Who is Queen Zola Mafu?

By Drum Digital
29 July 2014

The wedding was attended by more than 10 000 guests, including President Jacob Zuma and ANC stalwart Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Whisked away from home at 17, plunged into scandal, and incarcerated in a palace for a decade, she appeared for her weekend wedding oozing the charisma that may explain a lot about the new Zulu Queen.

But who, really, is Zola Mafu, the sixth wife of King Goodwill Zwelithini?

When the teenage Zola appeared in public with the middle-aged king in 2004, it scandalised the public. There is a forty-year age difference between the two. She is 27; he has just turned 66, and in fact celebrated his birthday during the wedding weekend.

When Zola gave birth to his child later that year, the tongues wagged all over Zululand and beyond.

The king had not paid lobola, nor did he have her parents’ consent; it scandalised Zulu and Swazi society. For a decade she was referred to as an "nDlunkulu", meaning "royal consort".

It is common knowledge that the young Zola, then in matric, was first spotted at the 2003 reed dance in Swaziland. That is traditionally an event where Swazi King Mswati III chooses a bride. But she was whisked away from her family's humble sugarcane farm in Swaziland's Simunye district by Queen Mantfombi – who is both sister of the Swazi King, and third wife of the Zulu king – “to learn Zulu culture”. She has stayed for a decade in the KwaKhangela Palace with Queen Mantfombi.

The wedding has been a long time in the making. Way back in 2008, it was reported that wedding plans were being made. The king had then paid the lobola of 20 cattle.

There were apparently several factors beyond their control that held up the wedding. One was a dispute between her parents, who were separated and both claiming rights to the lobola. Her father passed away soon thereafter, but that also held up the wedding as the family had to observe the mourning period.

It is also rumoured that the building of her Ulundi residence, Ondini Palace, fell foul of political allegiances, as KwaZulu-Natal government changed from IFP to ANC control, and its completion was delayed.

But all that seems to be in the past now, after a weekend wedding with all the trimmings.

It was her public debut and, without saying a word publicly, the Queen revealed her charisma and coquettish charm through dance and song. After entering the Ulundi stadium covered by a blanket as per Zulu wedding tradition, she emerged like a butterfly from a cacoon after handing over her blanket to her mother-in-law, Queen Mavis Zungu.

From then on the stage was hers, as she charmed the king, amakhosi, guests and media.

This charisma and radiance may explain why she stood out at the reed dances of 2002/3, amid the thousands of maidens.

Swazi newspapers and royal courtiers had at the time singled her out for unusual praise at the annual Umhlanga Reed Dance fertility ceremony in 2002, and again at the Swazi reed dance in 2003. The reed dances are usually held in August/September.

“She is quite beautiful and although she is a commoner, she already carries herself with the grace of a princess," Swazi royalty reporter Charles Mathebula said at the time.

"Zola was a wonderful social butterfly, but with brains as well, and was great fun to be with. We all knew she would go far," classmate Sandile Bhembe told journalists.

She was also a friend of King Mswati III's then-fiancee, Liphovela Noliqwa, and served as her informal lady-in-waiting.

At the prestigious St Marks High School in the capital Mbabane, she was named "most popular" matriculant of the year in 2003.

Zola is the youngest of six children, with two brothers and three sisters. She was also a prefect and excelled in her role as chair of the local Mbabane/Mbuluzi Rotary Club's research committee. But in Zululand, she is still a mysterious presence. Perhaps because of scandal, perhaps because of protocol, she has been kept under wraps at the palace in KwaNongoma for a decade. A royal-family group attending Sunday night’s wedding party said, “We don’t know her. She has not been out in public since her arrival in the country. She has been confined to the palace. She hasn’t been given any (community) projects. Now that she is officially queen, she will take on a more public role.”

Prepare to be charmed.

- VIVIEN SANDT

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