Dozens of girls and young women have been killed as they travelled to a traditional festival where the King of Swaziland is known to pick a new bride from thousands of topless virgins.
King Mswati III is refusing to buckle to pressure to cancel the country’s annual reed dance after at least 30 young Swazi virgins died in the gruesome truck accident.
The incident took place in the Matsapha region late on Friday around two miles from where the eight day reed dance is due to be held.
The girls and young women, who were dressed in short beaded skirts with ankle bracelets and jewelry covered sashes, were packed on the back of an open truck that was transporting them to the event.
It is understood that the truck swerved to avoid another car, throwing its passengers onto the road where they were run down by oncoming traffic.
“The king has already mourned to the nation and that is enough, the reed dance is going on as scheduled,” King Mswati III’s younger sister Princess Tsandzile Dlamini, who is also home affairs minister, told The Telegraph.
One of the drivers involved in the crash has been arrested, a newspaper in Swaziland reported on Sunday.
A 46-year-old man appeared in court on Saturday on charges of negligence, after the truck he was driving smashed into the back of another vehicle, the Times of Swaziland reported.
Bheki Gama, a freelance journalist who was at the scene of the accident, disputed the government’s claims that only 13 maidens had died.
He said paramedics had told him that dozens of young women had died at the scene or on the way to hospital.
He said he saw at least five bodies strewn across the on-ramp, which was covered with blood.
“It was absolutely terrible,” he said. “There were bodies everywhere. The tar was covered with blood. Many of the bodies had been collected by the time I arrived.”
Mr Gama said witnesses described to him how trucks packed with the maidens had been traveling in convoy to the event at the Ludzidzini Royal Village outside of the town of Manzini in central Swaziland.
“Before the reed dance, police accompany these trucks. All of us are stopped to give way. At the on ramp a motorist was waved aside by the police when the saw the trucks coming.
“A truck swerved to avoid the car. The girls were thrown out of the back on the highway. The trucks that were following then rode over the girls on the highway.”
Mr Gama said the government blacked out coverage of the accident and is refusing to release information to journalists.
Lucky Lukhele, a spokesman for the Pretoria based pro-democracy Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN), said at least 65 girls had died in the accident.
“We can confirm that the girls were transported in open trucks meant to carry building material and that is why the number of deaths is so high,” Mr Lukhele said.
“According to our reports from military and medical officials, at least 65 girls were dead by midnight on Saturday.”
Mr Lukhele called for the reed dance to be postponed, saying it was inappropriate for young women to dance at a time of misery.
“We appeal to the king to do what is in the best interests of the people of Swaziland and turn the reed dance into a to a prayer session,” he said.
Mswati III, who has 14 wives and is known for living opulently despite his country being one of the poorest in the world, has been the king of Swaziland since 1986.
He has chosen a number of his wives from the virgins who attend the dance.
But critics of the festival say it has been hijacked from its original purpose, which they say was to merely dance for the Queen Mother and present reeds used to build cooking houses.