Princess Mkabayi Kajama, an Early Zulu Feminist

Illustration of King Jama kaNdaba

Illustration of King Jama kaNdaba

The story of the Zulu princess, Mkabayi Kajama, reads like a tale of great feminism. Born a twin, it was expected that Mkabayi’s father, King Jama, would kill either her or her sister, Mmama. It was believed that bad luck would follow should both twins be allowed to live, and the community was upset at the King’s refusal to kill one of the girls. A situation worsened when King Jama’s wife died before being able to produce a male heir to the thrown, confirmation to the community that the King had erred in his decision not to kill one of his daughters.

Illustration of Princess Mkabayi Kajama

Illustration of Princess Mkabayi Kajama

Being of strong character Mkabayi drew the most attention, and the most animosity from her father’s subjects, and in an effort to win them over, and help her father whom she felt indebted to, Mkabayi set about to find her father a new wife who would offer him a son, Senzangakhona. This decision on the part of Mkabayi was just one of the many political moves she made over the course of her life. Despite numerous suitors, Mkabayi remained single so that she could retain her position as head of the ebaQulusini – according to custom unmarried princesses served as heads of military units, and in 1781, upon the passing of her father, Mkabayi appointed herself regent, recognising that Senzangakhona was too young to ascend the throne – something that was unheard of at the time.

Mkabayi also played a very important role in both the ascension, and the downfall of King Shaka. Mkabayi relinquished the throne when her half-brother, Senzangakhona came of age, but after his death in 1816 she decided that his first son, Sigujana, who was the rightful heir, was of weak character, and instead sought out Senzangakhona’s other son, Shaka kaSenzangakhona, to challenge Sigujana. But later when Mkabayi decided that Shaka was abusing his power, she plotted with Dingane kaSenzangakhona and Mhlangana kaSenzangakhona to assassinate King Shaka, later organising the assassination of Mhlangana as well.

The story of Princess Mkabayi Kajama reads like something from Shakespeare, and indeed in the style of a good tragedy Mkabayi was eventually banished, dying in exile in 1843. But the legend of this warrior princess lives on in Zulu culture with sayings like Buzani ka Mkabayi (consult Mkabayi for any wisdom), and a number of songs and praise poems dedicated in her honour some 170 years later.

Click here to listen to a brief oral history of Princess Mkabayi Kajama performed by Soka Mthembu from Beyond Zulu.

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