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The Rain Queen and Covid-19 – imagining a post-coronavirus future


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the seventh Rector of the United Nations (UN) University and UN Under Secretary-General.

As we begin to think of a post-coronavirus world, the emphasis on education and the power of leaders who are women is an important conversation to have. The Rain Queen of the Balobedu is part of that conversation.

At the start of May, CNN ran a segment on women in leadership and why they are better equipped to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps the best example of this is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whose response has seen her country emerge as the first to curb the spread of the virus.

As it turned out, qualities such as empathy, compassion and an ability to show support, which women exhibit more than men, were particularly effective in the formulation of national responses to the pandemic.

With the coronavirus having disrupted society as we know it and continuing to wreak havoc on people’s lives, the world is crying out for leaders of the calibre of Ardern. Globally, as of 13 May, infections had soared to 4.26 million confirmed cases, with 292,000 deaths and 1.49 million recoveries. It is important to note that the number of people confirmed infected are those who had symptomatic signs of the disease and that there are many more who are asymptomatic and showed minimal or no signs. Yet, the impact goes far behind the rate of infection. The devastation the pandemic has left in its deadly wake is incalculable.

Economies have been ravaged, unemployment has risen and there are now expectations of a recession far worse than the global financial crisis in 2008-09 — globally and locally.

South Africa, which has had eight weeks of lockdown, has not emerged unscathed. As the number of confirmed cases and deaths ticks up, so too does the impact on the economy. It is important to remember that South Africa’s economy was in a precarious position before the pandemic. Unemployment had already risen to almost 30% and growth for the year was expected to be less than 1%.

Things have significantly worsened. In fact, the worst-case scenario is that about four million jobs will be lost and the economy will contract by anything between 10% and 17%. This is significantly worse than the Reserve Bank’s forecast of a 6% contraction, which will likely be revised downwards too. With South Africa heading into an abyss of sorts, perhaps it is time to draw inspiration from South Africa’s women leaders.

We boast a Cabinet made up of 50% women. Yet one of the most impactful tales of formidable women is a legend I grew up hearing. The Modjadji kingdom is the only monarchy in Africa ruled over by a woman, the Rain Queen.

Tucked away in the province of Limpopo, the kingdom is home to the Balobedu people. The story of the queen is steeped in superstition and was popularised in books by author H Rider Haggard.

The most commonly told story is that the Balobedu people migrated from what is now Zimbabwe and settled in the area about half a millennium ago. Another story is that the Rain Queen is from the Venda royal family. The similarity between Kelobedu and Tshivenda supports this link. The two languages are mutually intelligible.

The Balobedu were once ruled by men, but the competition for succession was fierce. The last king, said to have been guided by a prophet, impregnated his daughter to start a line of female leaders. Legend has it that the Rain Queen is the incarnation of the goddess Mwari and is a mighty magician, able to bring rain to her allies and drought to her enemies through incantations, dances and daily rituals.

Mwari means god in Venda and Shona. Her reputation, of course, preceded her and African kings would request her blessings, fearful of her wrath. The magical powers attributed to the Rain Queen have passed from mother to daughter for centuries.

It has been 15 years since Queen Makobo Modjadji VI’s untimely death, yet there are still lessons that can be learnt from her. There is even a tinge of belief in superstition when you think of the severe drought South Africa has faced in recent years.

She was the first of the queens to receive formal education and to complete high school. In 2003, the Mandela Children’s Fund offered her a bursary to study development administration at a British university where she intended to further her studies. She played an important role in partnering with the government and the private sector to implement community development projects. This emphasis on the value of education appealed to me as an academic.

With the untimely death of Queen Makobo Modjadji, the Balobedu have had a hiatus in their royal lineage. The next Rain Queen, Masalanabo Modjadji VII, who is 16 now and getting ready for enthronement, has also placed emphasis on the importance of education.

The Balobedu recently became one of the handful of tribal monarchies to be officially recognised by the government and the queen will hold influence over more than 100 villages. As we begin to think of a post-coronavirus world, the emphasis on education and the power of women leaders is an important conversation to have.

At the University of Johannesburg, we have launched a series of conversations titled “Reimagining the Future after Covid-19”. As businesses and other sectors across society, including education, reel under the disruptions wrought by the coronavirus, they have come to the realisation that the world will never be the same again. It can no longer be business as usual because the upheavals of Covid-19 will require us to do things in a different way, with much more innovation and in a cost-effective manner. The post-corona world will touch every sector and we can no longer be at ease. We will need a cohort of “thought leaders” to rise to the challenge.

In addition to the usual virtues of ethical leadership, such leaders would need to be technologically savvy, globally-connected, locally grounded and hungry for the success of future generations.

As the Rain Queen of Modjadji once said, through ANC stalwart Mathole Motshekga, who speaks on her behalf: “She wants to be well prepared because the world is modern and her subjects are going to be educated people. So she wants to be educated so that she matches with the times.”

It is important that this education is grounded in the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. DM


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