Mbabane - Tens of thousands of unmarried young women who will be dancing topless before King Mswati at Sunday’s Reed Dance have been banned from following custom and bathing naked at the Lusushwana River.

The bathing site is next to Eludzidzini royal residence, which hosts the annual ceremony, Swaziland’s top tourism attraction. Growth of the neighbouring Mbabane suburb Ezulwini has put the river in sight of homes and hotels.

“The girls cannot be enjoyed by commoners and tourists. Let them come to the dance, where they will see plenty of the girls in their traditional costumes. The maidens are for the king,” said Thab’sile Ndlovu, one of the maiden’s supervisors.

The ban was announced by traditional leader Nonduduzo Zubuko to the maidens as they registered on Tuesday to participate in the event.

The girls will walk all day to collect reeds, which they present to the Queen Mother. According to custom, the maidens then bathe in the Lusushwana River.

Swazi media speculated that the ban might be intended to spare the maidens from being eaten by crocodiles. However, a local hotel insists that no crocodiles inhabit that stretch of the river and that no maiden has ever been bitten.

As he has before, Mswati may use this year’s Reed Dance to select a new bride. Last year, he chose his 15th wife from the girls attending the ceremony.

He does not always select a new bride at the dance, and when he does, it isn’t announced by the palace.

After the number of Mswati’s wives went into double digits in the early 2000s, the king received criticism internationally for enjoying a lavish lifestyle at the expense of his people, 70 percent of whom live in abject poverty, according to UN reports.

Mswati, 46, once cautioned a Western interviewer that discussion of the number of his wives is a breach of protocol.

Each new bride is built her own palace, provided with luxury cars and police security, and allowed to participate on overseas shopping trips with other wives. Royal children attend exclusive private schools.

News that palace functionaries have removed girls from their homes to be isolated at one of the king’s palaces in preparation for betrothal to Mswati usually emerges from the girls’ families several months after the Reed Dance.

About 80 000 girls have registered to participate in the Reed Dance, and their ablution facilities signal progress. - Independent Foreign Service

The Star