Rehearsals for this year's Reed Dance in Swaziland have started and the maidens who dance bare-breasted in front of King Mswati III have been told by organisers they must wear short skirts.
The Reed Dance or Umhlanga is an annual event in which tens of thousands of 'maidens', some as young as ten, dance for the pleasure of the King. It is widely reported within Swaziland that the dancers are 'virgins'.
The ceremony has come under criticism in recent years because of its overt political nature. The maidens are taught songs that decry activists who want democracy in the small kingdom ruled by King Mswati, who is sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch.
It has also been reported that many maidens are paid to take part in the ceremony or are threatened with public whippings if they do not.
The Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by the King, reported on Wednesday (23 August 2017) that rehearsals for the event are underway. It reported that Princess Gcebile, Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Tinkhundla, told representatives of more than 50 chiefdoms in Shiselweni they needed to maintain tradition and attend the ceremony wearing short skirts.
International observers have pointed to the 'sleazy' nature of the Reed Dance in which half-naked children dance for the King who is aged 49.
In 2016, the Guardian newspaper, a respected international publication based in the United Kingdom, reported, 'Traditionally, the King is allowed to choose one of the women as a wife, but in recent years the festival has been more about preserving a cultural heritage.'
The newspaper added that many participants were forced to attend the Umhlanga. It quoted a 29-year-old teacher saying, 'They say we are not forced, but we are. Families who don't send their daughters to the Umhlanga have to pay a fine, usually a goat or a cow.'
She added, 'The girls sleep in small classrooms or tents without proper sanitation. There are also many rules you have to adhere to when you attend the Umhlanga. This is the 21st century. We shouldn't be forced to wear certain clothes.'
The Guardian reported for some girls, taking part in the festival was a way to make some money. It quoted one teenager who said, 'It's going to be a fun week. We are very excited. We are given 500 rand each.'
Zwane, a mother of six, told the newspaper forcing or bribing young girls to attend the Umhlanga was a violation of their human rights. 'Chiefs abuse their power and penalise families who don't take part. The whole idea is for women to show themselves naked in front of the King so that he can choose a wife. It's very degrading to women. We don't walk around bare-breasted at home. Why should we do it at cultural ceremonies?'
Umhlanga, billed as Swaziland's foremost cultural day, proved to be anything but in 2013 when 120,000 half-naked maidens reportedly sang a song praising the Kings then-recent pronouncement about his continued rule over his kingdom.
They praised the King for announcing that henceforth Swaziland would be a 'Monarchical Democracy'. This was a new name for the already existing 'Tinkhundla' system that puts all power in the hands of the King.
The King said he had been told in a vision to make this change.
The song included these words (loosely translated from the original), 'Your Majesty Swaziland is well governed through the Tinkhundla System of Democracy and will be victorious through it.'
The Times of Swaziland, the only independent daily newspaper in the kingdom, reported at the time, 'Royal Swaziland Police Superintendent Wendy Hleta who was the Master [sic] of Ceremonies together with former Indvuna YeMbali Nothando Ntshangase noted that the maidens were seemingly pleased with the message conveyed by the new composition.'
The sinister nature of the Reed Dance was also exposed in 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.
The 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 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.
In 2014, it was reported by media within Swaziland that girls had been told if they did not attend that year's Reed Dance they would be publicly whipped. Girls in the Mbilaneni chiefdom were told that if they travelled to the event but do not attended the ceremony, they will be beaten on the buttocks when they returned to their homesteads.
Thami Thikazi, the headman of the Mbilaneni chiefdom, said if parents disagreed with the punishment they would be forced to wield the lash themselves.
The Swazi Observer, reported at the time Thikazi said, 'In case parents distance themselves from such, we are going to order them to be the ones administering the punishment in the form of strokes on the buttocks should it be found that they (girls) did something intolerable. The punishment will take place in full view of everyone.'