Labotsibeni Gwamile laMdluli (c. 1858–1925)

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Labotsibeni Gwamile laMdluli (c. 1858–1925)

Ruler in Swaziland, as queen-mother and regent, who transcended the usual powers allowed women in her society, grasped the benefits of Western influence, and helped lay the foundations for her country as a nation state. Name variations: laMvelasi; Mgwamie. Born Labotsibeni laMdluli around 1858, at Luhlekweni homestead in the Hhohho region in northern Swaziland; died on December 5, 1925, at Embekelweni, then the Swazi national capital; daughter of Matsanjana Mdluli and a mother of the Mabuza clan; became chief wife of Prince Mbandzeni in 1875; children: sons Bhunu, Malunge and Lomvazi, and a daughter, Tongotongo.

Death of Mbandzeni (1889); brought to power as queen-mother upon appointment of son Bhunu as royal heir (1890); became regent to her grandson Mona (1899); rallied the Swazi people against land incursions by the British (1906); relinquished rule with Mona's coronation as Sobhuza II (1921).

In her lifetime, Labotsibeni laMdluli was given her middle name of Gwamile, meaning "indomitable one," by her Swazi subjects, a tribute also acknowledged by British colonials, members of the administration then occupying her country. Granted for her ability to protect Swazi sovereignty and culture from colonial encroachment, the recognition was a rare case of the oppressor admitting its admiration for the leader of the oppressed.

During festivities marking Swaziland's contribution to the International Year of Women in 1975, Swazi women recalled the stature of Labotsibeni by referring to her as "Mgwamie," an abbreviated form of her name which both commemorates her role in consolidating Swazi nationhood during turbulent times and personalizes the affection felt for her as one of the greatest queen-mothers or regents in their country's history. In an informal conversation in March 1993, almost 100 years after the era of Labotsibeni's greatest contributions to her nation began, a Swazi princess remarked that the opportunities for economic and political stability in Swaziland during the 1990s lie in creating a modern queen-mother of the same moral stature and political shrewdness.

Swaziland is a landlocked country lying west of the Indian Ocean, encircled by modern South Africa except for a small portion that borders Mozambique. Labotsibeni Gwamile laMdluli was born there around 1858, during the reign of Mswati II who ruled from 1844 to 1865 and is considered the father of the modern Swazi state, from which the country's name is derived.

As a member of the Mdluli clan, Labotsibeni came from a distinguished lineage. Referred to as emakhandzambili (those "found ahead"), the Mdluli predated two subsequent waves of Swazi settlement before the arrival of white colonials, and over the last 300 years the clan's two branches have played important roles in the evolution of modern Swaziland. Labotsibeni traced her origins from the northern Mdluli clan, distinguished by its expertise in military intelligence. Its members were often military commanders and regional governors in the pre-colonial era. At the time of Labotsibeni's birth, her father Matsanjana Mdluli was part of a Swazi regiment fighting a Pedi chief named Tsibeni near the present-day town of Barberton, in South Africa. Her name was derived from this conflict, which was part of the ongoing effort by Mswati II to consolidate his reign and the boundaries of his state.

Little is known of Labotsibeni's mother, except that she was of the Mabuza clan. In 1870, as Labotsibeni was entering her teens, the death of her father brought with it the seeds of her rise to power, after her father's brother, Mvelasi Mdluli (babe mncane, or "young father"), became her guardian. Brought to the national court at Ludzidzini, where her uncle had a regimental residence, she thus acquired the further name of laMvelasi. Despite a pronounced subordination of women, Swazi society traditionally identifies women by their own family names rather than the family names of the persons they marry, and also through the first names of their fathers. Identification as laMvelasi was thus confirmation of Labotsibeni's adoptive pedigree.

Growing up in the Swazi palace, Labotsibeni acquired "knowledge of court etiquette, insight into the politics of the period and self-assurance," writes historian Hilda Kuper . If ancestry destined her for fame, personality was to make her a distinguished ruler. At court, she was an attendant to Tsandzile , mother of Mswati II, who would also be known for her immense contribution to the creation of the Swazi nation. Labotsibeni learned much from her. Assertive and brave, the young woman had a shrewd understanding of her social position without being arrogant. According to Kuper, when an umntfwanenkosi (prince), a grandson of Tsandzile, once made an amorous approach, Labotsibeni rebuffed him with, "I cannot be courted by a person from a common village." A few years later, however, Labotsibeni judged the same man suitable, after he had become Mbandzeni, the king. In 1875, Labotsibeni became Mbandzeni's chief wife, and afterward gave birth to their three sons—Bhunu, Malunge, and Lomvazi—as well as their daughter Tongotongo .

According to the laws of Swazi succession, a king should not be followed by a son who has blood siblings. Labotsibeni's children would thus not have ruled, except for her keen perceptions, early exposure to royal politics, and a capacity to manipulate certain foes into becoming her greatest admirers; otherwise, she would have been allotted the obscurity that was the destiny of most royal wives. Skillfully wielding another Swazi tradition, providing that a king is king by the blood of his father through his mother, she made it a mechanism for her own ends.

On October 7, 1889, Mbandzeni died, prematurely and unexpectedly. Almost a year later, on September 3, 1890, Labotsibeni's oldest son, Bhunu, was designated the future king at the age of 15, and she was proclaimed queen-mother, or indhlovukati ("she-elephant"). Although Swazi society is patrilineal, its rule is actually a dual monarchy, under which the incumbent king reigns jointly with his mother. The terms of rule even recognize two national centers, one for the king and another for the queen-mother. (As queen-mother and then regent, Labotsibeni's center was at Embekelweni; since 1903, the Swazi state has had a third capital, which is the seat of the modern cabinet and residence of the prime minister.) In the event of the death of the queen-mother, her role becomes ritual, filled either by one of her sisters or by a senior wife of the king.

Since Swazi rulers ascend to the throne while still quite young, the power and influence of the queen-mother over councilors is considerable. Tradition recognizes her seniority in the fact that her appointment is the justification for the selection of her son as king. She is really the source of kingship, therefore, because of her family and clan. In managing the affairs of the state, age also gives her the advantage of experience with the intricacies of royal power. Noting the break with tradition in the ascent of Bhunu to the throne, Kuper argues that "the consideration that finally turned the choice in Labotsibeni's favor was her outstanding intelligence, ability, character and experience."

But Bhunu's reign was to prove relatively short. In 1899, he died while still in his early 20s, leaving behind six widows, each with a single child, and another wife, laMavimbela , who was pregnant. In determining his successor, three of the children were easily disqualified, as they were female. When the elders failed to settle on an heir acceptable to all royal factions from among the other candidates, they deferred to Labotsibeni.

The queen-mother's choice was now her grandson Nkhotfotjeni, also known as Mona (meaning "jealous"), a boy then only about three months old whose mother was Lomawa Ndwandwe . The decision was welcomed with great acclaim, retaining Labotsibeni as actual ruler now in the role of regent, which she was to hold until her grandson's coronation, on December 22, 1921, as Sobhuza II. In her two consecutive rules, from 1890 to 1921, Labotsibeni thus became the longest-reigning of all Swazi rulers before her, including its kings.

White colonials were apparently pleased with the choice of Mona. On April 29, 1899, Labotsibeni (then in her early 40s) was described by the Times of Swaziland, a white settlers' newspaper:

She is the real ruler. Despite her years, she is a hale and hearty woman; alert and active, and displays untiring zeal in the government of the Swazi nation. She marches through Zombodze kraal with a royal bearing and appearance; not only the wiseman, the councillors but the king himself is awe stricken. She knows the measure of her son better than anyone and does not relax her hold on the reigns of rule one iota.

Nevertheless, as regent she faced major new challenges that required intricate handling. One was to contain the power struggle that resulted from the minority of the crown prince.

According to another Swazi rule of succession, the child who succeeds the father is usually the youngest son who has no blood brothers or sisters. At the time of Bhunu's death, the choice of Mona had been rushed, partly because of a controversy surrounding the clan status of Bhunu's pregnant wife laMavimbela. Labotsibeni's recommendation of Mona had been based on his mother Lomawa Ndwandwe's background, but after laMavimbela gave birth to her son Makhosikhosi, some considered the new infant's claim to the throne as good as that of the chosen ruler. The anti-Mona factions labeled Labotsibeni as partisan and unable to referee the issue fairly.

In the ensuing conflict, Labotsibeni had the able support of her son Malunge, Bhunu's young brother. She had previously preferred Prince Malunge over Bhunu, but Malunge had refused to take what was his brother's right, and now also resisted his mother's overtures for him to supplant the young Mona. But Malunge's public appearances reminded people of his mother's political ambitions and schemes. In the early years of Mona's minority, there was pressure for his mother Lomawa, despite her youth, to replace Labotsibeni as the queen-regent. Regional commanders and governors took advantage of these disputes to increase their own autonomy, especially by defying summons for royal duty. It took shrewd and careful handling by Labotsibeni to establish the view that supporters of Lomawa as regent were actually preparing to exploit the young mother's political inexperience in order to bypass and oust both her and her son. By holding resolutely to this position, Labotsibeni eventually left no doubt as to who held the power behind the throne.

At the turn of the century, however, Labotsibeni found herself blamed for a succession of droughts which afflicted the Swazi population from 1902 to 1907. Since tradition assigned the power to make rain to the queen-mother, the Swazi began to interpret the dry spell as a judgment on Labotsibeni's defiance and defiling of the traditions of succession. In the course of the South African War (1899–1902), the power vacuum that existed during the early years of Mona's minority caused fear that Swaziland's neutrality and independence could not be guaranteed. Preoccupation with the war also reinforced the regional commanders' growing bids for autonomy. In 1904, Labotsibeni had to fine her subjects in order to compel them to attend national ceremonies.

By 1906, however, Allister Miller, the strongest critic of Swazi political and cultural life among the white settlers, conceded that "the Swazi were never more united than they were under the Queen Regent in 1906." The issue that drew the Swazi to rally behind Labotsibeni was the systematic allotment by the British of most of the country's land to white settlers; the Land Partition Proclamation of 1907 left the Swazis in control of only about a third of their country. After the regent organized a deputation to London that failed to reclaim the land, Labotsibeni lamented:

Were the people also sold? What I think is being done is that my people are being taken away too. What about them? You are tearing my skirt. My people are just like the land that is said to have been sold. Where am I going to live with this people of mine. Have they also been sold?

Following this powerful indictment came an equally strong strategy in the form of a Lifa Fund to which her people contributed money for buying back the land from the colonial government and white settlers. In June 1914, she told the resident commissioner: "I felt I must lose no time. I told the council all our weapons had failed and now with our own strength we must set out with determination to buy back as much as we can of our dear little Swaziland. They all agreed to assist by voluntary contributions." She also noted: "[W]e are against class legislation because it must necessarily interfere with our natural progress and makes the European the sole judge to determine which course the evolution of our natural history and ideals should take."

The fund was eventually discontinued, then revived in the late 1940s, allowing the repossession by Swaziland of about 60% of the country by the late 1960s. At the time of the fund's origin, Labotsibeni's strong determination to attack the British colonial power had greatly enhanced her popularity among her people.

A traditionalist who was also an outstanding social reformer and an intellectual of unusual commitment, Labotsibeni was alone among the leaders of her country in recognizing the importance of Western education for 20th-century Swaziland. Her convictions had been influenced by an earlier ruler, Somhlolo (Sobhuza I), and a vision he is alleged to have had, in which a white man appeared carrying an umculu, a scroll representing the Bible, in one hand and money in the other. Somhlolo's advice to the Swazis had been to accept the book and to reject the money. Taking the Bible to signify both Christianity and Western education, Labotsibeni insisted that Crown Prince Mona acquire a modern education, an idea strongly opposed among the Swazi chiefs and other members of the royalty. But the always pragmatic Labotsibeni encouraged the Swazi to accept education as the path to money, perceiving that the combination was the source of much of the power held by white people.

In preparing her grandson for his role as king, Labotsibeni recognized the importance of literacy for a 20th-century head of state. Over the opposition of the councilors and aristocracy, she arranged for the establishment of a school in the Shiselweni region at Zombodze, where the young Mona completed his early education. When the crown prince was sent to Lovedale, in South Africa, for the higher education not available in Swaziland, Labotsibeni encouraged a small group of Swazis to accompany him "wherever he may be sent for his education so that on his return to Swaziland he may have around him during his term of office men of ability to assist him in furthering the development of his country as well as the welfare of his people."

In December 1920, Labotsibeni was probably in her early 60s when she recalled Mona to Swaziland, appointed Reverend J.J. Xaba as his private tutor, and began preparation for Mona's installation as king. At the time of the prince's coronation in 1921, thanks to Labotsibeni's insight, Swaziland had a monarch who had more formal education than several African heads of state would have at the end of the colonial era in the 1960s. Among the tributes Mona would later pay to his grandmother was a technical college built in her name during the 1970s, with Swazi and German funds, in the Manzini region—the Gwamile Vocational and Commercial Training Institute.

The prolonged regency of Labotsibeni proved to be the most challenging and illustrious phase of her life. From 1899, her political career embraced two broad directions: to train the young and future king and to preside over the institutions of the state while mobilizing the Swazi nation against encroaching colonial forces. From the early 1880s, the status of Swaziland was ambiguous. In 1894, it became a condominium (joint rule) under the Transvaal and British administrations. Following the defeat of the Boers in the South African War of 1899–1902, the British became the sole colonial power over the Swazis in 1903. During this time, Labotsibeni managed to lay a foundation which ensured that indigenous or Swazi institutions of political power and control paralleled those of the British until 1968, when British colonial rule was terminated. At the turn of the century, when most of Africa was surrendering political power to colonial governments, she secured an unprecedented power base for the existing Swazi aristocracy.

Closing the 19th century and opening the 20th century, Labotsibeni transcended the status generally assigned to women in her society to enhance the dynamic prospects for her country. Following her death, on December 5, 1925, the Times of Swaziland eulogized its longest reigning regent as "the best known native woman in Southern Africa." H.W. Jones, who served in the Swazi colonial service in the 1950s, observed that "in a strong tradition of influential women in Swazi political affairs Mdluli was arguably the most effective and influential." Many of her contemporaries acknowledged her as a shrewd and clever politician. In 1907, T.R. Coryndon, as resident commissioner with a wide colonial experience in Southern Africa, paid her indirect homage when he described her as a "woman of extraordinary diplomatic ability and strength of character, an experienced and capable opposition which it [the colonial administration] was for some time incapable of dealing with."


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Sources in the National Archives of Swaziland, Lobamba.

Ackson M. Kanduza , Professor of History, University of Swaziland, Kwaluseni, Swaziland

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Labotsibeni Gwamile laMdluli (c. 1858–1925)

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