“The warrior-King, Makhado Tshilwavhusiku Ramabulana’s exploits in defence of our land, our dignity and our well being will forever remain etched in our proud history of resistance to colonialism’. Former President Nelson Mandela, 1998.

This is the true story of the legendary king, Makhado Ramabulana, the hero of the struggle against colonialism and racial oppression. King Makhado, like kings Shaka Zulu, Mzilikazi Khumalo, Moshoeshoe, Sekhukhune, Malebogo, Makgoba, and Queen Modjadji, amongst others, fought for freedom. Their heroism inspired the establishment of the liberation movement in the early 20th century.

Makhado Tshilwavhusiku Ramabulana was the son of King Rasithu. He was the grandson of King Munzhedzi Mpofu, and the great grandson of King Thohoyandou.

Makhado’s grandfather, Munzhedzi Mpofu, the son of Thohoyandou the Great, died in 1829. Munzhedzi’s three sons were Rasithu (known as Ramabulana), Ramavhoya and Madzhie. Rasithu, the eldest son who was peace-loving, ascended the throne. But his mother, Nyamulanalwo, favoured her other son, Ramavhoya. She therefore influenced Ramavhoya to rise up against his brother.

Ramavhoya, who was stationed at Muraleni, gathered his supporters and marched to Tshirululuni, where the CBD of Makhado (former Louis Trichardt) now stands. Rasithu fled the royal capital and initially settled at Mutholini (known today as Bandelierkop). But fearing that Ramavhoya would attack him again, he moved to Rida, Blouberg region, and settled amongst Bahananwa, a Northern Sotho clan.

Ramavhoya enthroned himself at Tshirululuni and became the king of Venda. But Rasithu’s eldest son, Davhana, had not given up on his father becoming king again. He therefore made several attempts to dislodge Ramavhoya from Tshirululuni. All these attempts failed. But Davhana’s minor attacks led to Ramavhoya becoming restless. He also did not trust some of the mahosi (chiefs) because he thought they were still loyal to Rasithu who was in exile.

The unsettled Ramavhoya consulted traditional healers and diviners who advised him to look for a physically strong and courageous man whose flesh and internal organs could be used to prepare phamba (charm/medicine) to be used for the coming sowing season. This medicine would also be sprinkled on the warriors to make them strong.

Such an opportunity presented itself when Kgoshi Mmamokotopi, the Batlokwa ruler and who was one of the Batlokwa chiefs who paid tribute to the Venda king, requested a visit to the royal capital. Mmamokotopi proposed that he and Ramavhoya should undertake a hunting expedition into the sub-tropical jungles of Vhukalanga (Zimbabwe). Ramavhoya who had been waiting for an opportunity of this nature, responded in a positive manner to Mmamokotopi’s proposal and decided that he and the Batlokwa leader would meet at the confluence of the Khwivhila and Litshovhu Rivers.

In the midst of great rejoicing and jubilation, when nothing untoward was suspected, one of Ramavhoya’s men stabbed Mmamokotopi in the heart. Mmamokotopi’s subjects fled homeward, leaving their fallen leader at the mercy of Ramavhoya’s men, who immediately and carefully removed parts of his body in order to prepare phamba.

Mmamokotopi’s followers decided to team up with Rasithu who had become commonly known amongst the Bahananwa as Ramapulana, the rainmaker. By deposing his brother from the throne, as well as assassinating Mmamokotopi, Ramavhoya had brought the Batlokwa and Rasithu together as allies. The Batlokwa offered to provide Rasithu with military assistance in his bid to remove Ramavhoya from Tshirululuni.

By this time, the Boers who were led by Louis Trichardt were settling in Venda and were encamped at Gogobole. The Boers, who had been promised a piece of land and elephant tusks in exchange for helping Rasithu’s bid to regain his throne, collaborated with Rasithu and the Batlokwa to remove Ramavhoya from the throne. Ramavhoya was lured to Gogobole by the Boers. He was assassinated by Rasithu who had been hiding inside the Boer wagon.

After Ramavhoya’s death, Rasithu became the king of Venda. He became known as Ramabulana, a Tshivenda version of Ramapulana. Mahosi (senior chiefs) andmagota (junior chiefs/headmen) who had paid tribute to Ramavhoya, recognised Ramabulana as the legitimate king.

Ramabulana’s reign lasted a long time. It is believed that he lived till he was in his 90s. But the Boers, who he had teamed up with to oust Ramavhoya, were becoming a problem because they wanted more land than was originally agreed. They also wanted Vhavenda men and women, including royal princes and princesses, to work for them for free. This led to conflicts between Vhavenda and the Boers. Davhana was even arrested by the Boers who were now stationed atThivhalalwe (known today as Schoemansdal), for allegedly stealing a white farmer’s cow. But Davhana managed to escape from detention.

Ramabulana, no longer trusting the Boers and fearing that he too would be arrested by the land hungry and land grabbing Boers on spurious charges, left Tshirululuni and settled at one of his royal residences at Nngwekhulu. He left Nngwekhulu after two years and settled at Vuvha, another of his royal residences. Vuvha was relatively closer to Tshirululuni than Nngwekhulu. Ramabulana’s younger brother, Madzhie, remained in charge of royal affairs at Tshirululuni royal residence.

In old age and at Vuvha, Ramabulana was cared for by Makhado’s mother, Limani. She was the daughter of Matumba, a Mukwevho of Tshitavhadulu and the younger brother of Khosi Matidze, the chief of the Mukwevho clan of Luonde. The warmth and kindness displayed by this good and intelligent woman towards Ramabulana at a time of great distress, counted heavily in her son’s favour during the disputes over the succession to Ramabulana’s throne. In other words, by doing as she did, Limani paved the way for the succession of her son Makhado, to the throne[1].

Ramabulana later ordered Makhado and Limani to return to Tshiruruluni, the royal capital, in order to be closer to whites and to be his eyes and ears. Davhana relocated to Vuvha to take care of Ramabulana.

A typical traditional Venda Homestead

A typical traditional Venda Homestead (photo courtesy of Lishivha Wilderness)

Realising that the war of succession could ensue amongst Rambulana’s sons after his death, Makhado’s maternal uncles, the Mukwevhos, advised him to secretly enter the mula/murundu (circumcision school) at Tshamatangwi, Ha-Mashau in 1854. Makhado became the first Singo prince to be circumcised. But the reason why his maternal uncles advised him to enter mula was to render him acceptable to fellow initiates who would later form the core of his fighters in the war of succession. He entered mula with his cousin Nndwayamiomva Ravele. This is the same Nndwayamiomva who was, during the war of succession, sent to Old Mauluma by Makhado to be the khosi (senior chief) of Mauluma and to also repel attacks by Davhana. The age group with which Makhado and Nndwayamiomva were initiated was known as Madali.

Some historians have argued that Makhado was the first Muvenda to be circumcised. This is incorrect. The Tshivhula and Mukwevho clans had already started circumcising their boys long before Makhado was born. Makhado’s maternal grandfather, Matumba, was the first Mukwevho to be circumcised after he visitedMavhambo, Ha-Tshivhula, during circumcision season. Ha-Tshivhula is known today by the names of All Days and Waterpoort.

Vhatwamamba and Vhakwevho were amongst the first Vhavenda clans to initiate and circumcise their men. These two clans became known, and are still known, as vhafumbisi, circumcision surgeons. Makhado was therefore the first Singo prince to be circumcised, but not the first Muvenda to be circumcised.

When Makhado came from the circumcision school, he was rejected by his brothers for being circumcised. He felt isolated and went into hiding. He was later approached by Rasivhetshele and Funyufunyu who asked him to join them as an assistant to Boer hunters who hunted elephants for ivory. Makhado agreed to this arrangement and joined hunting parties. This is where Makhado learnt firearm handling. He and other Vhavenda assistants also managed to secretly accumulate a lot of firearms and ammunition whenever they were sent on hunting expeditions in summer without Boer supervision. The Boers were reluctant to go on hunting expeditions in summer due to the fact they could not navigate the terrain during the rainy season, which was also the season of tsetse fly and malaria-bearing mosquitoes in the areas north of the Soutpansberg mountain range.

Vhavenda who went on hunting expeditions on their own in summer would bring back ivory, but claim to have lost some of the firearms and ammunition. But Makhado was preparing for war since he disliked the fact that the Boers continued to demand labour and tribute from Thovhele (king), and mahosi (senior chiefs). The Boer demand was alien to Tshivenda culture since only subjects and magota (headmen) could render tribute to mahosi while the mahosi themselves rendered theirs to Thovhele (king) and not to anybody else.

While at Vuvha and trying to consolidate his hold on a nation that had gone through civil war, and whose land was being encroached by the Boers, Ramabulana fell ill. As there was no sign of recovery, Davhana secretly removed his father from the palace, and accommodated him in a humble residence outside the royal headquarters. Davhana had given instructions for the dwelling to be erected, for Ramabulana to receive treatment in isolation. Ordinary people and relatives, including vhomakhadzi (paternal aunts) and makhotsimunene (paternal uncles) were forbidden to visit him. As the closest relatives were not told why they could not have access to their ruler, an aura of suspicion surrounded the prevailing situation.

When Ramabulana was in seclusion, Davhana was in charge of royal affairs. He became the de facto king since his father was incapacitated. Eventually Ramabulana passed on in 1864.

A traditional Venda village

A traditional Venda village (Source: http://www.ezakwantu.com)

Respected Venda historian, Professor Mphaya Henry Nemudzivhadi, states that Ramabulana’s death, like that of any Venda monarch, left a vacuum, the filling of which caused political storms and upheavals which engulfed the whole nation.

The reasons behind this fighting were threefold. Firstly, Vhavenda kings and chiefs never stated who their successor would be. Princes and their supporters had to wait till the announcement was made by the royal council, led by Makhadzi and Khotsimunene on who would succeed the departed king or chief. Such announcement was usually made twelve months after the death of the previous chief or king.

Secondly, the Ramabulanas had a view that, “A vhu newi vhukoma ha ha Ramabulana, a si vhuswa”, meaning that a Ramabulana prince had to fight for the kingship since it was not dished out like porridge. Thirdly, and most importantly, according to Tshivenda customs and traditions, chieftainship or kingship is not a personal property of the chief or king. It belongs to the royal house. It is also an institution of trinity. When the chief or king is installed, two more people are installed with him. These are the Khadzi and Ndumi who are the chief or king’s sister and brother respectively. The Khadzi and Ndumi, together with the previous chief or king’s Khadzi and Ndumi, become the new chief or king’s main advisors. The previous chief or king’s Khadzi and Ndumi become Makhadzi and Khotsimunene respectively, after the installation of the new chief or king. The chief or king takes decisions in consultation with the Khadzi, Ndumi, Makhadzi and Khotsimunene.

The people who are charged with the responsibility of identification and installation of the new chief or king are makhadzi and khotsimunene. The process of identification and installation is known as, “u vhumba vhukoma”, (meaning moulding, processing, and making of chieftainship or kingship). Without the blessing of Makhadzi and Khotsimunene, no chieftainship or kingship is valid.

Ramabulana’s sons were Davhana, Rasikhuthuma, Nthabalala, Khangale, Ramalamula, Liswoga, Maatamela, Ramaru, Ramanala, Raliphaswa and Makhado. Although Ramabulana died at an old age, the people still looked for the culprit ‘who caused his death’. This was because in Tshivenda custom it was maintained that for every death there should be a cause. Traditionally, Vhavenda resorted to diviners who had to explain to them what had in fact happened.

In the case of Ramabulana’s death the people suspected Davhana of having killed his father. There were grounds to believe it. At the time of his death, Ramabulana was confined to a dwelling erected by Davhana outside the royal kraal, where he, Davhana, nursed his father. This prevailing opinion amongst the Venda people had an influence on Davhana’s accession to his father’s throne.

After Ramabulana’s death, some of Davhana’s younger brothers approached Rambulana’s sister and khadzi, Makhadzi Nyakhuhu, to have Davhana installed as king. Although this was contrary to accepted custom, as the sons could not choose and install one of their own, Makhadzi Nyakhuhu directed them to bring all the sons together. They did so, but excluded Makhado. When Makhadzi Nyakhuhu wanted to know why they had excluded Makhado, they stated Makhado was no longer one of them as he had forfeited his rights by getting circumcised.

Ramabulana’s sons wanted Davhana to be the king. Makhadzi Nyakhuhu, who was against the sons’ demand, and after being pressurised by the princes, told Ramabulana’s sons to do as they pleased. Davhana therefore forced himself into the position of Thovhele. He usurped the throne. But he did not have the support of Makhadzi Nyakhuhu and Khotsimunene Madzhie, and his ascendancy to the throne was therefore null and void.

Davhana was also not loved by ordinary Vhavenda who saw him as a dictator and who regarded him as cruel and evil. This was due to the fact that when Ramabulana was ill, Davhana was in charge of royal affairs at the Vuvha royal residence and was heavy-handed in his judgements and sentences. He was also alleged to have murdered innocent people cruelly and to have had their corpses hidden in maize storage pits. Oral accounts have it that even his father, Ramabulana, was worried about Davhana’s cruelty. Ramabulana is said to have told Davhana that “hanga u nga si vhu dzhene vhuhosi”, meaning “you will never succeed me as the king”.

The majority of people supported Makhado whose mother, Limani, was loved by commoners and royals. Limani was known for her kindness, generosity, caring attitude, and treating visitors well. The royal residence of Tshirululuni, where Limani was based, was more welcoming as opposed to the one at Vuvha where Davhana’s mother was based. Moreover, Davhana’s mother was suspected of practicing witchcraft. The suspicion of witchcraft, coupled with Davhana’s cruelty, led to some influential people suspecting that Davhana was himself a tshivhimbili (sorcerer).

Makhadzi Nyakhuhu and Khotsimunene Madzhie came together and agreed to install Makhado as the new king. Funyufunyu, Rasivhetshele, Nndwayamiomva, and Makhado were asked by Madzhie to call in Makhado’s supporters. The number of Makhado’s supporters was swelled by his maternal uncles and cousins, the Vhakwevho of Ha-Matumba, Luonde, and Vumbani, and Makhado’s age group, Madali, with whom he was circumcised and initiated at Ha-Mashau.

Meanwhile Davhana, who knew that he was not favoured by Makhadzi Nyakhuhu and Khotsimunene Madzhie, was restless and was looking for Makhado so that he could kill him. Makhado remained in hiding at Ndouvhada. In his quest to locate Makhado, Davhana further alienated the few supporters he had. He also had a clash with his cousin, Khosi Maphaha of Phawe, the son of Makhadzi Nyakhuhu.

After arrangements for Makhado’s installation had been finalised, his councillors advised him to embark on making ritual preparations under the direction of maine (a diviner). This ritual preparation, known as tshirovha, is believed to cause heavy rains or mist thereby allowing the army to advance under the cover of rain or mist without being detected by the enemy. These medicinal preparations were intended to strengthen and fortify the army and to confuse the enemy.

After Makhado had gone through all the ritual preparations and when the maine told him to go and attack Davhana, it is reported that, as expected, heavy rains fell. The army then went to evict Davhana from Vuvha under the cover of these heavy rains. Davhana and his supporters could not withstand this onslaught and they hurriedly fled, leaving the zwitungulo (important religious instruments) behind. These were then taken by Makhado who handed them over to Makhadzi Nyakhuhu at Tshirululuni.

The war of succession between Makhado and Davhana led to the following stanza in one of Tshivenda poems:

Songozwi i a dudumela
I toda u tiba Davhana
a tiba Makhado ri a lwa.

(Mount Songozwi is growing tall and threatening to crush Davhana. We will fight if it destroys Makhado).

After Davhana’s defeat, a great meeting was convened by Khotsimunene Madzhie at Tshirululuni concerning these zwitungulo and preparations for Makhado’s coronation. A better gift could not have been presented to Makhadzi Nyakhuhu than the zwitungulo of her ancestors. As she could not control her joy she jumped up and performed a ritual dance. Thereafter she took the zwitungulo and placed them before Makhado and proclaimed him the king of Venda. Makhadzi Nyakhuhu’s joy was, however, not shared by her brother, Khotsimunene Madzhie, who felt that he should have been the one proclaiming Makhado as king, and not her.

Makhado was crowned king in a lavish ceremony attended by a lot of ordinary citizens and mahosi and magota. But Khotsimunene Madzhie, who was still angry that Makhadzi Nyakhuhu was the one who proclaimed Makhado king, boycotted the ceremony to officially crown Makhado as king. Madzhie’s sympathiser Funyufunyu, also boycotted the event. Makhado responded by despatching an army to discipline them. Madzhie and Funyufunyu humbled themselves and joined the others in displaying their loyalty at the main Musanda (royal residence) of Tshirululuni.

Makhado’s accession to kingship was widely acclaimed. Even the Boers at Thivhalalwe (Schoemansdal), under Stephanus Schoeman, were satisfied with him and recognised him as Thovhele of Venda. He had, after all, grown up working on their farms and as their assistant in their hunting expeditions. They therefore assumed that he was going to be their man. How wrong.

As far as ordinary people were concerned, the accession of Makhado was welcomed. In addition to the qualities which he possessed as a prince, he was also considered to be brave. In him they saw the leader who would revive the united Venda kingdom to be as great as it was during Dimbanyika, Vele-la-Mbeu, and Thohoyandou’s reigns.

After becoming king, Makhado moved the main musanda from Tshirululuni to Luatame on Mount Songozwi. Tshirululuni became the cattle post. The relocation of the main royal residence from Tshirululuni to Luatame was done after the family maine, Lishivha, had already surveyed the area, fortified it with medicines and charms, and laid out the foundations for the new royal headquarters.

Luatame was a perfect residence fit for a king. Sheer cliffs fortified the palace of one of the African liberation struggle heroes. Luatame offered King Makhado the view of all those approaching, including enemies. Luatame and Tshirululuni also provided the Venda capital with a home rich with wild fruits, good pasture for their many cattle, large tracts of land for ploughing and a place free of mosquitoes that plagued many Venda areas in summer.

After being defeated by Makhado, Davhana fled to Mukumbani, Ha-Tshivhasa. But Khosi Ligegise Tshivhase who was Makhado’s ally drove him out. He was accommodated by Khosi Ranwedzi Mphaphuli at the latter’s royal residence, Mbilwi. But before he could settle at Mbilwi, Makhado dispatched messengers to Mbilwi to enquire whether it was true that Davhana had sought asylum there and threatening that, if that were so, he, Makhado, would send an army to destroy Ranwedzi. In order to avoid a confrontation with the king, Ranwedzi approached Joao Albasini, requesting him to allow Davhana to settle near his farmstead at Luonde. Albasini was only too pleased to receive Davhana. He allowed Davhana to establish his residence along the banks of the Luvuvhu River, next to his own farmstead. Davhana’s residence was established on the land belonging to Vhakwevho of Luonde under Khosi Matidze, and it was done without Matidze’s knowledge and permission.

At Luonde, and under the custody of Albasini, Davhana and his followers felt safe. But Davhana had still not given up on becoming king.

Ramabulana’s other sons settled in different places. Ramalamula settled at Khavhambe, known today as Wyliespoort. Liswoga settled at Mudzivhadi. Rasikhuthuma settled at Tshitungulu. Nthabalala settled at Vari, known today as Ha-Nthabalala, while Ramaru settled at Shehe (known today as Mpheni and Elim). Shehe became known as Ha-Ramaru until in the late 1960s when the apartheid government forcibly removed the Ramaru/Shehe community and resettled them at Ha-Mulima and established a village known as Ha-Ramaru.

After defeating Davhana, Makhado embarked on a campaign of consolidating his position and ensuring loyalty from all chiefs. His intention was to ensure that all mahosi who had behaved like independent chiefs after Thohoyandou’s disappearance submitted to him. On this very important mission, Makhado was accompanied by twelve trustworthy men, amongst them Funyufunyu, Nndwayamiomva and Rasivhetshele.

Although the Madzivhandila royal house of Tshakhuma had never behaved like an independent chiefdom, Makhado’s first stop was Tshakhuma, where Raluthaga Madzivhandila was the ruler. Makhado camped at Mount Madzhoni overlooking Lwamondo, and called upon Raluthaga Madzivhandila to pay tribute. Raluthaga, as the Madzivhandila royal house had always been loyal to the Ramabulana kings, complied with the request. He even, over and above the ordinary tribute, presented one of his daughters, Dombo, to Makhado as a prospective wife. Dombo became the mother of Makhado’s second son, Sinthumule.

From Tshakhuma, Makhado proceeded to Lwamondo. Khosi Maboho Nelwamondo submitted to Makhado’s authority. Thereafter Makhado proceeded to Mbilwi whereupon he called on Khosi Ranwedzi Mphaphuli to submit. Mphaphuli complied with Makhado’s demand and presented him with a head of cattle. From Mbilwi, Makhado went to Ha-Tshivhasa and camped at Tshamanyatsha, above Khosi Ligegise’s royal residence, Mukumbani. This is where Makhado called upon Tshivhase to submit. Like the other chiefs that had already been visited, Tshivhase submitted and showed loyalty by offering the travelling party a head of cattle. As the Tshivhase royal house was second in royalty to Ramabulana, Ligegise’s willingness to submit to Makhado meant that Makhado was the undisputed king of Vhavenda. The place where he camped at Tshamanyatsha is known as Tomboni la Makhado (Makhado’s resting place).

From Mukumbani, Makhado went to Dzimauli. Khosi Vele Rambuda submitted to Makhado. But Vele’s eldest son, Bele, behaved in a manner that indicated that he did not recognise Makhado. Makhado’s men also gathered information that Bele had allegedly stated that he neither respected Makhado nor fear him since Makhado was a boy. Makhado had just ascended to the throne and was in his late twenties, while Bele wasn in his thirties.

Bele Rambuda’s behaviour counted heavily against him after Vele’s death, and when Vele’s sons fought over the Dzimauli chieftainship. Makhado supported Bele’s younger brother, Tshikosi. Bele was eventually assassinated by the Dzanani battalion, known as Mavhoi battalion. Makhado assisted Tshikosi in defeating Vele’s other sons, including Siphuma. This led to Tshikosi becoming the undisputed khosi of Dzimauli.

Makhado also punished Khosi Nenngwekhulu who had become a rebel and refusing to pay tribute to him. He also dealt harshly with Khosi Magoro who had decided to pay tribute to Albasini after he was defeated by Albasini in 1863. Makhado sent his two brave sons, Mphephu and Sinthumule, on an expedition to teach Magoro a lesson. Thereafter Magoro snubbed Albasini and paid tribute to Makhado once again.

As already stated, the Venda kingdom comprised of other ethnic groups whose language was not Tshivenda. These clans included North Sotho clans such as Batlokwa, the Bakone, Babirwa and Bakwena. But Bakone and Bakwena took advantage of the wars of succession between Ramavhoya and Ramabulana, and later between Davhana and Makhado and started behaving like independent chiefs. Makhado could not allow this state of affairs to continue. He became concerned about mahosi who had declared themselves independent. The restoration of his authority over such rulers became his immediate priority. He then mobilised his armies against mahosi in the south-western parts of the kingdom. Moletji became Makhado’s first target in 1887.

According to Professor Mphaya Nemudzivhadi, the attack on Moletji was based on deceptive tactics. Makhado had arranged with Kgoshi Moloto, to stage a matangwa dance at the latter’s royal residence. For the occasion, Moloto invited his subjects and dancers to be entertained by Makhado’s dancers. Moloto’s subjects responded positively and gathered at his royal residence. Makhado’s dancers were dressed in appropriate costumes. The princes wore hyena skins, mahosi wore porcupine quills, while commoners wore impala skins and headgears made of jackals’ skins.

Dressed in this manner, indicating no signs of hostility or war, Makhado’s team started dancing with many spectators witnessing the happy and joyful event. As the dancing continued into the evening, those dancers wearing headgears made of jackals’ skins started howling like jackals. Vhavenda immediately started attacking the people of Moletji. The attack was so sudden and in such a ruthless manner that a lot of people were massacred. The following day the disguised army departed and invaded Ga-Matlala whose inhabitants were caught unaware and dispersed in many directions without offering any resistance. Their chief also paid tribute to Makhado.

The repercussions of Makhado’s invasions and subjugation of Moletji and Ga-Matlala, under the guise of entertaining the inhabitants by playing matangwa, remain imprinted in the minds of Vhavenda and Batlokwa. The episode survives in the form of a praise eulogising the greatness and bravery of Makhado. This praise which is known throughout Venda and Botlokwa states that:

“Matangwa ndi mutshinyashango. Phunguhwe ya lila Muledzhi, la ha Madala li a fhalala”. (Matangwa dance leads to catastrophe. When the jackal howls at Moletji, Ga-Matlala disintegrates”.

This praise refers to the massacre of the people of Moletji and Ga-Matlala by Makhado’s men playing matangwa at Moletji and after the howling by dancers wearing headgears of jackals’ skins.

Realising that Albasini was supporting and giving Davhana sanctuary, and that the Boers at Thivhalalwe were becoming a pain in the side, Makhado decided to reorganise the Venda army by establishing battalions in different regions. The first region to have its own battalion was Dzanani which consisted of Tshirululuni, Old Vhutuwangadzebu, Tshitopeni, Gaza, Malimuwa, Magoni and Songozwi. The battalion for this area was known as Mavhoi. Whenever a member of this battalion performed an act which displayed bravery on his part, he used to say, “Mavhoi wee!” This battalion, known as Mmbi ya Thondo was composed of very brave warriors. The proximity of the Mavhoi battalion to the king’s residence made it available to the service of Thovhele at any time.

The second region to have its own battalion was Vhulaudzi. This battalion, known as Vhalube, consisted of the Vhalaudzi communities of Phawe and Makwatambani, under Khosi Maphaha and Khosi Makongoza respectively.

The third region to have its own battalion was Old Mauluma and Tshakhuma. This battalion, known as Maunavhathu, was under Khosi Nndwayamiomva. Nndwayamiomva, had to keep an eye on Davhana’s activities, and to keep a watch on the marauding bands of Swazis, as they usually attempted to invade the country from an easterly direction. After Nndwayamiomva was killed in Vhukalanga (Zimbabwe) while hunting elephants, this battalion was led by his son and successor, Ravele.

Further west and to the north of Thivhalalwe (Schoemansda), a fourth battalion known as Vhaingamela was established at Vhulorwa. This battalion, which consisted of Vhulorwa, Lunoni, and Musingadi, was under under Khosi Funyufunyu, and the region was called Vhuingamela. Funyufunyu was a great fighter who, as it will be seen later, became a pain in the Boers’ side.

To the north of Songozwi, at Tshihanane (known today as Musekwapoort), was the fifth battalion, known as Manenu Manena Misipha, simply known as Manenu, and under the leadership of Khosi Mavhasa Musekwa. It was a very strong battalion which as a result of its locality, had become a northern bulwark of safety.

Makhado’s battalions of territorial field forces played an important role during Makhado’s reign. They were mobilised for defensive and offensive purposes. As it will be seen later, these battalions played a very important role in defeating the Boers at Thivhalalwe (Schoemansdal) and driving them out of Venda in July 1867. They also played an important role in maintaining Venda’s independence during Makhado’s reign.

When Makhado ascended the throne at the beginning of 1864, the Boers had already firmly established themselves in his territory at Thivhalalwe (Schoemansdal), Luonde and other areas where they started conducting farming operations. The Boers began to flex their muscle in an effort to exercise control over everything they found, including the indigenous inhabitants. This control was exercised through unilateral land demarcations, forced taxation and compulsory labour. These activities gave offence to the Venda nation.

Davhana’s stay at Luonde under the protection of Albasini, and the activities of the land hungry and land grabbing Boers at Thivhalalwe angered Makhado. He decided that whites staying at Luonde and Thivhalalwe had to be driven out of Venda. Furthermore, the Boers at Thivhalalwe had decided, on 27 February 1855, that money had to be raised from Vhavenda for the improvement of the Boer settlement at Thivhalalwe. To make it easier to collect this money, the Boers decided that Vhavenda chiefs, including senior chiefs such as Tshivhase, Mphaphuli, Rambuda, Madzivhandila, Mugivhi, Nethengwe, Tshikundamalema, Nelwamondo, and Netsianda should collect tributes from their subjects and hand such tributes to Boer representatives.

Schoeman appointed Albasini as a tribute collector. Albasini, in turn appointed some of his Tsonga followers as tribute collectors. But Makhado vehemently resisted any attempts to subjugate Vhavenda to the laws of the Boers. To him, the payment of taxes to Albasini would signal an acceptance of not only subjugation to the Boers, but also to the foreigners who had illegally established themselves at Luonde.

Realising that Vhavenda were resisting paying tribute to the Boers, Albasini and his followers went on expeditions to collect tribute by force. But they did not only collect tribute from Vhavenda. They also stole and seized people’s cattle, goats, sheep, ivory and hoes. The collection of tribute and the seizing of people’s livestock led to animosity between Vhavenda and whites.

It has already been mentioned that during the rainy season the Boers used to give Vhavenda arms and ammunition to go on an elephant hunting expedition. Albasini’s behaviour and the attempts by the Boers to exert their authority over Vhavenda led to the latter acquiring arms and ammunition by either claiming to have lost the arms and ammunition in the hunting expeditions or simply refusing to hand back the arms and ammunition. Vhavenda also told the Boers that they had worked for a long time without any remuneration, and that the firearms could be considered payment for their labours and forced taxation. Vhavenda also decided to trade directly with the Portuguese in Mozambique by exchanging ivory for arms and ammunition.

What triggered the war between Vhavenda and the whites was the fallout between Albasini and his Tsonga induna, Munene. The king of the Gaza Kingdom, a Shangaan kingdom in Mozambique, Manukusi, passed away in 1859. His two sons, Mzila and Mawewe, fought for the throne. Mzila was driven into Venda and settled at Tshitavhadulu, Tshakhuma. His settlement at Tshitavhadulu was sanctioned by Khosi Raluthaga Madzivhandila of Tshakhuma. Mzila’s stay in Venda was, however, short-lived. He returned to Mozambique whereupon he defeated Mawewe and became the king of the Gaza Kingdom in 1861.

After gaining complete control of the Gaza kingdom, Mzila lodged a complaint with Albasini, requesting him to extradite Munene with his wives and children to Mozambique, or to put them to death for the offences Munene was alleged to have committed during the reign of Manukosi. Mzila further warned that should his request be denied, he would close the hunting grounds in his country to further trade, thus denying hunters and traders access to their chief source of income, ivory. Faced with this dilemma, Albasini felt he had no choice but to succumb to the ultimatum. But while still contemplating his course of action, Munene became aware of Albasini’s treachery and fled to the protection of Commandant F.H. Geyser at Thivhalalwe.

Munene was arrested by the Boers at Thivhalalwe after Albasini had lodged a complaint against him. Munene, however, escaped from custody on 28 March 1865. He sought refuge at Luatame (Songozwi), then Phawe and ultimately at Mukumbani.

When news of Munene’s escape from detention reached Albasini, he became furious and immediately dispatched his subjects, ordering them to search for Munene. Albasini’s marauders ill-treated innocent villagers and pillaged their homes. They also committed criminal acts against Khosi Magoro and other mahosi. On 7 April 1865, the Boer commando under Venter and Albasini, and which included Davhana and Tsonga warriors, left Luonde and travelled over the mountains as far as Phawe. Horrifying atrocities were committed under the pretext of looking for Munene. In the course of this invasion, several subjects of Khosi Tshikumbu Maphaha, including his mother, the famous Makhadzi Nyakhuhu, were killed. A number of cattle, sheep and goats were also taken. In addition, several defenceless women and children were taken prisoner.

Davhana was accused of having killed Makhadzi Nyakhuhu, skinning her and wearing her skin to look like her. This, it was alleged, was a desperate attempt by Davhana to go to Makhado, looking like Makhadzi Nyakhuhu and with the aim of assassinating Makhado.

On 8 May 1865 these combined forces then travelled to the next target, Tshakhuma. These attacks on Phawe and Tshakhuma signalled the commencement of the conflict in earnest, as Vhavenda started preparing themselves for war.

As the situation deteriorated, the tribute collectors realised that Vhavenda were armed with guns obtained from hunters and traders. They demanded from Madzhie that the firearms be returned to the Boers. Madzhie’s reply was clear. As long as the

Boers had not yet complied with the request that Davhana be handed over to Makhado, no firearms would be returned. This reply further aggravated the already tense situation. The Boers were so angry that they launched an attack on Madzhie on 1 September 1865. Their attack was, however, repelled by Vhavenda. The Boers retreated with their tails between their legs.

The Boers ill-treated Vhavenda employed on their farms and domestic workers in Thivhalalwe, Schoemansdal. Although the working conditions on the farms and in the households are unrecorded, there is one occurrence which remains in the memory of the Vhavenda, and which according to them, led to Vhavenda attacking and driving the Boers out of Venda.

One of the young Vhavenda employed on a farm was Mmboi, a younger brother of Funyufunyu, the khosi of Vhulorwa and the commander of Vhaingamela battalion. Both Funyufunyu and Mmboi were sons of Tshinetise Matinyatshiulu of Vhulorwa. Mmboi, an industrious and dedicated worker, was employed primarily to look after the cattle. As a cattleherd he had to discharge all the duties connected with cattle farming, including the milking of cows. One day Mmboi’s elder brother, Funyufunyu visited him during the morning milking session. Funyufunyu was waiting for him outside the kraal. However, there were also three stockily built Boers inside the kraal.

Mmboi was in the process of milking, and the container was almost full when a calf came running in and pushed the milk container with its head, resulting in the spilling of all the milk. When the three Boers saw the milk flowing away, they became furious, berating him for the loss of the milk, and thrashed Mmboi to such an extent that they left him unconscious. Funyufunyu witnessed the entire episode, and sympathising with the unjustifiable punishment of his younger brother, rushed to Luatame to inform Makhado of the beating. Makhado took up the matter and referred it to his uncle, Madzhie, for further advice. Makhado was worried by the attitude of the three Boers, and concluded that the whole White community was arrogant, and that it looked down upon his people.

Madzhie’s response was that the time to launch an attack on the Whites had come. Makhado, however, was cautious, as he doubted the Vhavenda’s ability to face the Whites in an all out war. But Madzhie was persistent in his demands that war should be declared. Mahosi and magota also agreed with Madzhie that the Boers needed to be driven out of Venda.

After their defeat at Ha-Madzhie, the Boers requested reinforcements from Pretoria. In May 1867, 500 Boer fighters arrived from Pretoria and stationed themselves on the western side of Thivhalalwe. Their arrival, which brought relief to the Boers, signalled a warning to Makhado that should he not comply with the demands the Boers imposed on him, the outbreak of full scale war between the two groups was inevitable.

Before any military action was undertaken by the Boers, Paul Kruger sent a deputation to one of Makhado’s royal residences, Makwatambani. The deputation requested that Makhado should come down to Thivhalalwe (Schoemansdal) and enter into negotiations aimed at averting war. Makhado felt insulted that ‘the king of the Boers’ was summoning him in his own land, instead of the Boers visiting him. He therefore responded negatively to the request. To further complicate matters he sent a group of young boys to meet the Boer delegation, a tactic which the Boers regarded as a sign of his contempt for them and their peace offerings.

When the Boer demands were refused, forces led by one of the commandants, Frikkie van Dyk, attempted to storm Makhado’s royal residence at Luatame. The topography of the place, with its heavy boulders and ravines presented insurmountable difficulties to the attackers. The Boers suffered heavy losses. They diverted their attack to Vhulorwa, north of Schoemansdal. When the Boer commando approached Vhulorwa, three prominent diviners Lidzwavho, Bereda, and Makhovha, had through their thangu (diviner bones) discovered that the Boers were coming. Subsequently, the Vhavenda army prepared themselves under the command of Funyufunyu. The Boers were sent packing and a lot of them were killed. On their way back, the surviving Boers disturbed bee hives on Mount Vhurengwe. The bees came out in huge swarms and attacked the Boers. This led to more Boers dying. The surviving ones scattered in all directions, fleeing to Thivhalalwe after having failed to storm both Luatame and Vhulorwa.

The next target of attack was, for the second time, Ha-Madzhie. The Boers were joined by Davhana, who joined the battle for his personal benefit as well as payment for Albasini’s protection. Apart from Davhana’s followers, Albasini who was waiting for such an opportunity, assisted the Boers by providing them with his Tsonga warriors, armed with assegais and spears. Tsonga auxiliaries would assist in combing the bushes and mountains.

When the attackers arrived at Ha- Madzhie, four hundred troops climbed the high mountain, occupying strategic positions directly behind boulders, the intent being to forestall the arrival of any reinforcements from Venda’s other battalions, thus isolating and containing Madzhie’s large army within the confines of his mountain stronghold. The Commandant-General himself, together with some of his men, remained on the slopes of the mountain with a cannon in place. The Boers, under command of Fieldcornet David Herbst, proceeded to the nearest boulder, while Albasini’s Tsonga warriors approached from the east.

Madzhie’s fighters unleashed a hail of bullets from their elephant guns. The situation was such that, the Boers and their allies were unable to penetrate the strategic points. Under these difficult conditions, and with lots of Boers and Tsonga fighters dead, the Boers immediately realised that continuing the fighting would be dangerous. It was not possible to launch a full-scale attack on the fortified mountainous stronghold. They retreated from an offensive to a defensive position. By four o’clock that afternoon, the Commandant-General ordered the commando to retreat from the slopes to join those stationed at the foot of the mountain. Eventually the Boers retreated to Thivhalalwe leaving Madzhie’s army and the man believed to be the brains behind the outbreak of hostilities, Madzhie himself undefeated. After the three major confrontations with the Boers, and the heavy defeats inflicted on the Boers, Makhado’s armies were still intact. His fighting strength remained unabated.

The heavy losses suffered at Luatame, Vhulorwa and Ha-Madzhie were hailed by Vhavenda as military successes. To the Boers, these defeats were catastrophic.

On their return to Thivhalalwe, a meeting was convened to discuss the future of the settlement. The Boers realising that they had no chance of defeating Vhavenda, decided to leave Venda. Remaining there was no longer advisable, as they heard the whole night the sound of Vhavenda’s war drum, Mutulogole, signalling Vhavenda’s intended attack on the town. Following these discussions the inhabitants became convinced that they had no alternative but to commence packing their wagons in preparation for departure. Doors, windows and poles were all packed to use for rebuilding in a new settlement. It was a pitiable moment when tears rolled down cheeks as women and children wept, at the thought of leaving the town which had been their home for almost 19 years.

On 15 July 1867, when everything was ready, the Boers left Schoemansdal by way of Blouberg, while the Vhavenda watched from mountain tops the dust rise near Ha-Matshavha indicating that the Boers were returning, en masse, to the south from where they came. When all the inhabitants were gone, Vhavenda rushed to the abandoned town to destroy it completely.

As the Boers proceeded further, they saw the settlement of Schoemansdal, enveloped in flames and black smoke. It was more painful when they thought of deserted graves, orchards, gardens, houses and furniture, livestock, and all other articles which were too heavy and cumbersome for them to take along.

King Makhado had therefore managed to drive the Boers out of Venda and reduced Schoemansdal to ashes. This brought to an end era of White residence in the northernmost part of South Africa. By failing to subjugate Vhavenda, the Boers were unable to extend their control to the Venda kingdom. Vhavenda remained undefeated and free of Boer authority. The war was not an uprising or a rebellion in which the conquered rose against their conquerors. It was a war culminating in the retention of Vhavenda freedom from subjugation by the Boers.

With this great victory, Makhado became known as Tshilwavhusiku tsha ha Ramabulana, meaning the night fighter of Ramabulana. This name, which is legendary amongst Vhavenda, came from the fact that some of Makhado’s strategies included attacking the Boers at night. The driving out of the Boers from Venda signified Makhado’s victory through his bravery as a warrior and leader of his people. The Boers called him the “Lion of the North”. Praises and songs emanated from this name, hailing Makhado as a diplomat, a statesman, and a fearless fighter not afraid to fight for his people and the preservation of the kingdom.

After the Boers were forced to leave the village, they first settled at Moletji, where they remained for five months. They then proceeded further south and settled on the farms of Hans Venter and Gert Emmenis. They remained there for a whole year. This was the beginning of the Marabastad settlement. This settlement paved the way for the Boer settlement in Polokwane in 1886.

The Transvaal Boer Republic government in Pretoria under Pretorius had not yet given up on capturing Venda and subjugating Vhavenda. Pretorius regarded the defeats at Vhulorwa and Ha-Madzhie, and the abandonment of Thivhalalwe (Schoemansdal) as the greatest disaster the Boer Republic had ever sustained. Pretorius decided to attempt capturing Venda once more, using Joao Albasini and Davhana.

Davhana was too eager to collaborate with the Boers and Albasini. He still had designs on the throne, and he hoped that helping the Boers defeat Makhado would lead to him becoming king, at last.

Stephanus Schoeman, Albasini and Davhana decided to invite Swazi fighters to assist them in capturing Venda. In October 1869, a large Swazi offensive was launched against Vhavenda. They first attacked Tshakhuma because Khosi Madzivhandila was Makhado’s father-in-law. The attack was aimed at immobilising the Tshakhuma troops so as to ensure that they did not render any assistance when Luatame was attacked. But the Swazi army was spotted before arriving at Tshakhuma. The people of Tshakhuma, together with their fighters, retreated to Mount Mangwele. Brave women, such as Mudzunga, Madzivhandila’s wife who was also Tshivhase’s daughter, and Nyatshivhuyahuvhi, the princess of Tshivhazwaulu, joined the battle against the Swazis. The Swazis suffered a crushing defeat at Tshakhuma.

The Swazi army that attacked Tshakhuma left in defeat and decided to join another Swazi army that was intending to attack Luatame and Dzanani on 18 October 1869. They were joined by Davhana, Albasini and Tsonga fighters loyal to Albasini who had proclaimed himself a Tsonga chief. But as in Tshakhuma, the attacking forces suffered heavy military defeats. Most of the attacking forces were cruelly massacred.  The survivors fled south-eastwards, meeting the remnants of the other Swazi regiments at Shehe, known today as Elim.

The defeated Swazis returned home. When they passed through Bopedi, in present day Orighstad, they were ambushed by Sekhukhune’s warriors who further decimated them. Makhado and King Sekhukhune were on good terms and they regarded each other as brothers. It is therefore highly likely that Makhado had sent word to Sekhukhune regarding the failed invasion, and that Sekhukhune decided to teach the Swazis a lesson.

Davhana later learnt that Khotsimunene Madzhie and Makhado were no longer on good terms. The fallout happened due to the fact that after the Boers left Thivhalalwe, Makhado wanted all the Boers to leave Venda while Madzhie wanted the missionary Staphanus Hofmeyr to remain. Hofmeyr had built the first church in Venda at Ha-Madzhie. The place where this church was built is known today as Kranspoort.

Madzhie had thought that since he had played an important role in Makhado’s accession to the throne, Makhado would do as he said. When Makhado demonstrated that he was independent, Madzhie turned against him.

Davhana took advantage of this fallout between nephew and uncle, and teamed up with Madzhie. When Makhado learnt that Madzhie and Davhana had become friends, he attacked both of them and defeated them.

Realising that he had failed to dislodge Makhado despite assistance from the Boers, the Swazis and Albasini and his Tsonga followers, Davhana left Luonde and settled on Mount Luvhola and established his royal residence at Mpheni. He ruled at Mpheni until his death in 1894. Although he never tried to attack Makhado again, Davhana is said to have sent Makhado a warning stating: “Ndi do raha Songozwi nga mulenzhe, matalala a kungulutshela ha Vho-Netshihanane”. (I will kick Mount Songozwi and all the loose stones will roll towards Netshihanane’s village). Netshihanane was the khosi of Tshihanane and the commander of the Manenu battalion.

Davhana finally surrendered in 1870 and recognised Makhado as his king. He sent messengers to plead for peace. Makhado accepted Davhana’s plea for peace and stated: “U si nthumele tshira ngauri wo luvha”. (Don’t send me invaders now that you have surrendered and acknowledged me as your king). Thereafter, Makhado’s wife, Dombo, gave birth to Makhado’s second son. He was named Sinthumule, from “u si nthumele”.

Makhado became the undisputed king of Venda while Davhana, reluctantly so, became one of Venda senior chiefs.

By inflicting crushing defeats on the Boers, Makhado ensured that Venda became the last area in South Africa that was free of white rule till his death.

According to Professor Nemudzivhadi, Makhado’s success in reviving the Venda Kingdom and ensuring that all mahosi recognised him as king, his driving of the Boers out of Venda, the Boers’ failure to capture Venda, and Davhana’s death in 1894 created a feeling of superiority and pride within the king who had by that time been at the helm of the Venda monarchy for more than three decades. He felt secure, strong and boastful. He dropped his guards and unwittingly exposed himself to his enemies, the Boers.

Makhado’s white friend, John Cooksley, had a licensed bar at Lovedale Park which Makhado visited occasionally.  Visiting the bar was in itself a taboo since the king and mahosi were not expected to undertake any trip to obtain liquor. Liquor, like any other commodity, had to be brought to the royal residence.

Makhado’s enemies were quick to see where his weakness lay, and they decided to act. The Boers joined hands with Makhado’s closest associate, Rasivhetshele. The latter had become sympathetic to the Boers’ desires to capture Venda. Moreover, Rasivhetshele was having a secret love affair with Makhado’s senior wife, Nwaphunga.

Rasivhetshele and Nwaphunga recruited Liswe, Makhokha, Makhethekhethe from Malimuwa and Mutheiwana of Vuvha and plotted to have Makhado killed. They decided to act when Makhado’s eldest and bravest sons, Alilali (Mphephu) and Sinthumule were in Kimberley and Zimbabwe respectively.

Nwaphunga was also motivated by greed since she was the mother of Makhado’s youngest son, Maemu, who she wanted to become the next king. She therefore wanted to have Makhado assassinated as soon as possible and to have her son crowned king before Mphephu and Sinthumule came back home.

In early September 1895 Rasivhetshele, Nwaphunga, Mutheiwana, Liswe, Makhokha and Makhethekhethe obtained poison from the Boers at Fort Hendrina. The point of contact was Tom Kelly or Muvamba as Vhavenda called him. The poison was brought to the Malimuwa royal residence where Nwaphunga arranged a beer party to which the pleasure of Makhado was requested to grace the occasion. The poison was poured into a bottle of brandy which was specifically meant for him. Without doubting the contents of the bottle, as it was given to him by his wife, Makhado drank the brandy, fell ill and died in mid September 1895.

The death of Makhado shocked and stunned Vhavenda. For them he had become a hero. He was, after all, Tshilwavhusiku, Mboho ya Shango (the bull of the country), and Mukukulume wa Shango (the cock of the country). He had had dominated the historical arena in Venda for 31 years. Even the Boers acknowledged him by calling him the Lion of the North.

No other Venda ruler, except the legendary Thohoyandou, had spread his influence more throughout Venda than Makhado. In him and through his leadership and statesmanship, the Venda kingdom was revived. The name Thovhele Ramabulana was heard throughout South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Even up to this day Basotho and Bapedi refer to Venda as Tswetla ha Ramapulana, meaning Venda the land of Ramabulana.

Makhado was the face of Venda resistance to colonialism and subjugation. The Boers could not face him on the battlefield. By resisting and repulsing Boer colonialism for more than 30 years, Makhado kept them out of Venda which enjoyed independence up to the turn of the century. His tragic death weakened Vhavenda and opened the door to Boer colonialism.

Most of the information in this article comes from the great work done by the highly respected Venda historian, Professor Mphaya Henry Nemudzivhadi.

Some of the information was related to the author by his father in the 1970s and 1980s when the author when he was growing up at Ha-Madodonga, Ha-Kutama.

The author’s father was born and bred at Vhulorwa. He was one of the people forcibly removed from their beautiful and fertile land by the Boers. The people of Vhulorwa and surrounding areas such as Lunoni, Songozwi, Magoni, Musingadi, Ndouvhada, Malimuwa, Mudzivhadi, Ha-Kharivhe, Ha-Matshisevhe, Ha-Madzhie, Ha-Mulelu, Ha-Ramavhoya, were forcibly removed from their land by the Boers between the 1930s and 1960s and resettled at Nzhelele, Ha-Sinthumule and Ha-Kutama.