JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Thousands of young women and girls danced and sang before their king in Swaziland's most famous traditional festival on Sunday, despite calls to cancel the reed dance after dozens of participants died in a car crash.
A reported 38 girls and young women were killed in a road accident on Friday, while on their way to the annual event. The mass festival of thousands of dancing and singing bare-breasted young women continued Sunday and is scheduled to reach a climax Monday, according to witnesses.
The women brought freshly cut reeds to the royal homestead before gathering at the Ludzidzini arena at the royal residences, near the capital Mbabane. Thousands of spectators watched as the young women and girls swayed while singing traditional songs, said witnesses. Swaziland's King Mswati III also joined the dancing, as Ghana's Ashanti king watched from the stands. Young women from neighboring South Africa also joined the celebrations.
But even among the festivities, the tragic accident was not forgotten, with one dancer criticizing how the matter was handled.
"This event should have been stopped. Transport should have been provided to send the maidens home to mourn the death of our fellow sisters," said Scebile Mahlungu. "It is wrong to pretend like nothing has happened. This business as usual pains some of us. It is like ants have died."
One of the drivers involved in the crash has been arrested, the Times of Swaziland reported on Sunday. A 46-year-old man appeared in court on Saturday on charges of negligence, after the truck he was driving smashed into the back of another vehicle.
The man, a driver employed by the government of Swaziland, remains in police custody, the newspaper said. The prosecution opposed bail, saying that many victims are still in hospital.
When the collision happened, the young women were thrown off the flatbed truck that was transporting them and bodies were strewn on the road, according to witnesses quoted by the Swazi Observer newspaper. Cellphone images also show bloodied bodies lying on the back of the truck.
Swazi police at first refused to give any information on the accident but later police spokesman Khulani Mamba said 13 people were killed. A higher death has been given by the Swaziland Solidarity Network, a South African-based rights group, which said the death toll has risen from 38 to 65.
In respect for those killed, the king should call off this year's reed dance, said Lucky Lukhele, spokesman of the Swazi rights group.
"It is not too late to turn the reed dance into a prayer session to allow the Swazi nation to comfort the families of these flowers," said Lukhele Sunday. The dancers are often referred to as 'imbali', the Swati language word for flowers.
About 40,000 young women participate in the eight-day ceremony, in which they sing and dance as they bring reeds to reinforce the windbreak around the royal residence. Often King Mswati III chooses a young woman to become one of his wives. Swaziland is polygamous and the king has 14 wives.