SEABELA MAILA: The Modjadji lineage & the fetish for a romantic precolonial past
On May 07, 2021, a communique that was signed by Balobedu regent Bakhoma Mpapatla Modjadji was circulated on social media through Balobedu Royal Family and Royal Council spokesperson the Phetole Mampeule.
In it, the Balobedu nation was informed about a unanimous agreement which was reached in consultation with regional headmen and women who lead about 132 villages with an approximated population of over two million in the jurisdiction, about the appointment of Prince Lekulela Modjadji as the heir apparent to the Modjadji throne.
Since then, I have – with keen interest – been observing commentary by Balobedu, the mainstream media and the general population over the developments which are to take place regarding the Modjadji throne and lineage.
The council has stated that the decision was reached by applying the indigenous knowledge systems, historical and cultural norms, and practices of Balobedu, taking into account the current political climate – particularly on gender equality.
Unsurprisingly, western media’s approach in its reporting of this matter was intrusive as it lacked the intellectual range and sensitivity required when covering indigenous customs and institutions. For one, I found it odd that the media has not explored parts of the letter where the royal council takes a stance on gender equality nor that upon her return, the last Khosi Modjadji’s daughter, Princess Masalanabo will rule alongside her brother as Khadikholo.
The main angles which were explored were a faux feminist stance, framing the council as a androcentric structure itching a return to its default patriarchal settings, by excluding the young princess – a vulnerable and destitute female off the throne.
Lacking general knowledge in the realm of Balobedu indigenous systems, the media has been advancing an ignorant narrative; overlooking certain publicly available sources, documenting key events and figures that ultimately led to this decision.
At the core of the issue is the misleading notion of co-governance between civil and traditional institutions, still entrenched in colonialism. This notion, I believe, masquerades an equal, symbiotic, and reciprocal relationship between state structures and traditional institutions. However, it is a historical fact that this dichotomous system was designed by colonial administrations, to create an imbalance of power in favour of the colonial state and robbed traditional structures off their autonomy.
Furthermore, sources being consulted are people in irrelevant academic disciplines, recognised state official structures and happen to bear the Modjadji surname. This has highlighted how the media is not equipped to extract and thus, produce knowledge from an African cultural lens. Indigenous modes of archiving give ordinary members of society access to an expanse of knowledge, but a media built on western worldviews and colonial ideals, lacks the necessary criteria to navigate and discern credibility of knowledge in such contexts.
From an indigenous perspective, the term ‘Rain Queen’ is, in itself, a mistranslation, firstly; because there is no indigenous word for ‘queen’ in Khelobedu as both male and female rulers are simply titled Khosi. This owing to the gender fluid demands of the throne. Secondly, there is no word for ‘rainmaker’ in Khelobedu; instead, Balobedu as a community are hailed as Banesapula (Rainmakers). The rainmaking process is a yearly collaborative undertaking involving the broader Bolobedu community. I would like to emphasise that rainmaking has always been part of the culture regardless of the supreme monarch’s gender.
Notably, when Maselekwane Modjadji ascended the throne in 1800, it was this same royal council, which the media is now accusing of oppressing women, that took a bold decision to go against the grain in instituting a matrilineal dynasty, considering numerous factors such as the failure of patriarchy as a dominant system of rule and by extension the patricide and filicide characteristic of that era. To now claim the same structure today lacks the autonomy to respond to the current socio-political issues such as gender equality, which are clearly stated in the letter as motivation behind the decision, is both ignorance and hypocrisy.
It is problematic to paint the royal council as oppressive towards women when outside of being led by a female monarch for the past two hundred years – and, in comparison to most African monarchs – this specific monarch has a unique, complex, and high constituency of female voices.
For instance, the royal council itself, consists of both men and women. Additionally, Modjadji’s multiple royal wives, known as Vhatanoni, occupy a title that comes with highly esteemed social and political status. Also, in the aristocratic hierarchy, Dikhadi tša ka Mosata is an institution of women born into aristocratic families, with key duties and responsibilities to the monarchy. Meanwhile, only women take part in the dance celebration known as Mosebetho, to signify the completion of rainmaking ceremony.
Further, both genders serve as Makota in Bolobedu, leading constituent villages and territories as headmen and headwomen. Apart from the plethora of cultural practices outside of royalty – which recognise the political agency of Balobedu women – how then, can such a structure and art of governance then be accused of silencing women?
Although something sinister may be going on, it is crucial that the media is not misled so that it does not end barking up the wrong tree. In our culture, children born to the throne have no paternity, even the slightest suggestion or mention of the latter is considered an insult tantamount to treason.
Consequently, rulings on Masalanabo’s custody battle have shown that Roman-Dutch law has no regard for the indigenous worldviews held by Balobedu.
In closing, I wish to pose the following important questions: why are we not questioning this imbalance of power that enables the judiciary system to deny royal families access to their own flesh and blood? Why is the media not questioning the initial circumstances of Masalanabo’s guardianship and contrasting them to the conditions now set for her return? What of the Balobedu customs that require the heir to the throne to have undergone certain rituals by certain ages regardless gender? Why has the government been ignoring years of Bakhoma’s plea to reunite Masalanabo with her family?
I would like to implore you all to refrain from using ill-informed populist power and gender relation tropes to satisfy the selfish fetish for a romantic precolonial past in dictating how a society currently held at ransom should move forward in matters regarding their own culture, especially as a marginalised group.
Seabela Maila is a cultural content curator. A television script translator, radio broadcaster, and journalist. He is currently a final year student majoring in Politics, Media & Film at the University of Cape Town. Some of his electives include African Studies, Linguistics, and History. Follow him on Twitter.