The Lovedu tribe (also called the Balobedu) of South Africa, has the distinction of being the only tribe in Africa that is still ruled by a female monarch. The successor of this ruler is called Modjadji, also known as the Rain Queen, because of her magical powers. This Queen is designated from her matriarchal line after having been trained for years in the traditions and customs of the royal house.
This tradition was upended in 2005 when Makobo Caroline Modjadji VI, who succeeded her grandmother, Mokope Modjadji V, after her death at the age of 64 years in 2001, was declared queen in 2003. Mokope’s daughter Makhele, who was her designated successor, died unexpectedly three days before her mother. At 25 the next in line, Makobo, was the youngest rain queen to sit on the throne. However, she died two years later after a short unknown illness.
During her short reign, Makobo Modjadji VI had the royal palace in uproar because of allegations that she rejected tribal traditions and refused to submit to the authority of the elders. Not only did Makobo invite a male friend to move into the royal palace where no spouse was previously allowed, but she also appointed her own “royal council” that was in conflict with the council of elders.
The conflict came to a head when a dispute broke out between the two councils over who had the right to bury Modjadji. In the end the premier of the territory had to intervene in the dispute and get both parties to cooperate.
According to tradition, tribal members must mourn for a year after the death of their queen. During this time no drums may be played and no dancing may take place. This includes the dinaka (the blowing of horns) and the sekgapa (a traditional dance for women). Learners at school are expected not to take part in extramural activities or parties.
The successor of Modjadji VI, who will reign over a kingdom consisting of more than 150 rural settlements in the province, will be designated by the royal council. According to tradition, she must be a daughter of the deceased rain queen. However, the children of the rain queen’s maidservants, who are known as her “brides”, are also regarded as the queen’s children.
REGION OF LIMPOPO IN SOUTH AFRICA
The magical powers attributed to the rain queen of the Lovedu have passed from mother to daughter for centuries. These powers not only include intervention by means of incantations and dances (such as the legobathele) during times of great drought, but also the upkeep of daily rituals. The queen’s powers are demonstrated annually during a rainmaking ceremony taking place in the Ga-Modjadji settlement.
The queen’s mace is crowned with a statuette of a wild pig or bush-pig (golove or muyane), on which the words Modjadji and Pula (rain) are engraved. The wild pig is the royal totem of the Kwevo tribe of the Lovedu.
The rain queen’s powers are traditionally used to bring not only rains to let the harvests grow and fill the rivers, but also fierce storms and floods to keep her enemies at bay. For this reason the Lovedu do not make use of warriors to protect the tribe.
The queen is advised in her duties by a rain doctor or doctors, who are blamed if the queen’s rainmaking rituals do not succeed. Should no success be attained in the long term, it is presumed that the ancestors are dissatisfied and that their favor must first be won, usually by means of sacrifices.
According to tradition, the rain queen may not marry, but a suitable man from the family is designated for her by the royal council when she decides to have a child. The rain queen is served by so-called “brides”, whose children are also regarded as hers.
After the death of a rain queen the entire tribe mourns for one year. Her death may actually not even be proclaimed officially before the end of this year. Her royal council designates her successor, who must be one of her daughters.
According to legend, the rain queen of the Lovedu descends from the royal house of Monomotapa who reigned in the 1400s and 1500s over the territory now known as Zimbabwe. At the time it was inhabited by the Karanga tribe.
Masalanabo Modjadji was three months old when her mother died. In that moment, she ascended to the throne of the Balobedu, a tribe in South Africa’s northern Limpopo province that is the country’s only queendom. Modjadji currently lives near Johannesburg as a normal 13-year-old. When she turns 18, however, she will officially be crowned Queen Modjadji VII, the “Rain Queen,”.
Modjadji’s reign will be different than those of her three immediate predecessors, who were queens in name only after the apartheid regime demoted them to chieftain status in 1972. Two years ago, former President Jacob Zuma changed things back, and made the Balobedu one of the handful of tribal monarchies officially recognized by the South African state. When she comes of age, Modjadji will rule at the same level as the powerful Zulu and Xhosa kings. Though they oversee much larger kingdoms, she will still hold influence over more than 100 villages and receive a substantial government paycheck.