Encyclopedia Womannica

Leaders: Labotsibeni Mdluli

Episode Summary

Labotsibeni Mdluli (1858-1925) ruled Swaziland for almost four decades as both Queen Mother and Queen Regent and was recognized by her allies and enemies alike as one of the most brilliant African rulers of the time.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Leader ruled Swaziland for almost four decades as both Queen Mother and Queen Regent. Recognized by her allies and enemies alike as one of the most brilliant African rulers of the time, she transcended the typical role allotted to women in her society helped protect her country from imperialist encroachment, and laid the foundations for an independent nation state. Let’s talk about Labotsibeni Mdluli

Labotsibeni was born in 1858 into the Mdluli clan, a large and distinguished Swazi family. Her father, like many of the men in his family, was in the military. Very little is known about her mother. 

In 1870, Labotsibeni’s father died and she became the ward of his brother. At the time, her uncle was a soldier in residence at the national court and brought Labotsibeni to live there with his family. 

Growing up in the palace, Labotsibeni learned the rules and customs of court etiquette. She was exposed to the inner workings of the political realm and the political issues of the time. She also served as personal attendant to the queen mother, who took Labotsibeni under her wing and taught her how to maximize her power and influence. Labotsibeni gained the reputation from a young age of being a woman of great intelligence, ability, and character. 

In 1875, Labotsibeni married and became the chief wife of the king of Swaziland. She bore him three sons and one daughter. The traditional laws of Swazi succession state that a king can only be succeeded by a son with no blood siblings, so none of her children were originally in line for the throne. But Labotsibeni wasn’t having that.  She used a combination of networking, favors, and legal wrangling to ensure her children weren’t passed over.

When the king died unexpectedly in 1889, Labotsibeni put her plan into action. By 1890 her oldest son Bhunu was named the future king. He was just 15 years old. Because the Swazi monarchy, though patrilineal, is technically a dual monarchy in which a son and his mother rule together, this significantly increased Labotsibeni’s power. Bhunu’s youth also helped to concentrate the majority of power in Labosibeni’s hands. 

Bhunu was not on the throne for long before he died in 1899. He left behind six wives and seven children, three of whom were eligible to ascend to the throne. When it came time to choose Bhanu’s successor, the Swazi elders couldn’t decide and instead deferred to the highly-revered Labotsibeni. She decided on her youngest grandson Mona, who at the time was only three months old.

This allowed Labotsibeni to rule Swaziland as regent for the young king. 

In the first five years of her regency, Labotsibeni faced significant political turmoil and a succession of droughts that made the Swazi people restless. In Swazi tradition, the queen mother is responsible for the rain so the droughts were considered a bad sign. 

But by 1906, Labotsibeni united her country by standing up to the British imperialists who had ultimate control over Swaziland. During this period, the British had begun to systematically give away massive swaths of the country to white settlers, much to the horror of the Swazi people currently living there. The Land Partition Proclamation of 1907 left the Swazi people with ownership of only about 30% of their land. 

Knowing that the Swazi nation had little ability to fight the British juggernaut to get their land back, Labotsibeni came up with another idea- a fund to buy back the land from settlers and the British government. She stated,”I felt I must lose no time. I told the council all our weapons had failed and now with our own strength we must set out with determination to buy back as much as we can of our dear little Swaziland. They all agreed to assist by voluntary contributions."

Labotsibeni’s sheer determination to beat back the British imperialists in the face of long odds became an inspiration and a matter of great pride to the Swazi people. Though it took decades, by the late 1960s, the fund had allowed the country of Swaziland to repossess over 60% of the land that had been confiscated and given away by the British. 

Labotsibeni  held the role of regent until 1921 when her grandson was coronated after receiving the very best western-style education his grandmother could provide. 

Labotsibeni was keen on adding western-style education into her country. She believed that it was vital for the future of Swaziland for her grandson to be a well-educated leader. 

Labotsibeni died on December 5, 1925, leaving behind a remarkable legacy and even gaining the begrudging admiration of the British oppressor. She is remembered today for her strong leadership and for her efforts to protect her country’s land, sovereignty, and culture from foreign encroachment.   

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Leader.

This week of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by The Great Courses Plus. If you want to learn about more powerful queens, I highly recommend The Great Courses Plus course called Warriors, Queens and Intellectuals: 36 Great Women before 1400. The course highlights women from around the world who made their mark on history. There are so many incredible courses available on The Great Courses plus streaming service. Learn from the top professors and experts. For a limited time, Encyclopedia Womannica listeners can get an entire month for FREE! Check it out at The-Great-Courses –PLUS –dot -com –slash – ENCYCLOPEDIA. That’s thegreatcoursesplus.com/ENCYCLOPEDIA

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!