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Swazi Reed dance deaths court case begins

Three drivers have appeared in court in Swaziland on charges relating to the deaths of 13 people, mostly children aged 11 to 16, who were being transported on the back of a truck that crashed going to the Reed Dance in 2015.

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Reed dance girls. Photo: Amada44/Wikipedia


Charges range from negligent driving to culpable homicide.

But, nobody who ordered up to sixty girls to travel on the back of an open truck like cattle has been charged.

The Principal Magistrate David Khumalo at Manzini criticised the delay in the case coming to trail and said it must be finalised immediately. The prosecution was not ready and the case was postponed to 14 March 2018.

The deaths caused outrage in August 2015. The exact number of deaths in the incident is disputed. The Swazi Government said 13 people died; 11 children and two older people who were their supervisors. There was widespread disbelief in Swaziland that the death toll was so low. The Swaziland Solidarity Network, a prodemocracy group banned in Swaziland, citing the Swaziland Defence Force as a source, put the figure of deaths at 38. It later revised this figure to 65, citing medical officials as a source.

The official figures included an 11-year-old girl and seven girls aged 16 or under.

They died when they were loaded up onto the back of a truck used for conveying building materials. The truck was involved in a road collision on 28 August 2015. They were on their way to the annual Reed Dance or Umhlanga where they were expected to be among thousands of ‘virgins’ to dance half-naked in front of the King.

King Mswati came in for heavy criticism after the crash because journalists were prevented from reporting the event. King Mswati rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch and media are heavily restricted in his kingdom.

Thousands of young girls from across Swaziland were forced to travel in trucks standing up in the open back cheek-by-jowl. There was no space to sit down or even to turn around. Photographs show that at least sixty children were squashed onto the back of a single truck. Many of the trucks that transported the girls were usually used to move building materials.

Young girls travel this way every year to attend the Reed Dance where they are expected to dance topless in front of King Mswati. Media in Swaziland routinely describe the girls as ‘virgins’ or ‘maidens.’ The King was 46 years old at the time of the accident.

Media reports of the accident are inconsistent, but it is generally agreed that the children were thrown from the back of the truck when it was involved in a collision. Police reported that not all the girls died on the spot. International media reported that journalists in Swaziland were stopped from gathering information about the accident.

Media in Swaziland are heavily censored; the Swazi Observer, one of only two daily newspapers in the kingdom, is in effect owned by the King. The Media Institute of Southern Africa Swaziland chapter in a report on media freedom in Swaziland described the Observer newspapers as a ‘pure propaganda machine for the royal family’.

The Reed Dance, which is also known as Umhlanga, is one of the main cultural events in Swaziland and it is strongly connected with the King. In Swaziland reporting negatively about the Reed Dance would be seen to be the same as criticizing the King.

Femi Falana, a lawyer in Nigeria, later sent a petition to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Mr. Juan Ernesto Mendez; the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences, Ms. Dubravka Simonovic; and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Mr. Christof Heyns.

Punch, a Nigerian-based news site, reported at the time, ‘The lawyer said it was particularly insensitive of the Swaziland monarch to have reportedly allowed the dance festival to proceed despite the news of the victims’ death.

‘He said it was also condemnable that rather than address the issues of rights violation, King Mswati III had continued to cover it up by trying to prevent publication of reports on the incidents.’

According to Punch, the petition read in part, ‘I argue that the annual Umhlanga Reed Dance itself is unlawful as it has continued to perpetuate forced marriages, entirely inconsistent with international human rights standards.

‘I also argue that religion, culture and tradition cannot be used to justify human rights violations, including violence against women, which is what the annual Umhlanga Reed Dance constitutes. The continuation of the Umhlanga Reed Dance also gives rise to other human rights abuses, including forced marriages.

‘Under international human rights law, states like Swaziland are to be held accountable if they fail to act with due diligence to prevent violations of rights such as those highlighted above or to investigate and punish acts of violence against women and provide effective remedies and access to justice for victims and their families.

‘By packing the girls onto the back of open trucks, the government of Swaziland should have reasonably foreseen that this would lead to violation of their rights to life and human dignity.

‘In fact, due diligence places a strict standard of conduct upon the government of Swaziland to protect all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction, including the girls and women.

‘I argue that the government of Swaziland has the supreme duty to prevent acts such as those highlighted above that can cause arbitrary loss of life such as the unnecessary deaths of these girls.’


SOURCE: Swazi Media

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