Modern portrait of Princess Mkabayi kaJama
Since the beginning of time, women had a great share in shaping history by different means during different epochs. Historians, in typical chauvinistic tendencies, wrote about women in a manner that considered them as inferior citizens whose existence was limited to the confines of homes and the care of children. Despite this, Africa in general and South Africa in particular, are replete with many examples of female dynasties, regents and rulers who took up positions of leadership through periods of nation-building and wars of resistance.
From a socio-economic point of view, Zulu royal women of the 18
th and early 19th centuries, whether they were princesses, queens or members of the palace (isigodlo) had more privileges than responsibilities. This was attributed to the fact that they were always served by the court servants (izinceku) and slaves (izigqila) or prisoners of war. The lives of princesses were somewhat restricted in that they were discouraged from marrying commoners (Gunner 1991: 253). The praise poems of royal women were not performed socially as were those of married women. These praises would be used rather as salutations or greetings by both men and women upon their arrival at the royal house. They would also be used by the women attending the queen. Furthermore, they would be bellowed as a way of expressing thankfulness by men after they had been served with the royal food.
In the latter case it would not be necessary to repeat the whole praise poem, it would be considered sufficient to call out a single praise name, such as “Msizi”! Before embarking on an analysis of the praises of the individual royal Zulu woman, it is imperative to provide a biographical outline of each woman to enhance a better understanding of the incidents and places alluded to in the praises. Msimang (1991: 51) concurred with this point of view when he attested that it was common knowledge that, due to their allusions to the historical events and personalities, praise-poems were not always intelligible to people unfamiliar with the relevant history.
A discernible contribution of women in the Zulu monarchy could be traced from the chieftaincy of Jama in 1771 who built his palace of Nobamba (the place of unity or binding together), near the Mpembeni stream. Jama had two wives, the chief of whom was Mthaniya, daughter of ManyelelaSibiya. Mthaniya begot twin girls, i.e. Mkabayi and Mmama, as well as a boy named Senzangakhona and finally a girl, Mawa. The three daughters of Jama became heads of military harems (izigodlo) and evinced aversion to matrimonial bonds, preferring to remain princesses. Mkabayi headed the ebaQulusini meaning:
“where they pushed out buttocks”; Mmama ruled the Osebeni meaning “on the river bank”, while Mawa reigned over Emperor Shaka
’seNtonteleni. Jama died in 1781 and due to the minority of Senzangakhona, his heir, Mkabayi became regent.
Oral history sources portrayed Princess Mkabayi as a callous woman. A twin by conception and birth in 1750, she was destined to be obliterated from the face of the earth at infancy. Her compassionate father , inkosi (potentate) Jama, acted contra bonos mores
(against the morals of Zulu society) when he refused to kill her. Thus, Mkabayi and her twin sister, Mmama both survived much to the displeasure and disapproval of the Zulu society (Stuart 1914: 46-47).
The continued existence of both twins kept gripping cardinal men and women of the monarchy with fear of ancestral wrath. Such fear became a reality when the queen mother died before bearing the royal house an heir. Mkabayi, with a stronger character than her twin sister, bore the brunt of the people’s disapproval and hate. She was held responsible for all misfortunes of the royal family and
the Zulu people at large. In March 1777 Mkabayi realized that the Zulu people were still yearning for an heir and wooed Mthaniya for her rather disinterested father. However, the inkosi married Mthaniya and from this came the long awaited heir, named Senzangakhona (or Well-doer). Mkabayi was hailed as a heroin and her status elevated for having successfully courted Mthaniya for Jama (Zondi 1996: 5-6).This swayed the hearts of the Zulu people towards her especially since the erratic Jama had offended his subjects in November 1776 by marrying an already pregnant Thonga woman who had given birth to Sojiyisa. There was fear that this ‘illegitimate’ boy would usurp the Zulu chieftaincy (Stuart 1914: 46-47).
However, Mkabayi soon lost that love of the people when on the death of Jama in 1781, she declared herself as regent for her brother Senzangakhona. This was unheard of in Zulu history but men succumbed to her guile and domineering character.
Mkabayi’s unscrupulousness shocked the Zulu people once again when
in 1785 she instructed her army to destroy the powerful Sojiyisa, who posed a threat to Senzangakhona’s reign. She was
dubbed a blood-thirsty despot and a terrible woman of antiquity, whose primary aim was the continuance of the Zulu culture and traditions (Krige 1957: 64-68). Nevertheless, when Senzangakhona came of age, she stepped down as regent in 1787. Unfortunately, Senzangakhona was not destined to live long. After a short reign he was succeeded in 1816 by his son, Shaka, one of the most able emperors the world had ever known. Shaka, on ascending the throne, ruled his people without recourse to anyone for advice. It could be argued that this was one of the major reasons why Mkabayi plotted his assassination.
Despite Shaka’s success, when he was accused of abusing power, Mkabayi did not hesitate to conspire against him. She, together with her nephews, Dingane and Mhlangana, planned the assassination of the emperor on 24 September 1828. Desirous of putting Dingane on the throne, she later murdered Mhlangana (Nyembezi 1975: 21-28).
Mkabayi remained unmarried, preferring to retain her independence and political influence as well as her position as head of the AbaQulusi military palace. She played a major role in the history of the Zulu royal family, deposing and ascending various monarchs to the throne.
Mkabayi’s power and influence were felt during this time of great historical importance to the Zulu monarchy. In 1835 when Captain Allen F. Gardiner, Royal Navy, visited the then-reigning Zulu monarch, Dingane, on missionary work he found Mkabayi old, but still very powerful (Fynn to Shepstone 1857: 58/381). She died a lonely woman in 1843 during the reign of Mpande who succeeded Dingane to the Zulu throne. For her part in the assassination of Emperor Shaka, Mkabayi remains condemned to the present day. Some historians have questioned claims that she was complicit in the death.