Reed dance attracts unwanted voyeurs

The annual reed dance is an important event on the Swazi cultural calendar - but the thousands of adolescent maidens who take part are drawing the attention of sex tourists from all over the world.

Some of them, mainly male European tourist armed with video cameras and modern digital cameras, are not afraid to admit that "it is the only place in the world where we can see bare-breasted women and buttocks".

Yet the Swazi authorities seem to be unaware that maidens are being targeted for sexual reasons.

Every year, tourists and the international media converge on the kingdom of Swaziland for the reed dance, which took place last weekend. The ceremony - actually a form of homage to the Swazi Queen Mother - has become known as the day King Mswati III chooses a new wife, leading to accusations by the international community of abuse of power.

But are the tourists who travel there specifically to ogle near-naked maidens any better than the king?

Jan Willem, of the Netherlands, said he was on a journey travelling through Africa and it was his first time experiencing the dance.

He said he had waited for a month in Swaziland especially for the event.

Willem did not know what the dance was about. He said: "it's a unique celebration and it's one of the few places we can see bare-breasted women".

Even though the tourists were told not to take photographs of the girls below the waist, it was evident that most of them - mainly men - were taking photographs as they wished.

It was also striking that when the very young maidens passed before the king and the photographers, no one showed much interest. But when the teenagers and the young women danced, photographers flocked towards the girls.

Adrianne Holtak said he lived between KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland, and this was his fifth time attending the dance. This time he had brought a friend from Cape Town "to experience this beautiful event filled with beautiful women".

Last year, he said, he made a two-hour movie about the dance. When asked what he had done with the footage, he laughed and did not give an answer.

He said: "I come to see the beautiful women and I enjoy watching them."

Chinese tourist Jianhong Li, of Beijing, has also made it his business not to miss the ceremony, and this year's visit was his fourth to the kingdom.

"The girls are beautiful and they are all interested in dancing. I always want to come back again and see more," said Li.

On the second day of the reed dance, in the morning, some tourists watched the girls and took photographs of them while they were bathing in the nearby river. Motorists, too, were spotted luring the girls by promising them food and money.

A man from Chile who claimed to be a "freelancer", stood among the girls in the Lusushwana River, taking photographs.

When confronted and asked why he was not taking photographs where the ceremony took place at Ludzidzini, he said: "I do not like your line of questioning, lady. I don't have to explain anything to you."

Also, on the main road to the royal palace, lines of luxury cars were parked at the side of the road, the drivers negotiating with the girls to get into the cars.

Siphelile Thabethe, 16, Nokuthula Mathebula, 14, and Jabulile Manana, 13, confirmed that they were standing at the side of the road because they wanted a lift home to Matsapha as they had run out of money.

A Mercedes-Benz was seen leaving after the driver spoke to them. They were visibly afraid, and they confirmed that the car had been driving up and down the road for a long time and the driver had been asking them to "come with him to where he stays at the hotel".

For the annual reed dance in KwaZulu-Natal, which takes place today, the Zulu royal household has banned all photographers except accredited ones - because explicit photographs of Zulu maidens have landed up on the Internet.

Bethuel Ngcobo, spokesperson for the Zulu royal household, said that they had been monitoring closely who took photographs at their annual reed dance.

"We have always had a plan and we are aware of that issue. That is why every journalist has to be accredited," said Ngcobo.

But Jim Gama, governor of Swaziland's eLudzidzini region, said the authorities were not aware that people "could come and do such things" like take sexually explicit photographs of the maidens.

He said it would be difficult to control what photographers did with their pictures.

"We did not know that people can come here and do funny things, but we will see what we can do," said Gama.


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