Mbabane, Swaziland – The deaths of up to 38 Swazi maidens in a road accident while traveling in unsafe vehicles to the annual reed dance prompted calls for a cancellation of Monday’s event in which tens of thousands of topless teenage virgins dance for King Mswati.
“The girls are packed into these trucks, standing room only, like cattle. This was an accident that was waiting to happen for a long time,” said an eyewitness to the carnage that ensued on Friday night when a truck carrying 50 teenage girls struck a car that police escorts had directed to the roadside.
A second fully-loaded truck slammed into the first lorry from the rear on a decline from a highway bridge in Matsapha, halfway between Manzini and Mswati’s palace at Lozitha.
“According to information gathered, so serious was the accident that the tarmac was awash with blood, and critically injured imbali [maidens] were littered all over the place,” the Swazi Observer newspaper reported on Saturday.
The newspaper hinted at casualties but provided no death figure, while the Times of Swaziland reported seven deaths. On Saturday at least 38 fatalities were reported but without official confirmation.
The Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN), a Pretoria-based pro-democracy group, said the death toll was likely to rise and claimed Swazi officials were discouraging media coverage. The human rights activists called for the cancellation of the reed dance.
“We hope that the families of the deceased girls will hold the royal family accountable for the deaths of their children,” the SSN said in a statement.
Government claims that 80,000 maidens will dance before King Mswati on Monday. Some of the girls may hope to be chosen as the polygamous king’s 15th wife. Mswati chose one of the teenagers as a bride last year.
The event has become a tourism draw and will not be postponed or canceled, government sources say.
Reed dance organisers insist that participation is voluntary, although this is disputed by government critics who say chiefs penalise families who do not send their daughters to dance for the king.
The way the girls are transported will have to be reviewed, according to parents whose daughters are participating in this year’s dance.
“Why are the girls not transported in buses like human beings? Why must they stand up in open trucks and be moved like cattle from one place to another?” asked a mother who declined to give her name.
The availability of so many trucks for the reed dance comes at a time when government says lack of transport has stopped distribution of emergency food aid to thousands of drought victims.
In Parliament this week, MPs threatened to stop attending sessions of the House of Assembly to protest stalled food distribution.
The Times of Swaziland reported that MPs were told by the deputy prime minister’s office, which manages food aid distribution, that emergency relief had ceased because trucks were unavailable.
African News Agency