The King
Our driver becomes increasingly nervous as we approach Mabeskraal. We have been granted an appointment to interview Kgosi (or King) Mabe, who is king of nine provinces in north-western South Africa. His own kingdom is small, with just 20,000 subjects, but he is the elected leader of all the kings in the region, 54 traditional leaders in all. That gives him a lot of power.

“I don’t want my daughter to be a ‘good girl’.”     

Kgosi Mabe
Uses his position as tribal king to work against violence against women.    

“Have you brought a nice present?” wonders our driver. “And I see you’re wearing long trousers- that will never do. When people in the villages meet their king the women kneel and every visitor has to bring with them at least 20 litres of African beer. ‘If you are going to meet the eye of the lion you must take a torch’.”

It all seems rather silly, but then I remember what it was like when I interviewed the Swedish King and Queen, how I had to submit my questions in advance and was under strict instructions to address them as “Your majesties”. So there was really very little difference.

The king who meets us here, in a normal villa, is wearing a striped piqué cotton shirt, and his teenage daughter is wandering around in jeans. We put away the pieces of fabric we had brought just in case to wrap round our long trousers. This is a modern king.

This is a modern king.

“I was 35 years old when my father died and I inherited the office,” Kgosi Mabe tells us. “I was a teacher at the time. I knew I was born to be king, and my son will succeed me whether he likes it or not. In one way I think the idea of inheriting a job is old-fashioned, but there is much in democracy which is uncertain at the moment. We need stability, and someone who does not need to change his views to suit public opinion.”  
That is certainly not something Kgosi Mabe has done. His region is very traditional. Sonke Gender Justice Network, an organisation which calls on men to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS and violence against women, is active in Mabeskraal, with the backing of the king. When they hold a meeting, only women come.

“When I call a village meeting the men come too,” says Kgosi Mabe proudly, as if anything else would be unthinkable. “But I don’t tell them we are going to be talking about HIV/AIDS and violence.
“We have never talked openly about sex in our culture but when I raise the question at a village meeting the parents have to go home and pass on what I have said. Then I go to the school and ask the children what they have heard. In the village I hear people saying ‘That’s what Kgosi said, so now I’m telling you’.”

In the village I hear people saying ‘That’s what Kgosi said, so now I’m telling you.

Kgosi Mabe wants to concentrate on the men. He usually visits the places where men gather, such as the beer taverns, shabeens, to ask them to talk about their lives. Many are frustrated.
“When I start talking about HIV/AIDS they say “that’s women’s matters”. And they insist that the disease has always been around. Men are keener than women to hide behind “our culture”. They’ve got more to gain. I tell them what I know about how it’s spread and we hand out condoms. The bar owners didn’t want condoms there at first, but now they’re always coming to get new boxes.”

For Kgosi Mabe, it is about more than the spreading of infection. Everything is connected: that tradition dictates that married women cannot say no to sex; that women are not allowed to make their own decisions; that a  women who has been abused does not receive any support if she wants a divorce because “a woman’s grave is with her parents-in-law” ….

In the past, land in the village has only been allocated to married couples. An unmarried person, even if she is a single mother, or - even worse – divorced, has no right to her own piece of land. Kgosi Mabe has changed that. Now everyone has the right to land.
“Under the old rules we were all accomplices to the violence. We have forced abused women to remain in dangerous relationships.”

Under the old rules we were all accomplices to the violence. We have forced abused women to remain in dangerous relationships.

This is what he tells the other 53 kings. Gradually he is seeing a change.
Kgosi Mabe also works for change in other ways. He is making a real effort to bring both his children up the same way, or, to be more precise, as individuals.
“I am raising my daughter to be able to look after herself. When I go to check on my cattle, she comes with me. I want her to know how to look after animals and I don’t want her to be dominated by a man. I don’t want her to be a ‘good girl’. If my daughter was my oldest child she would have inherited the Kgosi title.”

How did the king arrive at these points of view? They are hardly the norm in Mabeskraal. 
“I have read and considered. My upbringing was very traditional but I have tried to see what is best for my people. A couple who are equal can do so much more good than if the woman is subordinate. My wife, who is also a teacher, helps and supports me in my work.”

In some respects, however, Kgosi Mabe still believes in the old traditions. Women should not smoke or drink alcohol – although in fact he believes no-one should. And when the king was crowned ten years ago, he was dressed in the traditional royal regalia. A picture from the coronation hangs on the wall behind him. He does not want to pose in these clothes now. The truth is, he cannot fit into them any longer.