Monday, July 29, 2013


As Swaziland gets ready for the annual Umhlanga or Reed Dance Festival media across the world are falling for King Mswati III’s propaganda.

At the forefront are the travel media which report the Reed Dance as a colourful spectacle with a tradition going back centuries.

A typical example of the gushing hyperbole was published on the website Travel Video News on 24 July 2013. It reported, ‘[Y]oung women from all over Swaziland and beyond her borders converge on the royal residence in Ludzidzini for this momentous occasion’. They carry newly-cut reeds to protect the Queen Mother’s residence.

‘Residents of this tiny mountainous Kingdom are intensely proud of their deep culture and taking part in the Festival is a proud and privileged moment for all the family.’

It went on, ‘The Umhlanga Festival is a visual spectacle that bonds this small but perfectly formed nation. Its ever- increasing popularity defies the apparent decline of traditional cultures elsewhere in Africa. Witnessing this festival is a truly unique experience.’

The report was wrong in almost every detail, except for the undeniable fact that the Reed Dance takes place (it will be held in August or September: at the king’s pleasure.) The ceremony is not centuries old (it started under the present king’s reign) and the festival is far from a privileged moment for all the family,

The sinister nature of the Reed Dance was revealed last year (2012) when about 500 children were ordered to sing a song vilifying political parties. This was part of a clampdown on dissent in the kingdom, where King Mswati rules as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. 

This children were taught a song to sing at the dance which had lyrics that when translated into English said political parties ‘set people against each other’ and said that if political parties were allowed to exist in the kingdom the king’s people ‘could start fighting each other’.

Political parties are banned in Swaziland, but ahead of this year’s national election there is increasing pressure from pro-democrats for this to change. Some traditional authorities also believe that support for the present system that puts them in control is on the wane. In Swaziland pro-democracy demonstrations have been attacked by police and state security forces.

Last year about 500 children were chosen from all 350 chiefdoms in Swaziland to attend rehearsals at Ludzidzini Royal Residence and the Correctional Services Institution in Matsapha to learn the song. They were then ordered to return to their homes and teach the words to other girls in their chiefdoms.

Lobayeni Dlamini, who worked with the girls (usually referred to as ‘maidens’) on the song told the Times of Swaziland, there were fewer people who stood up to defend the present political system in Swaziland and therefore there was a strong need to send a message.

This was not the only year in which children were compelled to sing the king’s praises. In 2009, the South Africa Press Association reported, ‘During the four-hour event, children sang songs which glorified Mswati and condemned his enemies.

‘“This land is your land our king, your enemies want to destroy you,” they sang.

Observers inside Swaziland also doubt that the girls who are expected to dance half-naked in front of the king do not choose to attend of their own free will. The chiefs in the rural areas where they live require them to attend and the girls’ families can be victimised if they do not go.

Musa Hlophe, a regular columnist for the Times of Swaziland, one of the few newspapers in the kingdom not owned by King Mswati, commented after one Reed Dance that many of the girls who attended went because it was their only chance to get a decent meal.

Hlophe wrote, ‘Judging from the appearances of these dancing girls, one may be fooled into thinking all is well in the kingdom of Eswatini [Swaziland].

‘What will be hidden to the unsuspecting outsider is that most of these girls will have had a balanced meal while at the Reed Dance. That most of these girls (about 80 per cent of them) come from families who are among the 500,000 people who survive on food aid [out of a population of about 1.3 million]. After all the glamour of this week’s events, these girls return to grinding poverty by Tuesday or Wednesday or whenever their masters feel they are now disposable, having fulfilled their responsibilities to our rulers and their visitors.

‘What the unsuspecting visitors do not know is that Swaziland is a country in serious crisis. It is said we are still number one in the world, with the highest HIV prevalence rates, notwithstanding the slight reduction, We are a country with diminishing opportunities for foreign direct investments, with 70 per cent of the country’s population living on less than one dollar a day.

‘Further compounded by one of the severest drought in living memory, Swaziland would not be expected to be celebrating the way it seems to be just now. The hundreds of trucks ferrying the thousands of girls to Ludzidzini could have been used to deliver the much needed water and foodstuff to the starving population.

‘But who counts in Swaziland are the people among the ruling elite. In Swaziland, the poor have no rights or needs of their own. The ruling elite will now and again run charities for the poor and elderly and the poor take these as some form of generosity by their masters.’

In 2009, the Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by the king, reported that special security squads had to be formed to ensure that the girls attended the Reed Dance ceremony. It transpired that they took the trip from their villages, but instead of dancing before the king they chose to spend their time in other pursuits.

Nothando Nhlengethwa, one of the people in charge of the maidens, told the newspaper, security forces checked up on the maidens. Each chiefdom had been told to supply a list of the names of those who leave the villages to attend. This list was then checked on a daily basis to ensure that the girls did in fact arrive at the reed dance and participated fully.

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