from Africa in Transition

Modernity and Tradition Clash in South African Reed Dance

Bare-breasted virgins competing for King Mswati III's eye take part in a traditional reed dance at Ludzidzini, Swaziland August 31, 2008. The reed dance in South Africa was just a dance performance, unlike the one pictured in Swaziland. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

June 28, 2018

Bare-breasted virgins competing for King Mswati III's eye take part in a traditional reed dance at Ludzidzini, Swaziland August 31, 2008. The reed dance in South Africa was just a dance performance, unlike the one pictured in Swaziland. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
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The African National Congress (ANC) has governed South Africa since the inauguration of Nelson Mandela in 1994, which formally brought about an end to apartheid. It supported and actively participated in the drafting of the 1996 constitution, which included some of the most sweeping human rights provisions in the world. Based on that constitution, the independent South African judiciary has, among other things, eliminated capital punishment and sanctioned gay marriage. The constitution also has sweeping provisions against discrimination based on race, gender, or religion. The ANC has a long history of strongly supporting gender equality, and many ANC ministers have been women. In the 2017 race for the party leadership, a leading candidate was Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Though defeated by Cyril Ramaphosa, her gender was a source of political strength for many party delegates who believed it was time for a female party leader and, ultimately, chief of state. The constitution is largely sacrosanct in urban, modern South Africa, but this is less true in rural areas, which are often still dominated by traditional rulers and ethnic customs. Discrimination against women is widespread, allegedly sanctioned by traditional custom and contrary to the letter and the spirit of the constitution.

The clash between the modern and the traditional is illustrated by the “reed dance.” Performed by “maidens” in the semi-nude, it is a widespread custom among the Ndebele people, including Xhosas and Zulus, in southern Africa. It is perhaps best known in Swaziland, where the king chooses a new wife every year—he now has fourteen—following the annual reed dance (pictured). Reed dance performances often attract tourists and are seen as folkloric. In South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, the New York Times reported on a reed dance performance organized by a choirmaster in celebration of “Xhosa tradition” that went viral on social media. According to the choirmaster, it was to celebrate “Xhosa heritage.” (The Xhosas are the second largest ethnic group in South Africa, after the Zulus, and are the majority in the Eastern Cape.) 

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The minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, has publicly denounced the performance. She characterized the performance as “completely inappropriate” and that teachers “should know better than to expose teenage girls to this form of exploitation.” She went on: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with being proud of your culture and heritage. But there was absolutely no need for these children to perform completely naked. That indignity goes against the values of our culture.” (According to the New York Times, the performers wore small aprons.) 

Motshekga has been minister of basic education since 2009. She has agitated for more resources for rural schools and for basic female education. She seeks the introduction of the compulsory study of history as part of the curriculum. But she is also the public face of the poor quality of South African primary education, especially in the rural areas and for the black majority more generally. She holds multiple university degrees, including from the highly prestigious University of the Witswatersrand (“Wits”) where she was also a lecturer. She is from Soweto, outside of Johannesburg, and is a veteran of the struggle against apartheid. Like many urban South Africans, she mentions no ethnic affiliation in her standard biographic notes. It is no surprise that she would oppose a “traditional” ceremony that demeans women.

She is a former president of the powerful ANC Womens League (ANCWL), and former President Jacob Zuma appointed her to her current post. The controversial Zuma was chief of state from 2009 to 2018. Especially toward the end of his tenure, when criticism of his crony style of government became widespread in the country’s major cities, Zuma turned to rural areas for political support. He often participated in Zulu traditional ceremonies, including reed dances. As early as 2015, Motshekga’s husband, an ANC member of parliament, called on Zuma to step down. In the 2017 ANC party convention, Motshekga broke with the ANCWL and supported Ramaphosa, rather than Dlamini-Zuma, who was Jacob Zuma’s preferred candidate (and former wife). Ramaphosa was an architect of South Africa’s constitution and in style, he is a modern, attractive figure. He is unlikely to be as sympathetic to South African traditional rulers and their customs as Zuma. 

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Race and Ethnicity

Sub-Saharan Africa

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