GA-MODJADJI, South Africa, June 20 – Late Sunday night, hours before the funeral for Makobo Caroline Modjadji VI, Rain Queen of the Balobedu, shouts of alarm rang from the mountaintop redoubt that had been her home. The simple building that housed the Rain Queen’s body was on fire.
As omens go, this was pretty bad. “It could be the ancestors; it could be witchcraft,” Mokgadi Modjadji, a close female relative and member of the royal family, said after Monday’s service. “It could be arson.”
It was an insult ill befitting the Rain Queen, a matriarch who even today commands obeisance from her subjects and powerful politicians alike, and especially this Rain Queen, a 27-year-old woman who dabbled in computers, raised money for orphans and was apparently much beloved.
But then, Queen Modjadji’s early death has roiled the waters.
In the days after she died on June 13, officially from chronic meningitis, a battle over her remains erupted between rival family factions.
Now that she has been interred – the fire was put out before it reached her body – questions apparently have arisen about the custody of her 4-month-old daughter, a potential successor to the throne.
Apparently, because the queen’s family is not talking about such things. “During the mourning period, we are supposed to be quiet,” said the Royal Council spokesman, Clement Molate Modjadji.
What seems obvious, though, is that a contest is under way for the influence that attends the throne.
The Modjadji Rain Queen’s origins are a mystery.
The family says the dynasty came from Egypt, while anthropologists trace it to Zimbabwe in the 1500’s. Legend has it that a Zimbabwean king fathered a son with his sister, and that when the son’s half-brothers plotted to kill the new heir, the king gave his sister a magic horn that could make rain, telling her to flee south.
South was the bony, boulder-strewn mountains here in northeastern South Africa, where the sister’s new tribe, the Balobedu, found rain-blessed lands.
To avoid struggles for the throne among warring sons, the tribe turned to matriarchy.
The Rain Queen inspired the British author H. Rider Haggard’s classic 1877 novel “She,” about an all-powerful ruler known as She Who Must Be Obeyed. Reality is not so far removed: for centuries, neighboring chiefs beseeched Rain Queens to end their droughts and flood their river beds. The Balobedu were spared tribal wars for fear of invoking the wrath of the queens.
More recently, South Africa’s former apartheid government courted Rain Queens and other traditional leaders as firewalls against black unrest, and even Nelson Mandela sought the queen’s endorsement during his 1994 campaign for president. President Thabo Mbeki issued a statement upon the death of Modjadji VI, calling her “a symbol of hope and unity through the province and our country.”
Whether the Rain Queen can really make it rain is, of course, an issue of faith. The South African Meteorological Service keeps no specific records on rainfall in Ga-Modjadji. But the Modjadji valley harbors a 750-acre forest of cyclad palms, the world’s largest such collection, apparently nourished by the unique climate.
Mokgadi Modjadji, the royal family member, has no doubts. “The powers are real,” she said. “Each and every Rain Queen has the powers. And each and every lady born out of the Modjadji family” – including herself, she said – “has those powers.
“Modjadji women see visions. Everyone in the family sees visions.”
With the Modjadji legend has come influence and some wealth. The Modjadji palace, a Mission-style ranch home in brick and pink stucco, dwarfs the two-and-three-room cubes in the valley below.
Princess Makobo inherited this kingdom after her grandmother died in 2003. Armed with a high-school education, a first for the royal family, she combined traditional duties with more modern pursuits like trips to Pretoria shopping malls and computer training.
She also took a lover: tradition bars the queen from marrying or even consorting with anyone except men of royal blood, but Makobo met David Mohale, a city employee from nearby Letaba, and was charmed. She bore a son even before she became queen.
The two are said to have lived together in the palace, and four months before her death, when illness had already stolen her sight and hearing, the queen gave birth to a daughter.
While no one will say for certain, this may be where the current problems began. According to local news reports, Mr. Mohale and his associates formed their own Balobedu council shortly after the girl’s birth. In an interview published Saturday in a Johannesburg newspaper, Mr. Mohale asserted that he, too, was of royal blood, and was entitled to father Modjadji children.
“Nonsense,” the royal spokesman, Mr. Modjadji, said.
The contest came to a boil after the queen’s death.
“There was a split within the royal family, between the tribal authority and the tribal council, over who should be given the responsibility of burying the queen,” said a spokesman for the premier of Limpopo Province, who was asked to mediate the dispute. “The family agreed to put aside their disagreements and settle on making the arrangements.”
Except that the disagreements remain. In his newspaper interview, Mr. Mohale said the queen’s daughter now lived with one of his relatives in Polokwane, a city about 70 miles west of the royal compound. But Mokgadi Modjadji said, “If you have a child with a lady belonging in the family, the child belongs to the Modjadji family.”
So South Africa’s battle royal keeps bubbling, not all that different from the travails of the House of Windsor a hemisphere away.
“It’s the usual,” said one official who works with the tribal chiefs and councils that form a sort of shadow government in South Africa. “This queen was very young when she died. They might struggle for a successor, and that opens the window for conflict. It’s not surprising. But at the same time, it’s not good.”
The New York Times
By MICHAEL WINES
Published: June 21, 2005