Pioneers: Swazi Queen Labotsibeni

Founder-financier of Abantu Batho

Stateswoman and founder-financier of Abantu Batho – Swazi Queen-Mother Labotsibeni Mdluli was a force to be reckoned with. In celebration of the International Women’s Day on 8 March, we honour the role of ‘forgotten’ African women in the fight against colonialism. We salute Queen-Mother Labotsibeni Mdluli of Swaziland, a stateswoman and founder of Abantu Batho.

Queen Labotsibeni was born in 1858 at eLuhlekweni northern Swaziland during the time in power of King Mswati II who reigned for 25 years between 1840 and 1865. As fate would have it, she would rule the young Swaziland kingdom for 50 years.

Labotsibeni’s ascension to the throne was rather unusual. Swati traditional laws did not allow a woman in her situation to rule, she had four children at that time. Second, her clan, Mdluli, was not next in line to rule Swaziland. But she defied the odds.

The daughter of Matsanjana Mdluli, whose brother was Chief Mvelase Mdluli, was entrusted to bring peace and stability in the wake of the political and social confusion the country faced.

She was chosen because of “her outstanding intelligence, ability and character and experience”. For someone with no “formal education, her wisdom, her perception, her wit, and determination…”, states Thoko Ginindza, in her article titled, Labotsibeni/Gwamile Mdluli: The Power Behind the Swazi Throne, 1875-1925.

This lioness, whose second name is Gwamile, meaning the indomitable one, first took the reigns as the Queen Mother for nine years between 1890 and 1899 and thereafter served her people as the Queen-Regent for over two decades, between 1899 and 1921.

It was when she was as a Queen-Regent that she became involved in the affairs of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), now ANC, to an extent that she founded and financed its communications organ, Abantu-Batho newspaper in 1912.

Her role in Abantu-Batho newspaper

Grant Christison, mentions in his PhD thesis African Jerusalem: The Vision of Robert Grendon that Mweli-Skota, in his book, African Yearly Register, An Illustrated National Biographical Dictionary (Who’s Who) of Black Folks in Africa published in 1931 mentions that the Swazi Queen-Regent Labotsibeni “was the founder of the Abantu-Batho…[it] was formed in 1912 on [her]… instruction, and under the direction of Dr. P ka I. Seme…”

In March 1914, in Tsala ea Batho, Sol Plaatje observed that Abantu-Batho is privileged to have a black financier because it had six sub-editors unlike other black-owned newspapers. Abantu-Batho came to be known as a publication that would raise the voice of the silenced African population in South Africa, a republic in which the oppressive government of the day was institutionalising landlessness, lack of education and poverty in African people. Those were the pressing issues that gave Queen Regent many sleepless nights. Following Pixley ka Seme’s persuasive voice, Labotsibeni invested £3,000.

“She remained in 1912 one of the wealthiest black women in South Africa”, says Christison.

She offered the much-needed financial muscle to support SANNC activities. She was also a very astute entrepreneur who treated this exercise as a business decision to partner with Seme and company thus making her a shareholder and Seme a managing director of Abantu-Batho – a limited liability company.

As an oralate stateswoman she understood the power of the printed word and ensured that Abantu-Batho staff members report on bread and butter issues happening in Swaziland and other parts of southern Africa for the world to learn about beyond continental boundaries.

During the First World War, Queen Labotsibeni purchased an aircraft worth £1000 for Britain in support of its war efforts. She insisted the aircraft carry her name in order to reflect and acknowledge the role played by women in the First World War.

The 25 April 1918 issue of Abantu-Batho sang her praises in commending “Ndhlovukazi and the people of Swaziland for the loyalty and devotion to the British Crown”, registered Sarah Mkhonza in Queen Labotsibeni and Abantu-Batho. In: Limb, P. ed. 2012. The People’s Paper: A Centenary History and Anthology of Abantu-Batho.

When she passed on in 1925 there was a heavy rain that led to flood in some parts of South Africa and Swaziland. She was a rain-maker. She was reputed to have said, “When I want water, I make the rain myself”

References

Christison, G. 2007. African Jerusalem: The Vision of Robert Grendon. PhD Thesis, University of KwaZulu-Natal, pp.773 and 774.

Ginindza, T. 1996. Labotsibeni/Gwamile Mdluli: The Power Behind the Swazi Throne, 1875-1925, Annals, New York Academy of Sciences, pp.135-158.

Mkhonza, S. 2012. Queen Labotsibeni and Abantu-Batho. In: Limb, P. ed. 2012. The People's Paper: A Centenary History and Anthology of Abantu-Batho. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

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