photographs of the aftermath of the crash with their cell phones.’
The People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), the best-known of the banned opposition groups in Swaziland, reported in a statement on Sunday that hospital sources had said 40 people had died. It added the figure, ‘was given with the caution that there is a lot of secrecy involved with giving out numbers of those that have passed on because there is an order circulating that there should be minimum reporting on the matter.’
The Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO), the PUDEMO youth wing, called on the government, ‘to provide full disclosure on how many people died and assist the families locate their loved ones.’
It said, ‘It is not acceptable that the nation can engage in public speculation and contradicting media reports on the number of deaths or those injured. Government must put the nation into confidence and make full disclosure as a sign of accountability and transparency.’
‘CANCEL REED DANCE AFTER DEATHS’