Press "Enter" to skip to content

Reed Dance does many things well, fight HIV not one of them

By Vadim Nikitin

Last weekend my friends and I lost our Reed Dance virginity.

Prior to the deed, my white-liberal squeamishness mingled with a prurient male curiosity. Thousands of essentially naked young ladies having their maidenhood (and much more besides!) scrutinised by an ageing polygamist monarch? Charming, yes, but not generally my idea of a progressive event.

Once there, however, I was floored by the contagious pride, wholesome joy and undeniable sense of empowerment radiating from all the participants. Seeing women of all shapes and sizes (some even with disabilities) voluntarily coming from all over the province and all walks of life to help rebuild their culture from apartheid’s spiritual devastation quickly put to rest most of my reservations. Except one.

The Reed Dance does many good things: it fosters self-esteem, strengthens community, and provides a strong sense of cultural identity essential for nation-building. But one thing it’s not is a good public-health initiative. So why do its champions insist on trying to shoehorn this storied celebration into South Africa’s anti-Aids campaign?

Attended by President Jacob Zuma and the NFP’s Zanele Magwaza-Msibi, this year’s ceremony took place on September 10 at King Zwelithini’s royal palace in KwaNongoma. Reportedly begun by King Shaka and banned by the racist apartheid regime, the annual Reed Dance, or Umhlanga, was revived in the 1980s as a cornerstone of Zulu cultural and political renaissance. The dance is an important rite of passage for many young women, who carry a long reed symbolising their maidenhood to the king’s palace, where it is incorporated into a fence. Wearing intricate hand-made bead jewellery, they are counselled about marriage and family life by female mentors, and stage an elaborate dance in front of the monarch.

One of the ceremony’s most controversial aspects is the compulsory virginity testing that all maidens are required to undergo. Perhaps as a response to widespread criticisms, Reed Dance authorities have actively re-branded the practice as a weapon in the fight against the Aids epidemic. “It is evident that this ceremony does assist in arresting the spread of HIV/Aids” pronounces the festival’s official booklet. Girls are now told that in addition to being a sacred value and guarantor of future lobola for their families, their virginity also immunises them from contracting the virus.

But such mixed messaging, like that corny joke about crime in multi-storey car parks, is wrong on so many levels.

First, from a practical point of view, though virginity may be an integral and perfectly legitimate part of Zulu custom, it is a spectacularly poor way of preventing pre-marital sex and sexually transmitted infections. Study after study has shown that while abstinence programmes can delay the start of sexual activity by several months, raging hormones eventually get the better of most young people, no matter how hard they resist. And when that happens, adolescents brought up to deny their sexuality are many times more likely to engage in unsafe sex than their peers.

On top of this, preoccupation with an intact hymen often has the unintended effect of encouraging alternative, far riskier sexual practices. For example, a girl can have unprotected anal sex, potentially contract HIV, and still be considered a virgin for the purposes of the Reed Dance. Women known to be virgins have been targeted by men who believe the still-prevalent myth that sex with a virgin can cure Aids. Thigh sex, the sanctioned Zulu method of avoiding penetration, can also result in HIV transmission (even the dance’s promotional booklet opaquely acknowledges that the “this technique has become problematic today because of diseases”).

Unless the Reed Dance aggressively embraces the full spectrum of modern sex education, by encouraging condoms and lifting social taboos on relatively safer non-penetrative techniques such as fellatio and masturbation — steps that an ancient cultural ritual cannot and should not realistically be expected to take — it should stop marketing virginity as a prescription against Aids.

Apart from being counterproductive in the fight against the pandemic, typecasting the Reed Dance as an anti-Aids initiative can have an equally devastating effect on the spiritual integrity of Zulu culture itself. Trying to reconcile cultural-religious teachings with the logic of modern life is an age-old challenge that has led some to seek supposed practical contemporary justifications for ancient precepts. Pork is haram? That’s because pigs are dirty and in the past it was easy to catch diseases from them. Shellfish is not kosher? That was to prevent food poisoning in the days before refrigerators could safely store seafood. While such thinking may be an understandable attempt to make old traditions relevant to modern audiences, it can be dangerous.

Firstly, it threatens the erosion of crucial rituals once their “practical” value appears to have become obsolete. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it misunderstands that religion and culture occupy a qualitatively different philosophical space from science and social policy — one of mystery, cultural narrative, and spiritual belief. That’s precisely why Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and one of England’s deepest thinkers, opposed his own congregation’s demands for biblical creationism to be taught alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in school science classes. Creation, Williams argued, is not a theory like Darwinism to be proven or disproven, but an article of faith. Mixing up the scientific and the spiritual represents at best a category mistake and at worst a fundamental lack of confidence in either.

The Reed Dance does many things well, but fighting HIV is not one of them. Nor should it be: that’s a job for medical, political and educational authorities — rather than spiritual ones. Trying to rationalise the ritual’s controversial practices on the cheap by hitching them to the Aids bandwagon is both dangerous to public health and insulting to Zulu culture.

Author

  • Journalist Vadim Nikitin claims to be working on a book about nostalgia. He blames his poor judgement and unhealthy obsession with the past on having been born perilously close to the Soviet Union's largest nuclear submarine base.

31 Comments

  1. Ilioscia Ilioscia 21 September 2011

    Interesting perspective, as always!

  2. Mnguni Mnguni 21 September 2011

    Vadimin- you are not Zulu, why are you worried about us? We are honestly tired of uninvited opinions about our culture. Stick to your culture (if you have it) and leave us the Zulus to determine our own practices and what we say..

  3. Ernest Ernest 21 September 2011

    Vadim has a right to maintaining some perspective on this but it is clear he is biased from the onset. What he is ultimately saying is that absinence is impossible. Furthermore, he fails to recognise that a response to HIV and AIDS is complete once it is multi-faceted, you can not ignore the positive of some practices in contributing towards the HIV and AIDS response. You may need to explore the Zulu culture deeper rather speaking on its behalf without clarity. Absinence, virginity and delayed sexual debut is as equally important as condom use, VCT, acess information, safe blood handling etc. Not one of these is complete on its own. The same applies with the Reed Dance not as an event but as a means to encourage delayed sexual debut and a pride in chastity!

  4. Jeanitae Jeanitae 21 September 2011

    thanks again for your provocative lens. I honestly do not tire of your posts/opinion here and look forward to more! on a related note, would also be curious to hear your thoughts on male circumcision. keep on.

  5. Tamsanqa Tamsanqa 21 September 2011

    fellatio is not necesarily safe due to oral cancer

  6. Halalisani Halalisani 21 September 2011

    Nice attempt in veiling your racist attitude, blame everything black and their culture and yet you got your own European beliefs and superstitions which are ridiculous.
    In england you have institutions that help married people to cheat and in Holland you have prostitution and drugs

    Virginity testing has saved many young lives and by the time they get married they are matured enough to at least make informed decisions about sex.
    What have you offered the world? Isn’t virginity testing the same as abstainance? You racists just cnt resist to take a stap at us. Remove the plank you might see better.

  7. john carter john carter 21 September 2011

    @Mnguni, it seems that has been happening, and obviously to no great effect. admit when a wrong needs to be righted. instead of getting angry at fellow countrymen trying to offer help or advice for the better of everyone, why don’t you offer your own opinion on how we can solve the dilemma of HIV, instead of, as usual, making it a race issue and spitting vitriol!

  8. Siya Siya 22 September 2011

    Abstinence is part of the LoveLife campaign, so why criticize umkhosi womhlanga for doing its bit to promote abstinence?

  9. Rambau Fhatuwani Rambau Fhatuwani 22 September 2011

    It is Okay to look at other cultures with envy but I think it is wrong when you start to develop jealous because your culture lacks cultural practises. This is your opportunity for cultural exchange so that you can enrich your culture. Whether the reed dance minimises the rate of HIV transmission or not, who are you to judge. My assumption is that you might be white and intolerant to other people. I suggest you write about the strategy to overcome whites resilient to reconciliation.

  10. The Critical Cynic The Critical Cynic 22 September 2011

    Mnguni, your response is so typical of people who think they know better than everyone else. Perhaps you haven’t realised how arrogant it sounds when someone claims to be able to speak on behalf of an entire [Zulu] nation. Isn’t it up to your king to make such all-encompasing pronouncements?

  11. MLH MLH 22 September 2011

    While I completely understand the writer’s interest from a societal point of view, I cannot really fathom why he needed to comment on his experience to the world at large, or make of it a general social issue.
    We all have opinions on the traditional habits of various South African tribes, but their traditions are theirs. Whether I would want a daughter of mine to do the same, is my only concern.
    I well remember wondering when I was young, how tasteless life would be if I was not able to enjoy cheese sauce on my cauliflower with a piece of roast chicken. To Jewish people, the separation of meat and milk made perfect sense. I am not here to live anyone else’s life but mine, which I intend to do to the best of my ability.
    However, I read into this blog no vicious criticism and I’m sure the writer intended none.
    I have found myself getting riled over issues that do affect me: Christians who insist that my own church’s traditions are wrong (what earthly difference does it make to them that I kneel to pray when they choose to sit?); Muslims who want hot cross buns without the cross (produce a spiced bun without the cross, for heaven’s sake), or black people who suppose I should channel my earnings their way instead of educating my son, who does not receive free education.
    We can all find plenty to whinge about, but on reflection, Nikitin surely only commented on how difficult it is to mix traditional and modern concepts.

  12. Tony Hatford Tony Hatford 22 September 2011

    “Women known to be virgins have been targeted by men who believe the still-prevalent myth that sex with a virgin can cure Aids.”

    That Africans ever believed having sex with virgins is a cure for HIV/Aids is a monumental myth that has become fact only from retelling. I advise anybody to point out one black South African who ever believed this, and I assure you that none will materialize. The myth is actually an old European myth in response to syphilis

    (see for example: http://criminaladvice.net/look-virgin57381.htm and http://www.botshabelo.org/sa_history.html)

    It was resuscitated in the time of AIDS activists in order to obtain funding for AIDS prevention campaigns. It resonated with racist donors who were naturally accepted that black Africans plausibly believe such nonsense. I suggest you peruse through our law journals and reports and try find just one case where rape was motivated by this myth. None exists. Try finding evidence of this in the black tabloids and you will come up with naught bar for articles and publicity materials from AIDS activists.

  13. Irish_Bebop Irish_Bebop 22 September 2011

    Will it always impossible to comment on any aspect of another culture without been branded irreparable racists? I understand where such knee-jerk reactions come from, given the past, but in reality such defensiveness is counterproductive in the present.

    The author is not suggesting that cultural practices be done away with, in fact at times he suggests that linking this particular cultural practice with the global discourse on HIV/AIDS discourse is not the best way of preserving its spiritual and cultural integrity.

    Those who flinch at such commentary are unlikely to be very critical of their own cultures, and cultures that don’t allow such reflection on their values and practices risk endangering themselves in the long run, through irrelevance and stagnation.

    Cultures have always evolved, and those that have not have generally died out as a result. If you are truly proud of your culture, you should be willing to give it the analysis it deserves – and not relegate it to the status of some inanimate and unchanging relic.

  14. Vadim Nikitin Vadim Nikitin 22 September 2011

    @ Tony Hartford.

    Thanks for engaging with my piece. The “sex with virgins cures HIV” myth is indeed very controversial, but it’s been reported about in respected mainstream media outlets. Eg, this piece in the Daily Telegraph: http://tiny.cc/748z8

    Young women in South Africa continue to be disproportionately sexually victimised on the basis of their virginity. While there is much debate in the scientific&academic community as to how prevalent this myth is as a rape motivator (not very), it is certainly not a conspiracy by “racist donors”.

    I relied on the following article from The Lancet, the authoritative British health journal (Vol 359, Issue 9303, Pages 274 – 275, 26 January 2002):

    “There is growing support for the theory that infant rape is related to a myth that intercourse with a very young virgin infant will enable the perpetrator to rid himself of HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted infections. This myth is thought to have originated in Central Africa and has moved south along with the HIV pandemic.

    A study from the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town confirmed a 1% seroconversion rate in a cohort of 200 child rape victims. The presence of a sexually transmitted infection increases the risk of HIV-1 transmission two-fold to five-fold and young girls in South Africa have been shown to be at very high risk of becoming infected after a limited number of sexual exposures,14 possibly because of the high prevalence of other sexually…

  15. Vadim Nikitin Vadim Nikitin 22 September 2011

    @Halalisani: Thanks for writing, but I think you might have mis-read my piece.

    I actually commended the Reed Dance as a very positive celebration, and said nothing at all against virginity testing as a cultural practise. In fact, I’m arguing that the Reed Dance is too important to be reduced to an anti-AIDS campaign.

    Abstinence is a great virtue, and forms part of the official ABC approach to fighting HIV (Abstinence, Be Faithful, Condoms). But it can only work if it is included together with the other two. Abstinence by itself can be counterproductive for HIV.

    So I’m not saying that abstinence is bad as a moral value. It’s a wonderful thing. I think everyone should aspire to have sex only when they are emotionally ready, and it’s great that it forms such an important part of Zulu culture.

    All I’m saying is that people should aspire to abstinence for moral reasons, not to fight HIV.

    If you want to do that, then it has to include much more than just abstinence to work. Let the Reed Dance teach abstinence and maidenhood for its own original reasons, which are compelling enough without needing to pretend that it also fights AIDS.

    The targets of my piece were misguided policymakers, not your rich culture.

  16. Sipho Sipho 22 September 2011

    @Vadim Nikitin – so what is your point? Is it that the reed dance should be abolished for the second time? Are saying the racist apartheid regime was right in banning the custom? Or are you saying reed dance can continue minus any mention of HIV/AIDS prevention? Are you convinced that of all the thousands of amaZulu who observe the custom, you’re the cleverest? I guess I know why you think so.

    Indeed people who are ignorant of amaZulu tradition will find wisdom in your missive and come to your defence. Infact you don’t to be informed, you can say anything negative about any African culture your people will defend you. Me thinks it’s unwise to comment on things you don’t understand, unless your intention is to play to gallery of fellow bigots.

  17. Mtutuzeli Mtutuzeli 22 September 2011

    So easy to analyze from outside, neh? Typical of non-Africans neh?

  18. Patrick Kikine Patrick Kikine 23 September 2011

    There is no harm in sharing ones views on any subject as long as one is honest and genuine about it. In this case it is not clear whether the writer has close to heart personal issues when the reality of the fact which cannot be disputed disturbs his or her peace, that there are women who are proud of themselves as women and are proud of their culture and are satisfied to demonstrate such culture even by encouraging others to live a clean lifestyle to fight against aids. It is possible to envy someone for being successful. I agree that there will always be those who will cheat but they are at a very low scale compared to those who are genuine. People should accept that there are a lot of good from the african cultures than bad just like from any other culture in the whole world.

  19. africa lover africa lover 23 September 2011

    thanks for interesting debate – the core issue, girls and sex
    but I am puzzled.
    You are saying sex-in-thighs is dangerous (disease-wise) but oral sex is not? Could you explain – unless this just reveals your preferences, which are Ok by me – I take both anyway not to discount the traditional one of course.

    thanks

  20. gaya gaya 23 September 2011

    Tony Hatford, I have spend 3 years of my life in Jhb Female prison along with almost 1 000 black women. I assure you that most of them believed that sex with a virgin will cure HIV/Aids. I don’t know where the believe started, but they surely believe it. They also believe that condoms contain worms put there by the white man to infest them. As proof they’d open a condom and put it in a glass with hot water. The oil surrounding the condom comes off in globules in the hot water, and they will argue till they’re whiten the face that those are worms.

  21. Sipho Sipho 23 September 2011

    @gaya – I also know 1000 white people who believe that black people never tell the truth.I also know many white people who believe that black people have small brains with small fissures which make them less intelligent. I also know many white people who believe that it’s genetic that black people tend to excell in their chosen sport. I also know many white people who are scared that blacks will cut their throat during sleep. I also know may white people who believe that black males have an above average sex drive. I can go on and on…

    So what is your point gaya..

  22. Anti-fascist Anti-fascist 24 September 2011

    Those of you who deny the present on account of an idealised past are caught up in the most dangerous kind of thinking. This leads to facism, the most dangerous stance against maintaining the beauty of pluralistic democracy.

    The key thing to understand about the past – and the traditions which preserve our memory of it – is that it is no more. We live in the present, standing on the precipice of the future. When we try to transpose the past onto the present, we forget our relation to both the future and the present.

    In the past, HIV/AIDS was not a big concern. In the past, there were few if any safe contraceptive methods. In the past, women were property and not human beings. The present, needless to say, is vastly different.

    Any attempts to preserve past traditions at the expense of present problems leads to fascist thinking. The defining feature of this is to say that there are ‘others’ or a ‘them’ who threaten the integrity of ‘us’ or ‘we.’ But the South African ‘we’ is not the Zulu ‘we,’ or Afrikaans ‘us.’ All South Africans fall under the collective pronoun post-1994. Our present task is to invent a culture which all of us share without abandoning the traditions from whence we come.

    The question is not ‘how do we preserve who we were?’ The question is ‘who are we now?’ It would be more fruitful to take the path less travelled, invent ourselves, than to choose the easy option – letting our past imprison our present, and threaten the…

  23. Gods'=citizen Gods'=citizen 25 September 2011

    This years reed dance was funded by South African workers’ taxes. This Swazi Cultural tradition is now tainted by South African Funds… you may as well call it the black-green&gold dance

  24. Mdizman Mdizman 25 September 2011

    @ Gaya,

    The fact that you spent 3 years in prison speaks volumes on the type of person you are. Quit lying about female prisoner beleifs. Rather highlight the efforts by prison officials in eliminating recidivism from you and your fellow inmates.Your racist opinion about Black prisoners and their beleifs only serves to highlight the lowest degree to which you have sunk in your attitude to Black prisoners.Please take note that a prisoner remains a prisoner irrespective of colour.Your pathetic attempt to elevate a white prisoner to a higher status than a black prisoner in terms of intelligence is racist to the core.God help you

  25. gaya gaya 25 September 2011

    Sipho, the topic here was sex (abstinance) and HIV/Aids. If the topic was what the white man believes about the black man and vice versa, your comments would be spot on. Tony Hartford stated that it is a MYTH that Africans believe that sex with a virgin cures HIV/Aids, and saying it’s a myth means he’s saying that it’s not true that any African believes it. In other words, if I say to you that it’s a myth that white people believe that Africans never tell the truth, you’d tell me I’m wrong, you know many who believe it, so it’s not a myth. We can then argue percentages and decide if the majority of white people believe it or not. I pointed out to him that of the 1134 black women that was in prison in the time I was there, at least 1000 of them believed sex with a virgin to cure HIV/Aids. That’s a rather high percentage of black women from all walks of life in prison. I was telling him his statement is wrong and in my experience many Africans do believe it, so therefor it’s not a myth that Africans believe it. Do you get my point now, or do only naive African women who don’t know any better land up in prison, not educated ones?

  26. Maud Nxumalo Maud Nxumalo 26 September 2011

    Get rid of this outdated custom,that has reduced women to dancing idiots.
    Women of the world are Presidents and and want to go to the moon,we
    need someone to get us out of the recession,and all we do is dance naked,
    stop this madness.

  27. gaya gaya 26 September 2011

    Mdizman, how you read what you read in my statement is beyond me. There is no racism in female prison. I have left prison with a great many black friends whom I visit with regularly to this day. I still visit some of my (some black) friends there too, and have a great rapport with the mainly black prison staff. That still does not change the facts as I experienced and mentioned them and if you are not adult enough to face the facts, and want to blame racism on everything, you must be a sad person. Actually, seeing that you and Sipho think in terms of race only, I’d like to mention that prison was an eye opener for many white women with regards to black women. Before prison very few of us socialised with black women. There we learned that we are all exactly the same. Our colours might differ, but we all yearn and long for the same things. We all cry for the same things and we all laugh about the same things. Find yourself a female friend in prison and ask her what she thinks of white women, and she’d tell you the same. Oh yes, I ended up in prison because a man attacked me in my house. He beat me and wanted to rape me. The only weapon I could find was a Bauer pan. I hit him over the head with it. I got 6 years for manslaughter because the judge said I did not have to hit him a 2nd time. I’d do it again in a heartbeat and will go to prison for it again. I will treasure the friendships I built and the lessons I learned there for a lifetime. Bless all female…

  28. Expzionz Expzionz 26 September 2011

    So you would rather have the reed dance without the HIV prevention slogan attached, I find that to be problematic as the reed dance promotes no sexual intercourse until a woman reaches a mature age which is the same message that the churches are preaching abstinence.

  29. jack sparrow jack sparrow 27 September 2011

    This is damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The custom certainly doesn’t seem to fit in with woman’s lib ideas but neither do beauty pageants. If it has a positive effect on reducing HIV/AIDS; good. The personal and racist criticism of gaya seems unwarranted. Try attack the fact, not the person.

  30. girlofsa girlofsa 6 May 2013

    dude, nobody says you should not say you views about HIVbut the problem that i have is that you tried to analysed it using Zulu culture. let me tell you something, in order for you to comment anything involves african culture u have to be africa not white or whatever you are. you know nothing about reed dance and u will never know so keep you mouth shut and let the zulus who were born for it to tell people like you what is reed dance and what it means to zulu people. right now you are out of the line.

  31. Heya i’m for the first time here. I found this board and
    I find It really useful & it helped me out a lot. I hope to give something back and aid others like you helped me.

Leave a Reply