Project Canterbury

Dawn in Swaziland

By Christopher Charles Watts, M.A.
Archdeacon of Swaziland

London: The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1922.

Chapter III. The old Queen

No history of Swaziland would be complete without an account of that really notable personage, the old queen. To-day she is the one outstanding figure among the native people. The Royal Kraal is large, and is unspeakably dirty and untidy. Idlers dressed in dirty European rags squat in the dirt and dust around the large cattle kraal that forms one side of it, children covered with dirt and sores swarm about the passages which unite the labyrinth of ill-built grass huts, women carrying huge pots of native beer or portions of food pass to and fro with real dignity of carriage, which is only marred by the filth on their skin aprons and utensils. Flies swarm and render life unbearable in the heat of the day; scraggy fowls and a few mangy dogs wander at will among the garbage--and yet some semblance of dignity and royalty is preserved. An interview with the old queen takes some time to arrange, and there is a hurrying to and fro of minor officials before the visitor is admitted to the royal presence.

The visitor will find her lying prone upon the ground in the dark interior of the central hut, surrounded by a few aged native courtiers and her interpreter. Near the grass mat on which she lies is a pot of beer for her refreshment during the interview, and also an old whisky-bottle half full of snuff, for the same purpose. Her only garment is the well-greased skin-apron of the Swazi woman, and her grey wool, massed on the top of her head with clay, is bound by a fillet of small charms to keep off evil spirits. In one hand she holds a wisp of ox-tail to keep off flies, and in the other a wooden scraper, to scratch herself in moments of irritation. From the roof of the hut some meat is hanging, and a few odds and ends are stuck into the thatch; otherwise, the hut is destitute of furniture. Over the roof outside, a large pair of ox-horns has been fixed to frighten away the lightning.

A box having been brought in as a seat for the visitor, conversation begins, and he is soon attracted by the mental grip of the recumbent potentate, and by the way in which she maintains her dignity, in spite of the squalor of its setting. At the end of each sentence a muttered "Inkosi, Inkosi!" comes from the courtiers. Not only the natives of Swaziland, but Europeans also, are proud of the ability of the old queen. They tell of her skill in conducting discussions with Lord Milner and Lord Selborne, and with both English and Dutch agents during the Boer War, of her marvellous memory, her ability for unravelling most intricate native disputes, and of the shrewdness of her judgments. The natives also boast of her power of "making rain," in which some of the more conservative among them still believe.

During the Great War the Mayor of Johannesburg visited Swaziland and called on the queen. In his big motor he passed through Mbahane without seeing it, and stopping at a store some six miles further down the road, inquired the whereabouts of the town. On arriving at the Royal Kraal, the old queen asked him "who he was and where he came from?

He answered he was Mayor of Johannesburg, and had lately been busy raising recruits for the war. "From Johannesburg? "said the queen, "I do not hear much good of it, and if you want recruits for the war, being a big, fat man, why do you not go yourself?" The Mayor changed the conversation. "This friend of mine is a surveyor, and brings the water in pipes to the town," he said. "When I want water, I make the rain myself," answered the queen.

Ten years ago a terrible drought visited Swaziland. Large native deputations visited the queen not only from Swaziland, but from distant parts of the country, to implore her to make rain. The old queen replied that she was tired and not inclined to make it. But if they gave her enough cattle and enough yellow money, she might be persuaded to do so. The cattle and money arrived in large quantities, but still no rain! Larger and more desperate deputations went to her from week to week. "You are hard-hearted, oh Indhlovu-kazi (female elephant)--our cattle will soon be dead, there are no mealies. Make rain, you starve us all." But the old queen remained in her hut, and would not even send for the necessary herbs to put in the rain-making decoction, neither would she consult the witch doctors in order to propitiate the contending evil spirits who were holding back the rain. The deputations, made bold by despair, changed their entreaties to threats. "You are old and useless, and cannot make the rain. We must see to it that you die, and your daughter-in-law, a more effective rain-maker, put in your place." The old queen knew, as she had known several times before in her history, that she must act. "You must bring me black cattle from a place six days' journey off," she said. When they arrived, she let two more days pass before she would go and see them. Thus she gained time, letting a precious fortnight pass away. "These cattle have white marks upon them, and I asked for black," she said. "Take them back again and bring me black." And in the double journey another twelve days passed. This time she knew the rain could not hold Off much longer. "Take them back to where they came from, and as they reach their home I will make you rain," she said. And sure enough, in six days' time the rain began. But as often happens, the drought ended in a deluge. The rivers overflowed their banks, many mealie gardens were washed away, and great damage was done. The deputations came to the old queen once more: "Indhlovu-kazi, you are more cruel than ever. You starved us before, now you kill us!" "It is a punishment," she answered. "I did not want to make rain, and you forced me to do it. Now I shall not stop it, and it will teach you not to trouble me again at inconvenient times."

In December, 1920, the British administration decided that she must retire in favour of her grandson, Burza, and native custom demanded that she should at the same time hand over the rain-making medicine to her daughter-in-law, Burza's mother.

For more than thirty years--a generation--this Indhlova-kazi, or female elephant, as she is called, has exercised great powers over the Swazi nation. She did not belong by birth to the family of any great chief, her father ruling over but a small following in the distant Hora district. Whether he displeased the king Mbandine on any matter, or whether the natives really believed the charge to he true, at any rate, he was smelt out as a wizard and his following dispersed. Mbandine took one of the daughters of this hunted man as a concubine and attendant on his wives. A burly, strapping young girl, with great energy, determination, and shrewd common sense, and with a face of remarkable power arid intelligence, the future queen rose rapidly in the royal kraal. Soon Mbandine began to consult her on important matters, for it is strange the power that women have in a polygamous nation, and she rose by her own abilities to take the place of principal wife or queen, much to the rage of her older comrades. Now, amongst the Swazis the chief wife of the king, as a rule, makes the rain, the idea being that a woman would make it more gently than a man. When the rain-making wife of Mbandine died, Indhlova-kazi claimed that she alone knew the secret, and could continue the work. This is the most important work the Swazi royal house performs, for they make the rain for the whole world, and receive presents from the natives on the Zambesi in times of drought. Having gained the appointment by claiming the credit of the rains--and Swaziland, you will remember, is the best watered country of South Africa--and also the credit of the droughts as a punishment for the people, she soon gained great power. She also laid claim to certain powers of witchcraft, and was as much feared by the people for her sorceries as respected for her undoubted abilities as a ruler of men.

On the death of Mbandine, Indhlova-kazi should have retired into private life--in fact, she should, properly speaking and according to old customs, have died--but European influence was beginning to be felt, and such ideas were losing ground. Her son Mbunu became the reigning chief, but Indhlova-kazi declined either to retire or to part with the rain making medicine to his wife. After a prudent retirement to the hills, which fortunately for her coincided with a period of drought, she returned to the royal kraal accompanied by plentiful rains. Her power thus re-established never left her hands.

Mbunu, a cruel and brutal sot, did not live long, and during his time his mother was the power behind the throne. Upon his death--in which most Swazis consider his mother's power of witchcraft or of poison had a hand--Indhlova-kazi reigned alone during the long minority of his son.

During this period the British Government took over the administration of the country at the close of the Boer War, and the Swazi kings and queens became paramount chiefs, their powers of life and death being ended, and the country passing under European law.

In what way then has she used her powers, and has her influence been for good or evil? No man, still less a European, can judge. For the Swazis, the recent years have been a period of mental and physical unrest. The invasion of the white man (which began with a crowd of adventurers all clamouring for grants of land and for trading and mining rights under Mbandine) has ended with the good rule and British justice of a Crown Colony.

And through it all the old queen has kept the peace. It is her boast that throughout her husband's and her own reign no white people have been mur dered, that throughout the Boer War she proved herself friendly to the British cause, and that at the present time the nation is undoubtedly very loyal to the Crown. During these years of change her keen common sense has undoubtedly saved the nation much suffering. Mbandine recognised, as we have seen, that the coming of the white man was inevitable, and that it were madness to attempt to withstand it, but that much might be gained by delay and by setting the interest of one white man against another, where this was possible, and by skilful handling of concessions, inducing them to quarrel. Indhlova-kazi went much further. In a dim way she knew that the rule of the white man was good as well as inevitable, and she even sent a deputation to England to ask that Swaziland might be taken over by the British Government as a protectorate some years before the Boer War. But at the same time, all her power depended on the belief in rain-making and witchcraft, and she knew that education and progress amongst the natives would destroy these things. In habit of life she was a hopeless reactionary, and under her rule the royal kraal was a centre for the old forces of evil and corruption. Like all native chiefs, she would sell her people's grazing rights to farmers, and regard their complaint of starvation with indifference so long as money came her way. Her judgment in native cases was shrewd, but the decision would often go to the highest bidder. Natives grew to prefer the white men's court, where real justice was to be found, and her powers grew less and less. She and her agents fleeced her own people in every possible way, and much of the money was squandered amongst semi-educated and evil native advisers, men who had perhaps been Christians, but now disregarded the restraints of Christianity and lived in open and scandalous sin; men whom even the heathen abhorred for their licentious lives. The royal kraal, instead of being a centre for the enlightenment and progress of the people, was the meeting-place of the idle and vicious, a stronghold of Satan; a place where girls were ruined and heathenism showed at its worst, or rather in its true light, a place where the forces of Christianity seemed to attack in vain.

What was the Indhlova-kazi's attitude towards Christianity? We must remember that her own power depended on heathen ideas, and every step taken towards the light was another nail in the coffin of her authority. Moreover, the fact that eleven different European sects, besides three native churches independent of European control, competed for her favour, had a bad effect. Native ministers dismissed from European churches for misconduct flocked to her hoping for financial sup port, offering her doctrines which eliminated "European additions to the faith once delivered, such as the marrying of one wife and expulsion from the church for misconduct!" and asking her to decide whom they should baptise, and to arrange the affairs of their church. "These native Christians trouble me," she would say.

But she was shrewd enough, and amidst all the babel of tongues had probably a fair idea of what Christianity really meant, She would say that she had poisoned her people when she refused to allow her son Mbunu to be taught by Mr. Jackson at the Usutu Mission station. She usually asked missionaries to pray with her, and would join in in her own fashion. She had great respect for Oswald Nxumalo, and so great a fear of the strong stand against evil taken by Xaba at the Government school at the royal kraal that she ordered the children out on strike! In January, 1922, the Government decided that she must retire in favour of her grand son, now grown to be a man.

What will the new king Burza do, and what will his influence on the nation be? The despotic power of African chiefs is gone. Will he fall into sensual sloth, or will he lead the people on towards the light? He has received some little education at the royal kraal, and passed a few months at Lovedale, the London Missionary Society's Industrial School, from which he was removed at his and the old queen's request. The signs are not bright. He will be no Khama to his people. In any case, his power is small, and decreases every year as the native comes more into contact with civilisation.

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