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Rebel Princess Series: Princess Mkabayi, the Power Behind the Zulu Throne

Many have heard tales of the great Zulu Kingdom in Southern Africa. But few know the tale of the princess who was the power behind the throne, a princess who devoted her life to protecting the Zulu.

This is her story.

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

Mkabayi Kajama (1750-1840)

Portrait of Mkabayi Kajama

Once upon a time in a land now known as South Africa, there lived a King of the Zulu people, and his name was Jama.  When Jama’s wife was pregnant, all of the kingdom rejoiced, waiting excitedly for the birth of a new male heir who could take Jama’s place on the throne. But instead of the eagerly awaited son the kingdom so desperately wanted, the queen gave birth to two twin daughters—Mkabayi and Mmama. In Zulu culture, the birth of twins was thought to be a bad omen, and many believed that their birth would bring an ancestors’ curse upon the entire kingdom and all those who lived there. The people called for King Jama to dispose of his newborn daughters, but he loved them too much. In the end, he spared their lives. And so the two twins grew and grew, but still the Zulu people distrusted them. Anytime something went wrong, the people held the twins responsible for it. When the queen died without leaving a male heir, the Zulu blamed the twins, saying that this was the beginning of the ancestors’ wrath.   

Traditional Zulu wedding attire

The strongest willed of the two princesses, Mkabayi, often took the brunt of the blame. She saw the people were growing restless and knew she had to find a solution to satisfy them. Secretly searching for her father’s new bride, she finally introduced him to Mthaniya Sibiya, who soon became the next queen. This match led to the birth of son, Senzangakhona kaJama, meaning “he who acts with good reason”. The Zulu finally had their heir. Mkabayi had proved herself in the eyes of the king and the Zulu people. And, thus, began her long influence on the politics of the Zulu kingdom, which spanned the reigns of four different kings.

Traditionally clad Zulu dancers and singers march to celebrate South African Heritage Day. Credit @ AFP/CNN Travel. 

When her father, the King, passed away, the Zulu kingdom was again thrust into turmoil. Her half-brother was too young to take the throne. In this time of great uncertainty, Princess Mkabayi acted with authority and resoluteness. She stepped forward to lead while her brother grew up into his role. But at the time, it was unheard of to have a female protector and counselor. Despite this, she proved to be a highly capable regent. Most of the old oral stories tell the tale of her being in charge and ruling for her younger half-brother. Although the Zulu people were still skeptical of Mkabayi, she demonstrated herself time and again as an excellent leader who always put the unity of the kingdom first. She thwarted attacks on her brother’s life and ruthlessly put down other attempts to claim the throne. Finally, when her half-brother was old enough to lead the kingdom himself, she stepped down. Even though she was no longer regent, she continued to be involved politically with the Zulu kingdom, using her influence to help make decisions and doing what she thought was best for the Zulu. When her brother had a son outside of wedlock, Mkabayi saw this as an opportunity to have a new heir to the crown. She acted quickly, and, encouraging the mother to flee with her son, she saved them both. The woman’s name was Nandi, and her son was called Shaka. During all this time, Mkabayi led a military group and remained active in Zulu politics.

Traditional dress at a Zulu festival. Credit @ Debbie Aird Photography

Years later when Senzangakhona died, Mkabayi helped his son, Shaka Zulu, to take the throne instead of his other half-brothers. When Shaka launched a coup to gain control over Zulu land, Mkabayi rallied political support for him, eventually leading to a great Zulu renaissance. Shaka reunited many warring tribes and put in place many military, political, and social reforms for the good of the land. One such reform was that all conquered people were allowed to integrate into the Zulu kingdom in full equality with its current citizens. During Shaka’s reign, the Zulu kingdom thrived and grew into an empire, becoming one of the strongest in Southern Africa. While the Zulu leader named Shaka is well known, few know of the princess behind the scenes who worked tirelessly to bring greatness to her kingdom.

Laura Drewett is the CEO and Co-Founder of Pourquoi Princesse. She’s also a mom to a boisterous, vivacious little girl and a calm, cuddly little boy. An American, she lives in the south of France with her husband and kids.

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