William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Coy Western maidens toy with Zulu culture

Positions Vacant
Wanted: 30 000 dancers for an ensemble performance.
Requirements: Applicants must be virgins, young and single, as well as willing to dance semi-nude.
Remuneration: None.

That’s not a classified advertisement likely to lure the modern woman. Indeed, for a dance director in Paris, London or even Salt Lake City, the challenge of finding 30 000 virginal artistes would boggle the mind, never mind then getting them to perform without pay.

Nevertheless, it’s an annual event in September on the dusty plains of Nongoma, at King Goodwill Zwelithini’s Enyokeni palace. The Reed Dance, uMkhosi woMhlanga, a traditional Zulu ceremony of obeisance before the king, was resurrected in the 1970s with the stated intention being to promote respect for women and to encourage girls to remain chaste until married.

The revival has been enormously successful, drawing busloads of participants to the eight-day event from all over KwaZulu-Natal, as well as from Pondoland, Swaziland, and as far afield as Botswana. It has also become a matter of controversy, sparking a debate that at its nub turns on the question of when culture becomes mere spectacle.

Controversy not because of compulsory virginity testing of all participants at the hands of the village matrons. Nor because of the pathetic men it draws from around the world, whose interests are less Zulu culture and more in nubile bare-breasted maidens and that their skimpy izigege skirts give flashes of their bottoms as they prance along.

What’s causing the fuss is the participation of some young Indian South Africans, as well as a 20-year-old British student, Ella Pill, whose boyfriend is filming a documentary about Zulu culture. All were demurely covered, the Indians in saris. There was no virginity testing of the Indian girls and locals dispute reports that Ms Pill was tested.

The outsiders predictably drew attention, with the Sunday Tribune writing that Ms Pill ‘stole the show’ when she presented her reed, symbolising sexual purity, to the king. King Zwelithini later announced that the festival would henceforth welcome all races.

Young women belonging to the Nomkhubulwane Culture and Young Development Organisation demurred, telling The Mercury that the ceremony was their sacred communication with the ancestors, but other races were taking part just for fun.

‘While we are forced to kneel when talking to the king and royal family members, Ella and the Indian girls just stood up and looked straight at the king,’ Nomkhubulwane’s Mabo Gwala said. ‘The king even hugged her, while we have never had the privilege to hug our king.’

Princess Busi Zulu, the ceremony organiser, said the king was making use of the ceremony to create unity among cultures and for that reason virginity testing and traditional attire would not be compulsory for non-Zulus. ‘People from other cultures will continue to be welcomed. Their cultures do not allow them to expose their breasts and we respect that.’

Princess Zulu has had a sheltered life if she thinks that Western women are not allowed to expose their breasts or, for that matter, that a wet tanga is somehow innately more modest than a bobbing izigege. It is, in any case, to miss the point.

While tolerance of difference – not a trait historically associated with the Zulu nation – is to be welcomed, it shouldn’t mean surrender. On a national occasion it is perfectly appropriate to have English, Zulu, Afrikaner and Indian dance troupes performing alongside one another.

But if you want to join an Afrikaner volkspele group performing at the Voortrekker Monument, you don’t pitch up wearing your English Morris dancing outfit. And vice versa at an 1820 Settlers Monument event.

Getting to grips with traditional Zulu culture isn’t just donning a sari or sports-bra and grabbing a reed. There is somewhat more nuance and commitment required than that.

One can argue until the Nguni cows wind over the koppies about patriarchy, the gender politics of virginity testing, and about social pressure in small communities. Fact is, when you willingly sign up for an event you accept the entry regulations; if you don’t like them, you remain a spectator.

To accommodate the squeamish and the vain, by all means allow participating Westernised maidens to obtain their virginity certification from city gynaecologists and to their beaded apparel from a haute couture designer. But stick to the rules, otherwise a genuine Zulu cultural celebration will degenerate into just another tourist spectacle.

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