Thursday, August 27, 2015


Police in Swaziland have warned ‘random’ men not to loiter near camps housing tens of thousands of supposed virgins during the forthcoming Reed Dance or Umhlanga ceremony.

In the past men found in such situations have been illegally whipped.

About 90,000 young women and girls have reportedly registered to take part in the ceremony which concludes on Monday (31 August 2015) when they will dance half-naked in front of King Mswati III, who is sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch.

The women and girls are reportedly virgins and form a regiment known as Imbali.

The warning came from Police Information and Communications Officer Assistant Superintendent Khulani Mamba. The Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by King Mswati, that has been extensively covering the Reed Dance, reported Mamba saying, ‘The police will be there at the national event from the beginning to the end to ensure safety of the public and of the maiden. We would like to advise the public on a number of things such as appealing them to drive with caution on the roads as the Imbali will be marching.

‘The maidens are also expected to be well-behaved while camped for the event so random men are also warned against being found loitering next to the camps where they will be sleeping, as tindvuna [overseers] have also warned.’

The police officer and media did not report what the consequences would be for men found loitering. There is huge secrecy surrounding events such as the Reed Dance, since they are the mainstays of Swazi ‘traditional’ culture.

However, in 2007 the Times of Swaziland, the only independent daily newspaper in the kingdom, broke the secrecy when it reported on the mass whipping of young men during the Reed Dance.

The Times reported on 5 September 2007 that the traditional authorities who were given the responsibility of supervising the ‘maidens’ systematically detained and whipped young men who were caught at night trying to get close to the young women.

In a report starkly headlined, ‘27 men whipped at Reed Dance’, the Times reported that the men were caught, whipped, and temporarily detained after invading the camp where the maidens were staying.

The whipping was not an isolated incident and the Times reported that some men were whipped on Saturday and others on Sunday. It seemed that the detention and whipping of unwelcome visitors was an agreed method of discipline among those tasked with supervising the maidens.

The Times report quoted Muzi Dlamini, one of the men responsible for supervising the maidens, saying that the men were taken to a small tent. ‘They were beaten with sjamboks and sticks. We were disciplining them and I must say they deserved such a punishment.’

He spoke about two separate occasions when men were detained and beaten. ‘After we had detained these boys, there were no more visits from strangers. Indeed it worked for us,’ he said.
The whippings highlighted an issue with Swazi culture. In traditional custom in Swaziland, the punishers may have been entitled to act in the way that they did, but in Swazi law they were not. There was at least a case for Dlamini and the others who helped him beat the boys to face prosecution for assault.

The whipping of the boys and men was not an isolated incident of violence at that year’s Reed Dance. On 4 September 2007 the Times reported that one of the senior overseers of the maidens, Ntfonjeni Dlamini, assaulted a group of maidens with a stick. He hurt two of them so badly, the Times reports, that they had to go to Lobamba Clinic, where one of them was treated for injuries to her right leg and bruises all over her body. The other was reported to have bruises all over her body and was bleeding on her back.

Four other ‘maidens’ were also thrashed, but were not as badly injured. 

The Times followed up the story the following day (5 September 2007) reporting that the two women had reported Ntfonjeni Dlamini to the police. The Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse also commented about the wrongfulness of beating children.

In an editorial comment, the Times said, ‘Ntfonjeni Dlamini … seems to believe he holds the right to beat up anybody’s child for no apparent reason.’ It called on ‘traditional authorities’ to take strong action against the blemishing of the Reed Dance, which it described as a ‘colourful event’ and an opportunity for Swaziland to make a bit of money from tourists.

As well as the two stories already mentioned the Times also gave an account (5 September 2007) of eight stabbings in isolated incidents at the Reed Dance. The newspaper reported that those stabbed were involved in brawls over ‘girls’.

In September 2014, the Times reported that more than 30 maidens were given a ‘serious hiding’ for ‘delinquent acts’ during the Shiselweni Reed Dance ceremony, a localised version of the main Reed Dance, held at the Mbangweni Royal Residence.

Most of the girls, who were caned by their headmen, were beaten for not participating in the main event, while they left their respective homes under the pretext that they were going to the Reed Dance ceremony.

The Times reported, ‘It was discovered that while the girls were being punished by the headmen, some got seriously injured as they tried to run away. Most of them were treated by paramedics, who attended to their case overnight (Saturday).

One girl reportedly had spent a night with a ‘male companion.’

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