In this series of 10 volumes by Dr. Tlou Setumu entitled OUR HERITAGE: WARS OF RESISTANCE IN LIMPOPO, this week feature is Volume 8, RAIN QUEEN MODJADJI OF THE BALOBEDU.
The royal house of the Balobedu is renowned for its powers of rainmaking. The Balobedu successive queens, have been feared and respected by other kingdoms and communities for those powers. It is said that even the feared Zulu people of Shaka, respected the Balobedu, and they occasionally sent gifts as tokens of awe and respect. The Balobedu rain queens bear the name Modjadji and the name is hereditary.
The successive rulers are distinguished as Rain Queen Modjadji I, II, III, etc. Like most of the Bantu-speaking communities found in South Africa today, the Balobedu originated from central Africa. Their cultures as well as other customs, especially their language, indicate that they are closely related to the Venda, or at least they have the common origin with the Venda. Both these groups have their origins and attachments with the former Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe kingdoms. The Balobedu have a pig (kolobe) as their totem. As they migrated southwards, and after crossing the Udi (Limpopo) River, they eventually settled in the Lowveld area where they later came in contact with the European colonial forces.
The arrival of the whites in the in the Lowveld caused frictions because the area was already occupied by black communities such as the Balobedu and the Batlhalerwa. According to the available records, there was no permanent settlement by Europeans in the Lowveld between 1868 and 1871, except the nomadic white travelers, hunters, traders and explorers. The first European to settle in the Lowveld area, according to available records, was Reverend Fritz Reuter of the Berlin Missionary Society. Reuter settled among the Balobedu where he established the mission station, Medingen in 1881. Unlike the European hunters, travelers, explorers and traders, the missionaries had to settle for longer periods among black communities because of the nature of their work of spreading their form of religion, Christianity.
The Boer government of the Transvaal (Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek – ZAR) redrew the boundaries of the Transvaal in 1885. The Zoutpansberg region was subdivided into four sub-regions, with Barend Vorster as the commandant of the whole Zoutpansberg region. One of the ZAR laws on land was that every Boer who settled in the Transvaal before 1877 was entitled to a farm free of charge. That was intended to lure whites to settle in the ZAR, including in the Lowveld.
The gold rush in the Lowveld in the 1870s also drew white people to that area. The movement of whites into the Lowveld resulted in the founding of the small town, Haenertsburg in 1887. The mining in the Lowveld also attracted whites from abroad. Selati Goldfields and Leydsdorp were other white centres which came into being due to white influx into the Lowveld.
The white influx into the Lowveld was also boosted in 1889 when C.H. Zeedeberg established a Mail Coach Service from Pietersburg to Leydsdorp via Haenertsburg. However, life was not pleasant for the white settlers in the Lowveld because of malaria. The malaria scourge tormented the whites and C.J. Joubert led the government efforts to build a hospital next to the Thabina River. The hospital was named after Joubert’s wife, Agatha.
The ZAR Boers regarded the whole Transvaal as theirs and the black communities were by implication regarded as their subjects. In an attempt to formalise its location policy, the ZAR government appointed the Location Commission in 1882 and in about 1888 it began to allocate farms to the whites, and that further alienated the black communities.
After erecting the beacons for white farms, Kgoši Makgoba and his Batlhalerwa people destroyed them. The then Commissioner for Native Affairs in the Zoutpansberg (Northern) Division, Oscar Dahl, tried to negotiate with Makgoba, but the latter refused to pay what was regarded as a fine against him for destroying the beacons. Kgoši Makgoba was later arrested and a large herd of cattle was seized from him. He was imprisoned in Fort Klipdam. Makgoba escaped from prison by digging a hole under the wall of his cell.
It was during the reign of Rain Queen Modjadji II, Masalanabo, when the Balobedu refused the ZAR location policies to be applied on their country. Rain Queen Modjadji also refused to allow tax to be collected in her area. When the ZAR threatened to punish her for what they believed she did wrong, she threatened to kill Reverend Reuter who was doing missionary work in her country, together with all his Christian converts.
In addition to the Batlhalerwa of Kgoši Makgoba and the Balobedu of Kgošigadi Modjadji, the other communities in the Lowveld were also up in arms. They were furious about the continued occupation of their land by the whites. As the whites continued to settle there, the black communities gradually realised that they had to arm and attack the intruding whites.
As the black communities began to harass the intruding whites, the whites complained to the ZAR government which lured them into occupying the demarcated farms. As a result of the attacks by black communities, on 14 February 1891, Veldcornet Alberts drew up a petition signed by 119 white farmers requesting the ZAR government for intervention. There were also reports that the black communities in the Lowveld were arming in preparation for the attack on the whites. It was also rumoured that Kgošigadi Modjadji had sent her agents to procure arms from the Portuguese at Delagoa Bay (present-day Mozambique).
As the situation in the Lowveld continued to deteriorate, the ZAR appointed another Location Commission in June 1892 – in addition to those of 1882 and 1888 – to define the boundaries between the blacks and whites. The commission, under H.P.N Pretorius, arrived in the Lowveld in July 1892. The commission completed its task at the end of the year and they informed the black communities what they defined as their new locations.
The black communities rejected what they were informed by the commission and they immediately began to attack the whites. As a result, many white farmers abandoned the land. The ZAR government even considered abandoning the whole of the Lowveld because of the brutal attacks inflicted on its subjects by the Lowveld black communities.
Another factor which led the ZAR to consider abandoning the Lowveld was the war which was taking place in the Blouberg area between the ZAR and the Bahananwa of Kgoši Malebogo.
The ZAR was unable to deal with the situation in the Lowveld effectively because almost all its forces were concentrated in Blouberg. However, things later turned out positively for the ZAR as the Malebogo-Boer War ended on 31 July 1894. At that time, the Lowveld kingdoms of Makgoba, Modjadji, Maupa, Tsolobolo, Maphita, Mashuti, Mmamatlhola and Mogoboya had done an irreparable damage to the white farmers who were on the run.
After the end of the Malebogo- Boer War, Commandant- General Piet Joubert of the ZAR assembled a number of commandos in Pietersburg on 10 August 1894. Other commandos from Lydenburg, Middleburg, Rustenburg, Marico and Ermelo, as well as the Tsonga warriors under Adolf Schiel, were called. Joubert then led a strong force into the Lowveld. On their march in the Lowveld, Joubert’s assembled forces defeated the small communities of Mmamatlhola, Mashuti and Mogoboya.
Joubert’s forces also faced the warriors of Maupa, Letswalo of Tsolobolo, and Maphita. Joubert’s forces then confronted the Batlhalerwa of Kgoši Makgoba, whom they defeated with a force of 1 000 whites and 3 000 blacks (including the Swazis who played a major role in the eventual capture and beheading of Kgoši Makgoba).
Kgošigadi Modjadji II, Masalanabo, was accused by the ZAR of harbouring their enemies’ refugees and livestock. That was because the ZAR Boers had to first find justification every time they wanted to attack and subjugate black communities, including the Balobedu of Modjadji. On 11 September 1895 Joubert met black indunas about the alleged hostile nature of Kgošigadi Modjadji. He then gave the order that Kgošigadi Modjadji should surrender refugees, weapons and livestock which she was accused of harbouring.
After Kgošigadi Modjadji failed to comply with that instruction, the Boer War Council decided, at the meeting on 16 September 1895 on the bank of the Brandboontjies River, to attack Kgošigadi Modjadji on the next day, September 17. On the set date, the commando started to march up to the Balobedu capital. Heavy rains poured preventing operations against Kgošigadi Modjadji. That strengthened the belief that in actual fact Kgošigadi Modjadji had the rainmaking powers which she was even able to employ to ward off her enemies.
On 20 September 1895, Kgošigadi Modjadji, together with her indunas, surrendered without a fight after one shot was fired towards the royal kraal. A large amount of guns and other weapons were discovered. Kgošigadi Modjadji was brought down to the Boer laager, in which further instructions were issued by Joubert.
The whites were curiously waiting to see for the first time, the mysterious queen with rainmaking powers. Some had been told that she was a white person, or at least was half white. In sharp contrast to what they expected, an old black woman emerged to conduct negotiations with the Boers. That effectively ended the Modjadji-Boer War. Kgošigadi Modjadji’s people were fined 5 pounds per family head and the sum amounted to 7 500 pounds, which it was paid in cattle.
The ZAR colonial attacks on the Balobedu took place during the reign of Kgošigadi Modjadji II, Masalanabo. One of the longest reigning Rain Queens in the history of the Balobedu was Mokope, Rain Queen V. After her long reigning period, she died in 2001. She was then succeeded by a relatively young Rain Queen VI, Makobo, who passed away at an early age in 2005. These are the successive Modjadji Rain Queens: Modjadji I – Maselekwane (1800 – 1854); Modjadji II – Masalanabo (1854 – 1895); Modjadji III – Khesethwane (1896 – 1959); Modjadji IV – Makoma (1960 – 1980); Modjadji V – Mokope (1982 -2001); Modjadji VI – Makobo (2003 – 2005); and current Regent Mpapatla (2005 –).
Few weeks ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa presided over a ceremony in which the Balobedu queenship was officially recognised by the government of the Republic of South Africa as equivalent to other kingdoms. The young heir to the throne, Masalanabo, will be inaugurated as Rain Queen VII once she comes of age, to replace current Regent Mpapatla, who has been holding the fort for the female line rulers since 2005.
Dr. Tlou Setumu is Author and Researcher of History, Heritage and Culture. His books include: Biographies of Bra Ike Maphoto, TT Cholo and Max Mojapelo; His Story is History; The Land Bought, the Land Never Sold; Ideas with no Space; Footsteps of Our Ancestors; etc. Books are available on www.mak-herp. co.za; and also in Polokwane – Academic Bookshop (opposite CNA Checkers Centre); and Budget Bookshop.