Reeds at the ready as Zulu dance festival kicks off

07 September 2018 - 06:51 By Bongani Mthethwa
King Goodwill Zwelithini. File photo.
King Goodwill Zwelithini. File photo.


Thousands of young women‚ some from Swaziland‚ Gauteng and Mpumalanga‚ will descend on Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini’s Enyokeni Palace in Nongoma‚ northern KwaZulu-Natal‚ on Friday for the annual three-day reed dance festival.

The reed dance jamboree‚ known as Umkhosi Womhlanga‚ is hosted by the Zulu royal family‚ in partnership with the KZN Department of Arts and Culture. It is aimed at teaching young women about the dangers of social ills.

Only virgins are allowed to take part in the ancient Zulu tradition.

Umkhosi Womhlanga is a custom Zulus have in common with Swazis‚ a nation that historians describe as their closest tribal cousins.

Before young women can participate in the festival‚ they have to undergo virginity testing — ukuhlolwa kwezintombi — an ancient Zulu tradition that is regarded as an important rite of passage to womanhood.

During the ceremony‚ thousands of bare-breasted maidens will declare their virginity before Zwelithini‚ who revived the ancient practice in 1984 after it was largely neglected by previous Zulu monarchs.

Zwelithini takes pride in the ceremony‚ even though it has become a point of controversy in post-apartheid South Africa and has resulted in heated debate between cultural groups and traditionalists on the one hand‚ and human rights groups and feminists on the other.

Previous attempts by the government to outlaw virginity testing‚ which is viewed by human rights groups and feminists as a violation of women’s rights‚ have failed. And instead‚ the reed dance ceremony has been growing in stature every year.

Proponents of virginity testing draw comparisons and point to frequent deaths in circumcision schools as proof of a problem that needs to be addressed.

Zwelithini has resisted any attempts to outlaw virginity testing and has accused its proponents of ignorance and insensitivity to Zulu cultural values.

He once argued: “Circumcision has killed many people‚ but our practice has not killed anyone. I don’t even want to talk too much about this because it is annoying me. My own children have been tested and they have no problem with that. I said they must arrest me if they want to outlaw this practice.”

The young women who pass the test during virginity testing take pride in their status and are lauded in their communities. The idea is that by remaining pure before marriage‚ the women are safe from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

In Swaziland‚ King Mswati III has used the reed dance to pick his wives. He picked his 14th wife‚ Siphele Mashwama‚ who was 19-years-old then‚ a few weeks after the annual ceremony‚ attended by about 40‚000 maidens.

The Swazi king is traditionally mandated to pick a new wife every year from the virgins who partake in the traditional chastity rite held at the Ludzidzini Royal Palace‚ near Swaziland’s capital‚ Mbabane.

In South Africa‚ it recently emerged that former president Jacob Zuma picked his bride-to-be‚ Nonkanyiso Conco‚ after he met the then 19-year-old at the ceremony in Nongoma.

The provincial Department of Arts and Culture said in a statement that preparations were under way to host this year’s reed dance in Nongoma.

Non-schoolgoing young women will present their reeds before the Zulu monarch on Friday‚ with the rest of the women doing so on Saturday. Later that day‚ Zwelithini will deliver the main address later on Saturday.

The Nongoma festival was preceded by the Umkhosi Womhlanga in Ngwavuma‚ which took place last weekend.