Umkhosi woMhlanga: This year’s Zulu Reed Dance was like no other

Umkhosi woMhlanga: This year’s Zulu Reed Dance was like no other
File Photo: Samkeliwe Indoni Nzimande during the annual Umkhosi Womhlanga (reed dance) at Enyokeni Royal Palace on September 08, 2018 in KwaNongoma, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Thulie Dlamini)

There was an unusual shift in focus at this year’s traditional Reed Dance in KwaZulu-Natal. For a start, the event was reduced to one day instead of four. And the regular sight of thousands of singing, dancing Zulu maidens was noticeably absent.

Exceptional times call for exceptional measures, and the Zulu tradition known as Umkhosi woMhlanga is no exception. This year, as a result of Covid-19, only 30 maidens were invited to participate in a scaled-down ceremony at the Zulu monarch’s eNyokeni royal palace in Nongoma, KwaZulu-Natal.

It is the last time these maidens will appear at the ceremony. According to Phathisa Mfuyo, spokesperson for the province’s department of arts and culture, this is because they will be marrying soon. 

This year, the message was directed at the perpetrators of gender-based violence.

It is usually the maidens who present King Zwelithini with their reeds. This year, however, it was the king who gave gifts to the maidens. And instead of reeds, they carried placards calling for an end to gender-based violence.

Last year’s ceremony took place amid a wave of nationwide protests following the brutal murder of 19-year-old UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana. This year, the event was held after the bodies of five women were found in the KZN south coast settlement of Mtwalume. They had been murdered.

The group of maidens, led by Princess Cebolenkosi Zulu, asked the king to support the fight against gender-based violence. 

Addressing the small crowd, Zwelithini said he was committed to fighting this scourge. “I want women to rest assured that I am in their corner. I commit myself to fighting for your safety for as long as I live,” the Zulu monarch said.

Zwelithini said it was heartbreaking to bring up a child, only for them to be killed. He said even when perpetrators were caught and convicted, it did nothing to “help the victims who have been abused and have lost their dignity because of these criminals”.

Zwelithini offered his condolences to the families of the victims in Mtwalume. “No nation that allows the killing of women deserves respect,” said Zwelithini.

Over the years, the ceremony has been used by Zwelithini to promote sexual abstinence as a strategy to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids. At least 18% of South Africans living with HIV live in KwaZulu-Natal.

Traditionally, before the ceremony, maidens are expected to undergo virginity testing. Gender activist Nomboniso Gasa has criticised the practice. 

“It puts a burden on young women to prove their virginity and protect it. Umkhosi womhlanga was introduced during the time of King Shaka, where basically the young Zulu maidens would gather together in a festival and celebrate being maidens. There wasn’t as much emphasis on virginity,” said Gasa on a radio show.

Organisations like the World Health Organisation have called for an end to virginity testing, describing it as “unscientific, harmful and a violation of girls’ and women’s human rights”. King Zwelithini has consistently defended the practice, saying it is an essential part of Zulu culture.

The truncated lockdown version of the Reed Dance on 5 September was streamed live on the arts and culture department’s Twitter page and is available on YouTube. DM



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