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Resurrecting Lozikeyi… Cont Mhlanga brings last Ndebele ‘king’ to stage

By Bruce Ndlovu

The stage play starts in 1902, a week after Cecil John Rhodes’ death on 26 March. The main protagonist, Queen Lozikeyi, is at the centre. She is angry. In fact, she is livid.

Cont Mhlanga
Cont Mhlanga

With Rhodes’ corpse only a week old, King Lobengula’s second senior wife is livid at the internal politics of the Ndebele State, politics that has seen the man who conquered her mighty kingdom suddenly respected and feted upon his death. Her kingdom is in disarray. The centre, it appears, cannot hold. Queen Lozikeyi is an agitated and worried matriarch.

The above scene is what veteran arts doyen Cont Mhlanga envisions for what might turn out to be a glorious return to the stage, as he sets himself up to direct an epic musical that is expected to play a large role in the envisioned revival and revitalisation of Amakhosi Cultural Centre.

For such an epic production, Mhlanga is expected to pull all the stops, bringing together an all-star cast. Indications are that Sandra Ndebele will play the queen that led the Ndebele state after the “disappearance” of Lobengula.

Queen Lozikeyi, was the leader and the inspiration for the second Anglo-Matabele war, also known as the War of the Red Axe and the First Chimurenga. Born in 1855, Lozikeyi was the daughter of Ngokho Dlodlo. Her marriage to Lobengula was said to have been meant to strengthen the king’s support base as the Dlodlo family were traditional healers and military experts.

However, despite her considerable achievements, Queen Lozikeyi’s achievements have been somewhat understated. Mhlanga, like others feels that Lozikeyi, like other historical figures, have been living in the shadow of Mzilikazi and Lobengula as all focus is thrown on the two monarchs. With the tentative debut of the historical musical set for September, Mhlanga thinks that this is a situation that should be remedied.

“There’re a lot of things about history and historical figures that were not told to us or rather were hidden. We have been fed a Eurocentric history about ourselves and usually we’re just given names and events concerning our fore bearers without context or reason,” Mhlanga told Sunday Life last week.

“This is because the white system of education was dedicated to suppressing that history so that we do not know ourselves. It’s a system that turned people against themselves and against their own culture. So most people just know the king. They just give you the king as if Mzilikazi was the only Ndebele or as if Lobengula was the only one capable of doing great things. We’re not told of other historical figures,” he said.

According to Mhlanga, Lozikeyi was one such ignored historical figure, as her deeds warranted the kind of attention that the country’s former colonial masters would not allow.

“Of course white people told us our history only in part because if we were told about some of these figures back then the fear was that it would inspire revolt,” he said.

According to historical records, Lozikeyi was a woman with fire in her heart, a flame that ignited her people to rise up against their oppressors and try to win back what had been taken from the black majority. It is this fire that Mhlanga would love to see burn brightly on the stages of Amakhosi when the play makes its debut.

“Queen Lozikeyi was the only queen that was fighting against the royal family within the royal family. I say that because at that time different interests had emerged and other members of the royal clan were selling out. She was bitter. So in the story she is fighting an internal battle against other members of the royal family and at the same time fighting the external threat that the kingdom is facing,” he said.

Mhlanga will try to bring to the stage, a woman struggled with the internal politics of a Ndebele state that was struggling to come to terms with colonial pressure. Betrayal, anger and internal conflicts are the cocktail that Mhlanga is trying to mix up for an intoxicating theatrical piece.

“So just to give an idea of what we’re working on, in the opening scene of the play Lozikeyi is angry. She is pissed off. She doesn’t understand why one of her closest affiliates who had been alongside her when they faced Rhodes’ forces is now seemingly selling out.

“So she doesn’t understand why Rhodes, after his death, has been given the royal salute. That’s the Lozikeyi we’re trying to bring to the stage. This is a Lozikeyi who is fighting from within the royal family. Life inside that royal family can’t have been all rosy as some would want us to believe. There are fights and conflicts and that’s what we want to bring to the stage,” he said.

The week that followed the death of Rhodes, Mhlanga said, was what inspired the play. It was the events of that week that had sown the seeds for Lozikeyi’s rebellion.

“So Lozikeyi is one person who doesn’t understand why Rhodes has been given the Royal Salute of Bayethe, which was a salute only reserved for kings. She doesn’t understand how a coloniser who destroyed the kingdom is given such a salute. Lozikeyi is the last woman standing against Rhodes. All the chiefs are down. They have given up the struggle,” he said.

Through flashbacks and flash forwards, Mhlanga said they would then be able to navigate both the past and the future and how Lozikeyi influenced both.

“People understand Lozikeyi from a Eurocentric sense. However, when the elders and chiefs were discussing the incoming threat, Lozikeyi was driving those meetings, warning the chiefs that they couldn’t make agreements with white settlers because they just couldn’t be trusted.

“So our story is told one week after the death of Rhodes. That week was very crucial because it enables us to tell a lot of other stories because a lot happened in that one week.

“It allows us to talk about the occupation of Matabeleland but beyond that through the use of various devices we will be telling a story that begins with the signing of the Rudd Concession up until the first bombs were brought into the country. It opens with a bitter queen and we take it from there,” he said. Sunday News