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A queen for the Vhavenda?

News - Date: 21 December 2012

Written by: Anton van Zyl / Viewed: 54587


The battle to decide who is the real king (or queen) of the Vhavenda seems to be far from over. Court papers were served on several parties last week informing them of the intention to have the decision to make Toni Ramabulana king of the Vhavenda, declared invalid.

The first applicant in the case is the 21-year-old Masindi Clementine Mphephu. In the affidavit filed, it is argued that she is the first incumbent to the throne. The second applicant is Mbulaheni Charles Mphephu. He argues that should Masindi not be considered for the kingship, partly due to gender discrimination, he would be next in line for kingship.

The respondents in the case include Toni Ramabulana, President Jacob Zuma (who announced that Toni will be the new king), as well as the national and provincial houses of traditional leaders. The applicants ask the court to firstly set aside the decision to appoint Toni Ramabulana as king and then to declare that the practice of only installing males as traditional leaders be declared unconstitutional. Should the court not rule that Masindi is the sole queen of the Vhavenda (or alternatively Mbulaheni as second in line), the applicants ask that the Commission on Traditional Leadership Disputes and Claims be ordered to make a definite ruling on this matter.

The two applicants’ claim to the top leadership position among the Vhavenda is set out in detail in the affidavit filed by Mbulaheni Charles Mphephu. In this document he states that he is the eldest son of the late Patrick Ramaano Mbulaheni Mphephu Ramabulana. Masindi Clementine Mphephu is the only child of the late Tshimangadzo Mphephu (who ruled under the name Dimbanyika). Her father was paramount chief of the Vhavenda and also the second-eldest son of paramount chief Patrick Ramabulana. Dimbanyika succeeded Patrick as leader of the Vhavenda (the first born passed away before his father’s death.)

In the court documents several references are made to the findings of the Nhlapo Commission that investigated the kingship claims. This commission confirmed the belief that the Mphephu Ramabulana Royal Family is the custodian of the kingship.

The royal customs

The general rules of succession as well as the structures that govern are also described in the affidavit. According to Mbulaheni the mutumeri or Family Structure is very important when decisions about the future king (or queen) need to be made. The mutumeri comprises five parties, the first being the netshiozwi or “mother of the queen”. This is not necessarily the biological mother of the king and may be one of the other wives.

The second important party is the khadzi, or sister of the reigning queen. This is the most senior female position other than the queen in Vhavenda custom and is the one to nominate a new traditional leader, according to the requirements of customary law and after consultation with the Family Structure and the Royal Council. After the death of the king to which she is khadzi she remains on as advisor to the successor and is then referred to as makhadzi.

The ndumi is the third party involved and he or she is effectively the “secretary” to the king and one of his closest advisors. He is ordinarily chosen from the king’s siblings and is addressed as khotsimunene.

The two other parties are the makhadzi (previous khadzis) and the BaVenda (former advisors or ndumis).

“In terms of a strict requirement of Vhavenda customary law, the ndumi to a king or queen can never be the next king. This is because the ndumi is one of the closest advisors to the king or queen. It is thus believed that a person in that position would be tempted to kill or displace the king or queen if there was any incentive of succession involved,” states Mbulaheni in the affidavit.

In the affidavit the rules for determining who the next monarch would be, is also stated. Much emphasis is placed on the role of the dzekiso or “candle wife”. The dzekiso is selected by the Royal Council, a supporting structure that customarily comprises brothers and sisters to the king. The Royal Council will pay the lobola for the wife. The first wife the king marries is not necessarily the candle wife and there may also be more than one candle wife, to make provision for instances where the first candle wife may not produce a heir to the throne.

“Ultimately, it is the makhadzi who nominates the next monarch after consulting with the mutumeri or Family Structure and the Royal Council,” states Mbulaheni. The makhadzi follows customary law and the Royal Council invariably accepts such nomination and inaugurates the incumbent.

Should a king die no successor will be nominated within the first year after his death to give the community time to mourn their leader. During this time an acting regent is appointed and it is often the ndumi who takes up this role. If the successor to the throne is too young to rule, the acting regent will rule until that person is ready to take over.

Family structure of the Royal Family

In his affidavit Charles Mbulaheni sets out the complicated family structures, starting at his grandfather, Mbulaheni George Mphephu Ramabulana, who ruled under the name of Mphephu II from 1925 to 1949. “He was succeeded by his son and my father, Ramaano Patrick Ramabulana, who ruled as Mphephu III. Ramaano had eight wives,” states Mbulaheni. The three parties involved in the current court case were each born from different wives. Masindi Mphephu, the first candle wife, gave birth to Dimbanyika Mphephu (father of Masindi Clementine Mphephu).  Doris Mphephu, his fourth wife (but second candle wife) is the mother of Mbulaheni Charles Mphephu. Toni Ramabulana is the son of Matamela Mphephu, the second wife of Ramaano Patrick Ramabulana.

“My father, Ramaano Patrick, reigned as king of the Vhavenda from 1950 until his death in 1988,” states Mbulaheni in the affidavit. The Royal Council then appointed Phophi, the late king’s sister, as acting regent. She ruled for nearly six years amidst some controversy over who the next incumbent should be. These were also times of great political turmoil in Venda. In 1990 the former homeland was overthrown in a military coup and a year later the Venda Traditional Leadership Proclamation was passed whereby the kingship of the Venda was abolished and the Mphephu Ramabulana family was demoted to one of the 28 chieftaincies of the Vhavenda.

The reign of Dimbanyika

In February 1994 Dimbanyika Mphephu was installed as paramount chief and not as king (because of the legislation passed). “However, he was understood to be and recognised as king in terms of Venda customs, and, in this capacity he was requested to preside over the installation of chiefs during his reign,” reads the affidavit.

Toni Ramabulana, Dimbanyika’s younger half-brother, was appointed as ndumi. This, according to Mbulaheni’s affidavit would have immediately disqualified him as future king.

Dimbanyika’s reign lasted only three years and he died in a car accident in 1997. He had only one child, Masindi, who was six years old at the time of his death.

“… what ought to have happened is that Mavis Mphephu Ramabulana, now as makhadzi, should have announced Masindi as Queen of the Vhavenda people as she was her only issue. A regent should then have been appointed to act until Masindi came of age.”

In his affidavit Mbulaheni criticizes the role of the then Royal Council, stating that they “gained the distinct impression that the Royal Council wanted to usurp the throne.” He blames his uncle, David Mphephu (half-brother to his father) for creating the animosity and sowing confusion.

“As a result, the young siblings and peers of Dimbanyika decided to revolt and ousted the Royal Council … I was appointed as the chair of the new Royal Council,” states Mbulaheni. Toni Ramabulana, the former ndumi, was also part of the new Council.

Toni inaugurated as Paramount Chief

Because of Toni’s involvement in the new Royal Council it was, according to Mbulaheni, felt that it would not be proper for them to appoint a regent. “If it was done by the new Royal Council, it would seem as if Toni was installing himself,” he states. In 1998 the former Royal Council was thus reinstalled and they arranged for Toni’s inauguration as regent.

According to the affidavit, the ceremony caused a lot of confusion, as Toni was inaugurated as Paramount Chief that day and not as regent. Mbulaheni himself was appointed as ndumi to Toni “in his acting capacity.” Mbulaheni criticizes Toni is his affidavit saying he contravened customary law by then purporting to be the king of the Vhavenda.

The issue of kingship came to fore in 2003 when most of the 28 Vhavenda recognised chiefs came together to devise a plan to have the kingship restored. They apparently agreed that the Mphephu Ramabulana family was indeed the royal family of the Vhavenda. The chiefs, however, “failed to … ensure that the rightful incumbent from that family was appointed,” states Mbulaheni. He argues that the chiefs went along with the incorrect notion that Toni was entitled to be appointed as king. According to him this was never their role, as it is the prerogative of the Family Structure and more particularly the makhadzi.

Animosity between families

According to the affidavit filed the relationship between the various families have deteriorated to such an extent that even the close advisors to Toni have threatened to withdraw. “Toni’s leadership style has served to alienate his advisors. He never consults us about any of his decisions as he is supposed to do in terms of the customs,” he states. Because of this, Mbulaheni argues, even he is no longer able to perform his duties as ndumi. He alleges that the Royal Council and Family Structure are no longer active and is being dominated by David Mphephu.

Nhlapo Commission

The leadership dispute could also not be resolved by several commissions and high court judges. Legislation was passed in 2003 enabling government to put together a team to investigate the various claims and the Commission on Traditional Leadership Disputes and Claims was established. The Commission, headed by Prof Thandabatho Nhlapo, started their investigation into the claims and in 2008 released their first findings. The Nhlapo Commission (as it became known) recommended that there should be a single kingship for the Vhavenda people and that the rightful holder of the position of king (or queen) must come from the Mphephu Ramabulana Royal Family.

“Although Toni brought a claim, the Nhlapo Commission made no finding about who, within the Mphephu Ramabulana lineage, was the rightful king or queen,” states Mbulaheni. He supports this claim by quoting from a speech delivered by President Jacob Zuma in July 2010 where he states that the incumbents “will be determined by a new Commission which will be established soon.”

In January 2010 the Traditional Leadership and Governance Act came into effect and this led to a new Commission being formed. This Commission, chaired by Mr Bagudi Jonathan Tolo, started their work in January 2011 and, according to the court papers, must make recommendations to the President who must then make a decision within 60 days of receiving such a recommendation.

Mbulaheni argues that the Commission has still not made any decision regarding the Vhavenda kingship issue. “… the President has now ignored the pending enquiry of the Commission and gone ahead and wrongly recognised Toni as permanent king,” says Mbulaheni.

High Court Challenges

The President’s announcement that Toni Mphephu Ramabulana will be recognised as the new king of the Vhavenda was quickly challenged by some of the Vhavenda families whose claims before the Nhlapo Commission were unsuccessful. An application for review was initially brought by the Vhangona, but the Tshivhase and Mphaphuli families later joined the dispute. The application was dismissed by Judge Legodi, but he refrained from making any finding on who out of the Mphephu Ramabulana lineage should be the incumbent, describing this as not part of the (Nhlapo) Commission’s decision.

Just more than a week after Judge Legodi delivered his judgment, President Zuma issued a notice recognizing Toni as king of the Vhavenda. The decision of the President is severely criticized in Mbulaheni’s affidavit and he states that it violates several sections of the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act (PAJA).

Gender based discrimination

The court application of Masindi and Mbulaheni relies heavily on the fact that gender based discrimination took place when deciding on a new ruler. In his affidavit Mbulaheni describes the custom that only males should be heirs to the throne as inconsistent with the country’s Constitution and a breach of Masindi’s rights.

“If Masindi had been a male, there is no doubt that she would have been recognised as the rightful monarch,” he states.

No comment from the Royal Family

The Mphephu royal spokesperson, Vho Thovhele Rasikhuthuma Masakona, was approached for comment earlier this week. Rasikhuthuma is also the chairperson of the Ramabulana Royal family.

"What I can confirm is that we received the papers and that we are going to file papers opposing the application, but we cannot dwell on it now as it is in the hands of the courts," he said.

Left: King Toni Mphephu Ramabulana. Right: Miss Masindi Clementine Mphephu (21).


Anton van Zyl

Anton van Zyl has been with the Zoutpansberger and Limpopo Mirror for over 27 years. He graduated at the the Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) and obtained a BA Communications degree. He is a founder member of the Association of Independent Publishers.


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