Cloud of mystery shrouds the land of the rain queen

Death in South Africa spurs rumors, succession crisis.

June 21, 2005|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GA-MODJADJI, South Africa - An unwelcome cloud hangs over this mountaintop royal compound where, for two centuries, rain queens have been revered and feared for their supposed ability to open the heavens.

The death last week of 27-year-old Makobo Modjadji, Queen Modjadji VI, has created the biggest succession crisis in the 200-year history of the line and has focused new attention on its role in modern South Africa.

The heir is the late queen's 3-month-old daughter, meaning that a regent, not yet identified, presumably will rule for years. If that is not source enough for intrigue, the queen's lover - and father of the putative Modjadji VII - is a married commoner from a poor township in the valley who tried to form a rival royal council.

According to the traditions of the Balobedu tribe, the first rain queen's family arrived here about 1800 after migrating south from Zimbabwe with rain- making powers stolen from an estranged king.

Every November, at the start of the planting season, the queen presides over a rain- making ceremony. Her powers were once so widely credited that stronger kingdoms, including the Swazis and Zulus, dared not attack.

Only yesterday did a family spokesman give a medical explanation for Queen Modjadji VI's death: chronic meningitis. People had speculated that she had died of AIDS or witchcraft or was poisoned - the latter fate befell some of her early predecessors - as punishment for her unsanctioned love affair.

Fire fuels suspicions

An unexplained fire Sunday night at the building where the queen's body lay in preparation for yesterday's funeral did nothing to dampen suspicions that evil forces, human or spiritual, had a hand in ending the queen's reign after two years.

"Why she has died nobody really knows. There is a lot of talk that she was murdered, poisoned," said David Coplan, chairman of the social anthropology department at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand. "This is not good. It's a problem."

But this is unlikely to be the end of the rain queen, a title that once carried political weight in the Balobedu tribe but is now largely ceremonial. For one thing, tribe members want to see the line continue. "Without the rain queen," said Coplan, "who are they?"

Another factor, he said, is money.

"This is the only tourist attraction in that area," Coplan said. "England has been merchandizing its royal family since Queen Victoria as a tourist attraction, with Buckingham Palace and merry old England. On a very small scale, the Balobedu have begun to do this."

It has long been customary for visitors seeking an audience with the rain queen to offer a "gift" of $50 or so. When a visitor arrived Sunday, the queen's uncle did not request a gift but asked whether he could keep a digital camera.

"Something to remember you by," M.K. Modjadji said as workers set up funeral tents and a group of men hovered over a cow that had been slaughtered for the traditional feast.

The kraal, the royal compound, sits atop a steep, winding road at the edge of the Drakensberg Mountains in northeastern South Africa. A spiked black metal fence surrounds the compound, near a forest of ancient fernlike trees called cycads.

Inside the kraal, at the highest point, stands the queen's residence, a 1990s-era brick house with peach trim. Down the hill is the old palace, a modest-looking white building with a thatched roof. Farther down are huts where members of the royal family live.

Keeping lineage alive

Customarily, a rain queen would avoid public appearances. She did not marry but took as "wives" women sent by headmen of the 150 villages in her domain. She was considered the "father" of the children produced by these women and royal men.

To keep alive the lineage, men of the royal council chose consorts for the queen. When the queen grew old, she was supposed to make way for her eldest daughter by taking poison, sometimes unwillingly. Christian missionaries persuaded Modjadji III to end that practice, and she died of natural causes in 1959, at age 86.

Under apartheid, the white government gave salaries to the petty kings and chiefs across South Africa to buy peace. The salaries continue, with the rain queen reportedly getting $1,050 a month, a considerable sum in a society where many residents are jobless.

`Symbol of hope'

The government still makes a show of paying deference to what experts call the only royal house in southern Africa headed by queens rather than kings. Joyce Mashamba, acting premier of Limpopo Province, hailed the deceased queen as "a symbol of hope and unity."

"The sacredness of the Modjadji Kingdom and the humility of her majesty stand as distinguishing features of Limpopo on the world tourism map," Mashamba said.

Modjadji VI's reign, the shortest of any rain queen, ended in an age of scientific weather reports that make her role seem quaint. The previous rain queen complained that young people no longer respected traditional beliefs.

Yet it is hard to find the openly dubious here.

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