Princess Mkabayi, The Zulu Lioness

“Kill him. Go ahead. Kill him. If it makes you feel better.”

I first heard these words from a woman in the Shaka Zulu 1986 TV series, and I instantly fell in love with her. That woman was Princess Mkabayi, the most powerful woman in Zulu history. Her brother, Senzangakhona was fighting with someone, threatening to kill him. Mkabayi dared him to do it, but Senzangakhona chickened out. [I think Mkabayi knew that her brother was a coward, and he wouldn’t go through with it.]

Gugu Nxumalo, as Princess Mkabayi, in the Shaka Zulu 1986 TV series.

Gugu Nxumalo, as Princess Mkabayi, in the Shaka Zulu 1986 TV series.

Mkabayi was the daughter of Jama kaNdaba, elder sister of Senzangakhona and Shaka Zulu’s aunt. She was the power behind the Zulu throne. She presided over the reigns of four kings – King Senzangakhona, King Shaka, King Dingane, and King Mpande. She acted as co-regent during her brother’s youth. During Shaka Zulu’s reign, she led the AbaQulisi homestead. The AbaQulisi Impi became renowned for their bravery under the leadership of Mkabayi. She remained unmarried in order to retain her political independence. She had a close relationship with Senzangakhona’s wife, Nandi. Mkabayi and Nandi’s relationship was grossly misrepresented in the Shaka Zulu 1986 TV series, where it was suggested that Mkabayi hated Nandi. When Senzangakhona died, Mkabayi encouraged Nandi’s son, Shaka Zulu, to seize power.

Mkabayi was a twin, and custom at that time dictated that one of the twins be sacrificed to evade bad luck. Jama kaNdaba refused to sacrifice one of his daughters, and broke a known tradition. Mkabayi devoted her whole life in looking after the Zulu Kingdom due to the sacrifice her parents made for her to live. After Mkabayi’s mother died without bearing Jama a successor, Mkabayi single-handedly courted Mthaniya for her father. She did this without her father’s knowledge. And when he found out he said, “Nenzengakhona” , which means “you have done accordingly”. Mthaniya’s first son was named, Senzangakhona “we have done accordingly”, after his sister’s efforts to find her father a successor.

After Nandi, Shaka’s mother died, Shaka’s state of mind declined, and he started abusing his power. This resulted in the decline of the Zulu Kingdom. Mkabayi therefore instructed Shaka’s half brothers, Dingane and Mpande to assassinate Shaka and had Dingane take over the reigns, in order to preserve the Zulu Kingdom.

Vryheid, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa Picture courtesy of southafrica-travel.net

Vryheid, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
Picture courtesy of southafrica-travel.net

Mkabayi remained an influential figure for a long time in the Zulu Kingdom. She was so influential, the most famous phrase was “Buzani kuMkabayi”, “Consult Mkabayi for any solution”. Today, she lies buried in Vryheid at kwaSgwegwede, in Northern KwaZulu-Natal.

SIDENOTE: It is such a shame that women are not often considered as successors to royal thrones. I truly believe that Princess Mkabayi possessed better leadership skills than the Zulu Kings that she presided over, with the exception of Shaka Zulu. Shaka Zulu was the only Zulu King who was Mkabayi’s equal.

“Senzangakhona, my brother. Need I remind you that the only reason you are an heir and not me, is because of what is between your legs?” -Princess Mkabayi

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