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Tens of thousands of Swazi maidens preparing to dance semi-naked before King Mswati at Monday’s annual Reed Dance have been told that if they want to become Mswati’s 14th wife they must do more than sing his praises but also show their contempt for multi-party democracy.
“There are some people who call for political parties. Maidens felt that one way of challenging them is through song,” said Lobayeni Dlamini.
No survey of maidens’ views on the subject was ever taken, and the decision to insert pro-monarchy songs into the traditional event appears to have been taken by the royal Dlamini family. The Swazi media reported that authorities in the royal household composed the songs.
Five hundred maidens from Swaziland’s 350 chiefdoms were given instructions at the country’s maximum security prison at Matsapha, and told to return to their chiefdoms and teach other maidens the anti-democracy songs for presentation on Monday.
One song goes, “Political parties are dark presences. Political parties set people against each other. Your Majesty, we don’t want political parties.”
Last year King Mswati’s eldest daughter, Princess Sikhanyiso, who aspires to be a hip-hop star, was given centre stage at the Reed Dance to sing a song to her father warning of enemies who sought to steal his throne. She said they were Swazis who wanted a democratic country.
A professional music critic in attendance noted dryly, “It’s good that the princess finally found a listener for her hip-hop.”
Maidens customarily improvise songs while travelling cross-country to cut reeds that are presented to the queen mother to use for hut construction at the royal village. This year Princess Sikhanyiso told maidens to restrict their songs to matters of Swazi tradition and praise singing for the royal family.
The maidens are as young as nine-years-old, and most have no illusions that they will become the Swazi king’s next wife.
“I came because I am hungry. There is no food at home,” said Thab’sile Simelane, 14, from rural Manzini province.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) this month raised the percentage of Swazis living in absolute poverty to 69 percent. Simelane said some days her family went without meals, and she was excited about the Reed Dance because she would taste meat for the first time in months.
Although the government says it is in a deep financial crisis and cannot afford to increase teachers’ or nurses’ salaries, an unknown amount of public money is being spent on the transport, feeding and housing of the 80 000 to 100 000 maidens taking part in this year’s royal pageant. R2 million is being spent to purchase shoes for the mostly impoverished girls so they might look presentable to the king.
The maidens have used the trip away from their homes to visit night spots, become intoxicated and have sexual flings. The Swaziland Police Force has been called in this year to enforce new rules restricting maidens from bathing nude in streams after sundown, drinking or wearing makeup.