Held annually, the umhlanga, as it is also known, is regarded as the highlight of the Swazi cultural calendar. It involves tens of thousands of maidens who dance for the king at a special ceremony where he often chooses a wife.
As well as holding great symbolism among Swazis, the reed dance is also a major tourist attraction, bringing scores of overseas visitors and much-needed money to the cash-strapped kingdom, despite claims from rights groups that it exploits young girls.
But this year’s umhlanga, due to take place in September, could be under threat after the newly formed Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (Tucoswa) said it would encourage parents to prevent their children participating if the government does not give in to its members’ demands for salary increases.
Tucoswa president Barnes Dlamini told the Mail & Guardian: “Our first call is that the government should just give teachers the deserved adjustment, but failing this we shall lobby all parents to make sure their kids are home and studying during this period.
“If the government continues to shy away from engaging with the unions and Tucoswa on these issues, then yes, every parent would have to weigh the benefits of education versus reed dancing.”
But the boycott call has angered more traditional sectors of society. Sam Mkhombe, former private secretary to King Mswati III, said: “I think Tucoswa is overspreading its wings and abusing its powers in this matter. The reed dance is a very cultural event and it should be the choice of the people if they attend.
“The boycott won’t be a success. People, especially the girls, love the reed dance; it is a Swazi institution.”
Members of the country’s Senate (the upper chamber, mostly appointed by the king) have gone further, accusing the unions of going against Swazi culture and trying to promote anarchy.
“There are children involved now and it’s clear that they [the unions] want to kill our nation in so doing. Children are the future of this nation,” the chamber’s president, Gelane Zwane, said this week.
“They now even want to affect our culture and traditions. Surely, this country’s politics is getting out of line and needs to be straightened out,” she said.
Dlamini said he did not believe that Tucoswa’s stance – that the reed dance was taking away study time – was hypocritical, even though his organisation has been backing a teachers’ strike that has disrupted several weeks of lessons.
He criticised the Senate for jumping on the reed dance issue instead of trying to resolve the impasse between teachers and the government. “Are they saying that education is less important than the reed dance and, if not, why are they so worried about it now, having been quiet about the national crisis before?” he said.
Meanwhile, the unrest across Swaziland continues and the National Public Service and Allied Workers’ Union and the Swaziland Democratic Nurses’ Union are expected to join the action led by the Swaziland National Association of Teachers.
The protest by the teachers’ union began in June and has resulted in teachers clashing with police, a number of people arrested and several pupils injured by rubber bullets and teargas fired by officers into the crowds.
The government, which says it will not pay salaries to any striking workers, has turned to the country’s Industrial Court, which has declared the teachers’ strike unlawful, but unionists have vowed to continue calling for a salary increase.
Sympathy with the strikers
Local commentators have described the ongoing strike as a national crisis and urged the government to create a solution. Many are angry that the government is refusing to increase teachers’ wages, even though it has agreed on a 10% pay rise for members of Parliament.
Mkhombe, himself a former union leader from the 1980s, said he had some sympathy with the strikers but the government was not in a position to give them a salary increase.
“The government does not have the money and it has been told by the International Monetary Fund to reduce its wage bill,” he said.
“The unions have the right to strike, but they have to think about what is best for the whole country and what gaining their 4.5% would mean for Swaziland as a whole.”
Last month it emerged that the R2.4billion loan from South Africa to Swaziland was back on the cards after reports that a memorandum of understanding had finally been signed by the two countries nearly a year after the deal was first announced.
But South African treasury spokesperson Jabulani Sikhakhane told the M&G there was “nothing new to report at this stage”.
A June report by consultancy firm KPMG noted that Swaziland had one of the slowest economies in Africa and gross domestic product growth was likely to reach only 1% this year and 0.5% in 2013.
The report also noted that unless structural and fiscal reforms were undertaken, “2013 will most probably bring similar financial challenges [to those] seen with the 2011 fiscal crisis”, which was triggered by a decrease in revenues from the regional customs union.