The Regent, not the Modjadji rain king

Bruce Fraser

"It's no big deal. It's simply a case of history repeating itself."

That was the response of Prince Mpapatla Modjadji, Regent of the Balobedu in Limpopo, when asked about his role in a dynasty that dates back to the 1600s.

"If you look at our family history, we had six kings and then six queens. There is nothing strange in my taking over from my sister," he explained.

The first thing that strikes you when you meet Prince Modjadji is how young he appears. Casually dressed in a pair of Levi's and knitted sweater, he is soft-spoken and good-looking.

During the interview - held at the royal residence - he was guided by three elders, to whom he would often refer for advice.

Modjadji was thrust into the role of regent after the untimely death of his sister, Makobo Modjadji, three years ago.

Her daughter, who is destined to take over, is too young to take on the responsibilities so the duty has fallen on the 27-year-old prince's shoulders.

The responsibilities are immense. He rules over 132 villages and 128 headmen, scattered over 88 square kilometers. At the last count the area was inhabited by just more than 500000 people (Census 2006).

"When my sister passed away she was only 27. It came as a terrible shock since we were expecting her to be on the throne for a long time," he says.

"We are waiting for my sister's daughter to come of age to take over. According to customary law she will assume her responsibilities when the family decides she is fit to rule.

"Age does not matter. The real school of learning takes place here at the royal house. The people must know me as their regent - not the rain king."

When his sister died the prince was studying quantity surveying and building administration, a far cry from his role of today.

"Things suddenly changed," he says. "A large part of my job is listening to people on the ground - what their requirements are.

"The government is trying its level best to improve conditions. They ask us what we need - schools, dams, and so on, and we advise them."

Our interview is conducted in a rondavel, detached from the main house. It is here that the royal family receive guests and dignitaries.

Former president Nelson Mandela has been a regular visitor over the years and has become particularly close to the family. FW de Klerk also visits the family from time to time.

"President Thabo Mbeki has never visited," the prince remarks.

While growing up he tried to stay out of the limelight and have as normal an upbringing as possible.

Even when attending high school in Polokwane, he tried to blend in with the students so as not to receive special attention.

"I didn't tell people who I was. I didn't want to be treated differently. In high school I saw how the rich boys were treated - and the double standards that applied.

"I chose to remain a nobody so I could understand what life is all about."

It was at high school that the prince became close friends with a boy from Ghana.

The young Ghanian introduced him to classical music, or more specifically, the piano.

"I love music and I quickly realised I have a talent for it. The only instrument I don't play is the trumpet. It leaves red marks on my lips and I don't want to ruin my good looks," he jokes.

At one stage he was going to form a band and even bought drums, guitars, keyboards and so on.

"My best friend was going to play the drums but tragically he died. After that every time I looked at the drums I thought of him, so I sold everything."

Today the prince enjoys African jazz - both local and from Zimbabwe. Rap, reggae and gospel also feature in his CD collection.

Married to his cousin, Modjadji is the proud father of a boy and a girl.

He enjoys spending time at home, attending to tasks related to his role in the dynasty.

"When I travel to Polokwane on business I can't wait to get back. Don't even talk about flying - I hate it! It's for this reason that I have never traveled overseas, and don't plan on doing so any time soon.

"If I am away from home longer than a day I tend to get homesick."

At the centre of the Modjadjis' history is their rain-making ability. The ceremony is conducted every October when members of the royal family call on the ancestors to bring rain.

"Let me stress that we don't do witchcraft," he says "It is a secret that has been passed down through generations and will always remain a secret. It is our wealth.

"The first time I performed the ceremony after my sister passed away, it rained nonstop for two weeks. Obviously it was a relief to know I have the conviction and strength to carry out this ritual."

The respect commanded by Modjadji is clearly visible. Young and old come to him for advice and to resolve problems.

When greeting him they throw themselves on the ground as a mark of respect and when leaving the ritual is repeated.

During the interview three young men accompanied by an old woman asked to see him.

The problem centred on a circumcision school in the area and they needed his help in resolving it.

After half an hour the group left.

"Problem solved?" I asked.

"Let's hope so," he smiles.

While taking colleague Thobeka Magcai and myself on a tour of the royal kraal, he explains in detail the history of the family and how today their culture is just as important as in generations gone by.

An interesting story centres on the daughter of the late General Jan Smuts, a former prime minister of South Africa.

"Jan Smuts' daughter was visiting the area in the very early 1900s with a group of friends when they got lost.

"You got very few white people in this area in those days and word came back to the royal residence that a group of whites were lost.

"Smuts' daughter and her friends were guided to where we are today, where they spent a couple of days with us relaxing.

"Supplied with food and water, they were guided back to a main road from where they made their way home to Johannesburg.

"A short while later we received a hand-written letter from the prime minister thanking the family for the compassion displayed during his daughter's stay with us," he relates.

A more recent sign of recognition for the family was the naming of a submarine Queen Modjadji last month in Cape Town.

"The naming is in recognition of all the Queen Modjadjis."

Climbing in his Hilux bakkie, beanie pulled down to just above his eyes, his cellphone blares out: "Hey boss, you have a message!"

Well maybe some things have changed. - To see a video of this interview log on to