Monday 14 April 2003: The South African media have been paying plenty of attention to an ancient tribe’s new monarch, writes Rory Carroll.
Africa’s legendary Balobedu tribe enters an era of modernity and scandal this week following the crowning of its youngest rain queen, a descendant of the female monarchs who inspired the phrase “she who must be obeyed”.
Makobo Modjadji, a 25-year-old princess, was crowned Queen Modjadji VI at an elaborate ceremony held in the highland bushveld of South Africa’s Limpopo province.
Last Friday, the day of the ceremony, hot sun gave way to clouds and light drizzle: a welcome omen for a drought-ravaged realm. Government dignitaries, traditional leaders and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of ex-president Nelson Mandela, joined well-wishers at the royal court to watch the coronation.
The queen, who was presented with a royal leopard skin and sacred drum by King Mphephu, of the neighbouring Venda people, is the first Balobedu monarch to be educated.
She is also the first to have her private life scrutinised by the media in a manner that has been compared, by some elders, to the British tabloids’ treatment of Princess Diana.
The mystique that inspired She, Rider Haggard’s classic 19th century novel, has been eroded since the previous queen, a formidable and aloof figure who snubbed President Mandela, died in 2001 after a 21-year reign.
Modjadji V’s daughter had died, so succession passed to her granddaughter. As a teenage princess, her liaisons were chronicled – some say manufactured or distorted – by local newspapers, and that attention is expected to continue into her reign.
She will be expected to dump her boyfriend, a municipal manager with local government, because he is not from a noble family.
Tribal custom dictates that she will not marry, but will have consorts (approved by the royal council) to produce a female heir. She will also have maidens, traditionally referred to as wives, to help run the royal household.
“It is not lesbian business: the maidens are there to serve her. Her private relations will be with appropriate men,” said Mohale Malatji, a member of the royal council.
Mr Malatji denounced allegations about the princess’s private life as “scurrilous”, and said that the 1 million-strong tribe was proud to have a monarch who could read and drive.
If negotiations with the Nelson Mandela Foundation go well, she will travel to Britain to study, with management one possible course, he added.
On the eve of the crowning ceremony, the Guardian was granted an audience with the princess in her palace, a large, modern house overlooking a valley. Busy arranging cutlery for the banquet with her maidens, she was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.
Previous queens had tended to be pale from staying indoors, prompting the myth of a white queen, but Modjadji VI was as dark as the maidens. Observing custom, she nodded, smiled and said nothing as a male adviser declared her delight and sense of responsibility at soon becoming a queen.
For the ceremony, she wore an orange and black outfit with a matching turban, brown lipstick and gold earrings. She did not make a speech.
“It is a constitutional monarchy, like Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair,” Mr Malatji explained. The 22-strong royal council, exclusively male, acts as the executive.
Because of its ability to deliver votes, the royal court has been wooed by the ruling African National Congress. After bestowing a paved road, a health clinic and two luxury vehicles, Mr Mandela, then president, established good relations.
The Balobedu migrated south from Zimbabwe in the 16th century. Monarchs became female when King Mugado, suspecting that a coup was being plotted, is said to have killed his sons and married his daughter. Their firstborn, a boy, was strangled at birth, and the secondborn, a girl, became the first queen.
Such was the queens’ reputation for meteorological control that even Shaka, the Zulu warrior-king, did not invade their territory. Mr Malatji said that it was not a question of magical powers, but intercession with ancestors to appeal for rain.
Monday 14 April 2003