The spokesman for Swaziland’s government says opponents of the administration are using a traffic accident last week that killed several young women to tarnish the reputation of the southern African kingdom.
The women were on their way to the annual Reed Dance at the Ludzidzini Royal Village, where they would dance bare-breasted in front of King Mswati III, who often chooses his next wife from among them. The government said 10 women and three men were killed in the August 28 accident.
A Johannesburg-based rights group, the Swaziland Solidarity Network, accused the government of understating the fatalities. A wire service report initially put the toll at 38; other reports said there more than 60 deaths.
Group spokesman Lucky Lukhele told The Associated Press it was unacceptable that the government used open flatbed trucks to take dancers to the festival. "Even if it was one, one is too many," Lukhele said.
Opponents said the government could have prevented the deaths by transporting the women in buses instead of what they described as packing them like cattle in a truck. They said that with the king’s 14 wives traveling in luxury BMWs and jets, the kingdom could afford safe transportation for the girls.
Government spokesman Percy Simelane said those who were using the women's deaths as a propaganda tool against the kingdom would not succeed in their plan to undermine the country’s strong cultural heritage and political stability.
“The international media reported the number of deaths was 68," Simelane said. "Mathematically, it doesn’t appear to be reasonable, because we only had eight admitted in our hospitals, and then three were released after two days. ... None of those admitted died.
“Somebody is taking advantage of this unfortunate accident to push his own personal agenda, because the international media is quoting somebody outside Swaziland who has always told people that he ran away from Swaziland for political reasons.”
Some civil society groups had called for the kingdom to postpone this year’s annual Reed Dance to honor the young women who died on their way to the ceremony.
They said the women were victims and that it was unacceptable for the administration to say through the Swazi-Observer newspaper that they were in "service of the nation," defending Swazi cultural heritage.
Simelane disagreed, saying the kingdom woiuld not abandon the country’s rich cultural heritage. “The Reed Dance is in the bracket of those customs of this country that cannot be stopped once started,” he said.
He dismissed the criticism as a publicity stunt.
“I wish the accusations were factual. It is difficult [responding] to something that is not factual,” Simelane said.
Mswati is Africa’s last absolute monarch who chooses the government. He is not subject to the constitution, which bans political parties from taking part in the country's elections.
This week, the European Union passed a resolution calling for Mswati to honor Swaziland's treaty commitments on labor and human rights.
The EU parliament noted “deep concern about the erosion of democracy and basic rights in Swaziland and the increasing brutal manner in which the government is responding to its critics.”
The parliamentarians said noncompliance with its treaty obligations would jeopardize Swaziland's access to lucrative EU markets.
Last year, the United States dropped Swaziland from the African Growth and Opportunities Act for backsliding on human rights and promises of democratic reform.