Bare-breasted and equipped with a reed stem, thousands of young girls are to dance on Saturday in front of the King of the Zulus, traditional chief of the largest ethnic group in South Africa, during a rite which once allowed the sovereign to choose his wives.
Interrupted for a time due to the Covid pandemic, the “reed dance” is normally organized every year in September, which marks the beginning of spring in the southern African country.
Legend has it that if the young girl is not a real virgin, the reed will not remain erect towards the sky.
“I can’t wait for this weekend, I’m so excited, it’s been a long time since we’ve all been together,” 23-year-old Thembalami Dumakade told AFP.
The ceremony must take place in the hills of KwaZulu-Natal, a province in the south-east of the country open to the Indian Ocean, in one of the palaces of the small town of Nongoma, stronghold of the Zulu royal family.
King MisuZulu Zulu, 47, was traditionally crowned last month after the death of his father, Goodwill Zwelithini, who ruled for 50 years. A huge crowd had gathered in the cradle of the Zulu nation to celebrate the one who now officially bears the name of his predecessor and is designated by MusiZulu kwaZwelithini.
The country has 11 million Zulus, almost one in five South Africans.
In the young democracy with eleven official languages, the sovereigns and traditional chiefs are recognized by the Constitution. Kings without executive power, they wield great moral authority and are deeply respected.
Before the dance, the young girls will be examined. “Girls participate in virginity tests if they wish, it’s their body. Those who say that our traditions are outdated have the right to have their opinion”, explains Dr Nomagugu Ngobese reached by telephone, who will conduct tests . But “it’s part of our culture, we don’t need anyone’s opinion”.
– Palace quarrel –
The centuries-old tradition is controversial. Rights advocates say virginity testing is a violation of privacy and a degrading act for young girls. Once suppressed, the “reed dance” was revived by Goodwill Zwelithini in 1984.
Traditionally, this presentation was the occasion for the king to choose a new wife. Today, this rule is no longer automatically applied by a sovereign whose legitimacy is otherwise disputed.
For more than a year, a dispute over the succession to the throne has poisoned the palace. King MisuZulu kwaZwelithini was born to ex-sovereign Goodwill Zwelithini’s favorite and third wife.
The first wife challenged the succession in court, which was dismissed.
The late king’s eldest son, however, born out of wedlock, Prince Simakade, filed an urgent appeal this week, claiming to be the legitimate heir.
Brothers of Goodwill Zwelithini also claimed the throne for another candidate they chose.
“They can claim to be kings but there is only one,” said royal family spokesman Prince Thulani Zulu.
Saturday’s ceremony “will take place normally and we will welcome young girls from all over the country,” he said.
Security in Nongoma has been tightened as threats, reported by local media, have been made: opponents of the crowned king recognized by President Cyril Ramaphosa have predicted a ‘bloodbath’ if the ‘reed dance’ continues .
Misuzulu kwaZwelithini, whose name means “to strengthen the Zulu people”, promised at his coronation to “unify the Zulu nation”. He did not address palace quarrels.