As a woman of Africa, born in Zambia, educated in England and Australia and now living in Cape Town, I have spent a lifetime being viewed as a foreigner from another land. Who am I, where am I from and where do I belong are questions that have tugged at me my whole life.
Perhaps this rootless background explains why I was so deeply moved by my recent experience as an invited guest of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelethini at the Royal Reed Dance (uMkhosiwo Mhlanga) in Nongoma, Northern KZN, facilitated through the Old Mutual Legends programme my company implements.
A Royal Spectacle
The Reed Dance has been celebrated for generations, chiefly as a rite of passage for Zulu maidens into adulthood but also as a celebration of the Zulu nation as a whole. According to Zulu tradition, only virgins are permitted to take part in the festival to ensure that the maidens are ritually 'pure'.
To a non-Zulu observer one could imagine that this ritual might feel out-dated or exploitative, yet it was clear that the sense of pride these 30,000 young Zulu maidens experienced as they carried their 7-metre reeds to present them to the King, transcended these concerns.
The honour these girls felt, and their deep sense of belonging to the Zulu tribe was obvious, and enviable. It is this sense of history and cultural pride that apartheid tried so hard to eliminate.
Not All Smiles & Laughter
However, for all the celebration and festivities, one wonders on reflection if an ancient ceremony that requires girls to present themselves for virginity testing, has a place in our modern age of equality and women’s rights?
More disturbing was the disconcerting sight of carloads of young men flooding in for the ‘after party’, and the sense that for all the contagious joy and celebration of the event itself, many of these 30,000 maidens firmly believed that their only chance to survive in life was to find a husband and secure a good lobola for their family. As a woman and mother, I was left wondering about the future of these young girls.
An Opportunity for Lasting Empowerment
My concern, as a development specialist and enterprise activist with a special focus on rural communities, is the lack of choice these girls seem to have. Access to a quality education and other career opportunities, which would make the difference between presenting oneself for a husband as a genuine choice rather than a desperate act of self-preservation, are sorely lacking.
Simple solutions, such as the introduction of ‘careers tents’ before or after the event itself, where girls (and boys) can get information on education options, bursaries, and other skills training, offer huge possibilities. This could extend to pre-or-post ceremony seminars providing practical life-skills training, safe-sex seminars (building on what is already in place), films and videos where both the girls, and visiting males could learn and empower themselves.
Looking to the Future
In the end, for all its wonder and spectacle the Reed Dance, my trip to rural KZN left me with a simmering sense of outrage because juxtaposed to this magnificently powerful cultural event is a deep sense of South Africa having failed our youth, and especially our rural youth.
Would we not prefer to see these girls announce their choice to be doctors, lawyers and teachers first, and Zulu virgins second?
After nearly 20 years of democracy, that we have failed to deliver quality education, employment or real opportunity to millions of our young people, is a national disgrace. While the Royal Reed Dance is a magnificent tradition of powerful proportions, one is reminded that that no matter how rich and royal, cultural heritage alone is not enough.
About the writer
Catherine Wijnberg is an enterprise activist & CEO of Fetola, an enterprise development and economic empowerment agency with a vision to change lives for the better, forever. Visit Fetola for more information.