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It was meant to be a colourful ceremony presided over by South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma. Instead it turned into a bizarre spectacle with hundreds of women screaming and crying uncontrollably over hallucinations of being attacked by demons.
Every year in September, the Umkhosi woMhlanga or "Royal Reed Dance" is held at the Enyokeni Royal Palace in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. Thousands of young women come from all over Zululand and Swaziland to take part in the eight-day event. Dressed in traditional beads which leave most of the body uncovered, the participating women are obliged to undergo "virginity testing" before the ceremony begins to ensure their eligibility.
They then dance bare-breasted for the current Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, who presides over the ceremony and each woman then deposits a reed in front of the king as they pass before him. As in previous years, President Zuma (himself a Zulu) attends the ceremony to show support for Zulu customs. Long practiced in Swaziland, the Reed Dance was only introduced to South Africa in 1991 as a way to discourage young women from becoming sexually active too early. Whenever a young woman is declared ineligible whether due to pregnancy or failing to pass the virginity test, the woman's family is fined a cow.
While it is still uncertain what went wrong at the ceremony, guards were forced to escort the president from the palace as many of the women began pushing each other towards the area where Zuma and the king were sitting. Some were crying and rolling on the ground and later needed medical treatment. Though President Zuma later returned to his seat after ordered was restored, he was unable to give his planned speech since it was late in the evening. The Zulu king was visibly upset by the incident and blamed what happened on "evil spirits."
An investigation determined that some women had begun hallucinating at the very start of the festival, possibly due to the poor weather conditions that the thousands of women in attendance needed to endure. Along with being unusually cold and damp for this time of year, the women had little shelter despite being forced to listen to the king's lengthy speech. There were also allegations that the disruption had been started when some women saw a snake or a large frog though this has been disputed.
Religious leaders were later called in to chase away evil spirits and to help reassure authorities that the crowd was under control.
Whether or not this latest incident was caused by a form of mass hysteria, the annual Reed Dance continues to be marked by controversy and tragedy. Last year, nine women returning from the Reed Dance were killed in a bus accident caused by the unsafe transportation that many participants are forced to use. To prevent further accidents the government has arranged a crackdown on all buses found to be unsafe.
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