The BaLobedu People
The BaLobedu – a Sotho-Venda branch of Northern Sotho speakers now ruled by South Africa’s only matrilineal dynasty – settled in the area around Modjadji and Modjadjiskloof roughly 400 years ago. As the story goes, the BaLobedu ancestors fled the kingdom of Monomatapa in what is now Zimbabwe, led by the king’s daughter Dzugundini – who was allegedly impregnated by her father (some accounts say brother) and marked for death. Dzugundini’s mother stole and gave her daughter a collection of rainmaking charms to empower her. The fugitives settled in the misty mountains just north of Tzaneen. Around 1600 AD Dzugundini gave birth to a son, Makalipe, who became the first of six kings to rule over the BaLobedu for the next two centuries. The first Modjadji, or Rain Queen – Maselekwane, the daughter of the sixth king, Mokoto – became queen in 1800 when a traditional hut-opening ceremony was held and she opened the hut, meaning the ancestors favoured her to rule. This was in the context of ongoing infighting among Mokoto’s sons; it is said that Mokoto meanwhile secretly trained Maselekwane in rainmaking rituals. Maselekwane ruled for 54 years, succeeded by five subsequent Modjadjis: Masalanabo; Khesetoane; Makoma; Mokope; and Makobo.
More Recent History
With the death of Makobo in 2005 at age 27, her daughter Masalanabo is in line to become the seventh Modjadji when she comes of age. Currently Masalanabo’s uncle, Prince Mpapatla Modjadji, rules the BaLobedu as Regent. In May 2016, the Rain Queen was officially recognised as the BaLobedu’s leader by President Jacob Zuma, after the apartheid government had nullified the Queen’s status in 1972.
Modjadji and rainmaking are central to BaLobedu culture. Originally, the Rain Queens lived mostly in secret, often operating through proxies; Makobo, however, was a ‘modern’ young woman, often seen in public. It is said by some that the two first Modjadjis were forced to drink poison after passing on their rainmaking secrets to their successors. Today rainmaking ceremonies begin in early October – a month of rainmaking and communication with the ancestors. Traditional beer is brewed, drums played, and chants made to bless the fertility of the earth in order to yield an abundant harvest.