Before an unexpected call from her lawyer on Thursday, Princess Masindi Mphephu was preoccupied only with her 27th birthday celebrations the next day.
Her attorney called to tell her the Supreme Court of Appeal was going to pass judgment on her challenge to her uncle Toni Mphephu-Ramabulana’s ascension to the VhaVenda throne.
On her birthday she woke up low-spirited and anxious but later on Friday she found herself holding a cellphone tight against her ear with tears rolling down her face.
“They were tears of joy. I cried like a baby. It was happening on my birthday giving me a reason to have a double celebration,” she said.
Her lawyer told her that the court had stripped Mphephu-Ramabulana of his crown and ordered the withdrawal of his certificate of recognition pending the outcome of another court process. It also set aside the Royal Council’s 2010 decision to “identify [Mphephu-Ramabulana] as a suitable person to be appointed as the King of the VhaVenda Traditional Community”, and declared a 2012 decision by former president Jacob Zuma to recognise him as “unconstitutional and invalid”.
In 2016 Princess Mphephu got a court order stopping a planned coronation ceremony in which Zuma would award her uncle a recognition certificate as king of the VhaVenda.
Princess Mphephu has argued in court that she was removed from the line of succession because she was a woman. The Supreme Court appeared to agree, saying the decisions by Zuma and the royal council to recognise Mphephu-Ramabulana were “based on criteria that promotes gender discrimination”.
The case was referred back to the High Court in Thohoyandou for “further adjudication on the merits before another judge”.
The presidency and the Limpopo premier were directed to refer several issues of customary laws and custom to the national and Limpopo houses of traditional leaders for opinion and advice to be submitted to the high court.
Among the issues will be “whether a child born before the parent is recognised as a traditional leader qualified to be the successor of the parent” and “whether in the VhaVenda custom, the Ndumi qualifies to be identified and recognised as a successor”.
An ndumi is described as a “male person appointed by the royal family as one of the assistants to the reigning king or queen”.
Princess Mphephu argued that Mphephu-Ramabulana was her father’s ndumi and not his rightful successor. The court also noted her contention that Mphephu-Ramabulana “ascended the position of senior traditional leader as a regent”.
The princess’ father, Tshimangadzo Dimbanyika Mphephu, who died in a car accident in 1997, was succeeded by his half-brother Mphephu-Ramabulana.
She accused her uncle of “usurping” the position after he was inaugurated as regent in 1998.
The court has referred the matter back to Limpopo and allowed for review processes of identifying the king or queen based on custom and tradition.
Although the case isn’t over, the princess is happy, saying the outcome was a “sign that we’re heading in the right direction”.
She had previously said she would take the case all the way to the Constitutional Court if she had to.
Mphephu-Ramabulana’s spokesperson, Ntsieni Ramabulana, declined to comment on Friday, saying they were still studying the judgment.
“The judgment is still fresh and we will meet our attorneys at the weekend for them to decipher everything and consult them before we can release any statement,” he said.
Is the princess right to challenge her uncle’s ascension? Should a woman be allowed to rule?
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