Kingdoms, Castles & Palaces

By Stef Terblanche

The colonisation of South Africa by the Dutch in the mid-1600s started with the building of a castle. Since then castles and palaces seem to have proliferated here at the southern tip of Africa in what seems to be a love affair between the people and such mythical abodes… strange for a country that has no monarch, wouldn’t you say?

Did I say, no monarch? Well that is absolutely wrong! In fact, South Africa has no fewer than seven kingdoms that are fully recognised and supported by the state and the Constitution, plus a unique queenship that has been recognised since 2016. But more about this in a moment.

Much of the earlier part of the modern history of South Africa that followed the beginning of Dutch colonisation revolved around an impressive building that still stands today as a sturdy landmark in the heart of Cape Town: the Castle of Good Hope. In 1652, the Dutch East India Company sent Commander Jan van Riebeeck with three ships to establish a refreshment station for the Company’s ships en route from Europe to East Asia, and to maintain its monopoly over the Spice Trade. Initially Van Riebeeck erected the Fort de Goede Hoop (Fort of Good Hope), little more than a wood and mud construction located at what is today the central business district of the city.

But as rumours and the threat of war between the Netherlands and England grew in 1664, the Company ordered that the fort be replaced with a stronger stone fortress to provide greater protection for the Dutch settlement.

The Castle of Good Hope

In 1666, Governor Zacharias Wagenaar laid the four cornerstones of the Castle of Good Hope and most of the subsequent building work was carried out by soldiers and sailors. The Castle was finally completed in 1679 after many delays. Today it is the oldest still-existing building in South Africa and the guided tours offered within its confines provide a fascinating look into South Africa’s early colonial history.

The design of the castle consisted of a large central courtyard dissected by a main building called De Kat, with five bastions at the corners giving it a star shape. The five bastions were named Leerdam, Buuren, Katzenellenbogen, Nassau, and Oranje, being the main titles of Philip William, the Dutch Prince of Orange. Each of the bastions housed its own garrison complete with magazine, storerooms, workshops and facilities like bakeries. Originally the entrance was sea-facing – where Strand Street passes it today – but high tides made it impractical and it was moved to the western side facing the Grand Parade, where it is today.

Today’s Strand Street used to be the beach, but land reclamations  in the 1930s and 1940s created the Foreshore and pushed the sea back to where the harbour is today, causing the Castle to now find itself in the centre of Cape Town, far from the sea. Until the late 1800s the Castle served as the administrative seat of South Africa as well as the governor’s residence.  When the governors later relocated, the Castle continued to serve as the political centre until the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. It was handed over to the South African National Defence Force in 1917, who still occupy and manage the Castle today. In 1936, the Castle was declared a National Monument.

No visit to Cape Town is complete without taking a guided tour of the Castle. Cutting across the central courtyard is the building known as De Kat which housed  the residences of the governor and the secunde (second-in-command), and a large council hall that also served as a church. It is from the perfectly preserved, ornate balcony of De Kat designed by Louis Michel Thibault and with reliefs and sculptures by Anton Anreith — the entrance to the governor’s residence —that announcements and judicial sentences – including death sentences – were read to the inhabitants of the Castle. Many a drama, both happy and gut-wrenchingly miserable, played itself out here.

Today, in more pleasant circumstances, De Kat houses the Iziko William Fehr Collection of historical paintings, antique furniture, and ceramics that have special relevance to the early Cape.

The military history of the Castle and Cape Town is also preserved here, with the Castle Military Museum housing an impressive array of military artefacts and exhibits from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Visiting the Castle one can also view the changing of the guard at noon and the Key Ceremony (replicating the ceremonial unlocking of the Castle) at 10am and noon every weekday.

Other highlights of a Castle tour include a visit to a unique torture chamber or interrogation room, recently upgraded to create an even more authentic experience. Next to it is the Donker Gat (dark hole) in which prisoners, including the early Cape rebel Adam Tas, were locked up in absolute darkness. During your visit the door will be closed so you can experience just how totally dark it was.

In the Castle are also statues of the amaHlubi king Langalibalele‚ Zulu king Cetshwayo‚ Bapedi king Sekhukhune and the Khoisan leader Doman, all of whom were incarcerated at the Castle at different times. There is a ceramic art museum where the original sculptured lions that used to protect the main entrance, are on display. Then there is the Lady Anne Ballroom, named after Lady Anne Barnard, a Scottish travel writer, artist and socialite, and the author of the ballad Auld Robin Gray, whose five-year residence in Cape Town had a significant impact on the cultural and social life of the time. Still there too is the Dolphin Pool where Lady Anne is said to have bathed in the nude, much to the moral consternation of the authorities of the time.

Then there is the memorial dedicated to the Khoi princess Krotoa, or Eva as she was called by Van Riebeeck. Eva was employed in the Van Riebeeck household as a child minder and doubled as a translator. She lived in the original Fort of Good Hope but had an association with the later Castle as well after she married a Danish soldier and explorer Pieter van Meerhof. After his death she fell apart and started drinking heavily. Eventually her children were sent to Mauritius (but later returned) and she was banished to Robben Island where she died on 29 July 1674.

You can also visit a bakery and kitchen to see how people made their food back then, see the  officers’ living quarters, or enjoy a meal in the De Goewerneur Restaurant which serves delicious Malay, Dutch and French cuisine.

But of course, while a visit to the Castle is a fascinating must, South Africa’s relationship with such august places of abode started long before Van Riebeeck and the Dutch arrived at the Cape of Good Hope.

SA’s ancient royal houses

When the Dutch arrived here, they found a social system among the Khoekhoen – one of the two main branches of the collectively named Khoisan or original inhabitants of the southwestern parts of Africa – consisting of a number of pastoral tribes or clans, each headed by a powerful chief or captain with his own ruling seat, known as a kraal.

While the chief’s kraal – and his personal herd of sheep and cattle – reflected his status, power and wealth that set him apart from his fellow clansmen or followers, his kraal did not display anything like the extravagant opulence of European royal courts. Unfortunately no examples of such Khoekhoen chiefs’ kraals have survived and we can only guess what they must have looked like.

However, as mentioned, other monarchical systems that existed among the tribes of Bantu-origin in South Africa back then, continue to this day in the form of seven kingdoms. Chapter 11 of the Constitution of South Africa recognizes the role and status of traditional leadership according to customary law, but further legislation was later adopted that ‘democratised’ the system, including requirements that 40% of the council must be elected, and one-third must be women.

But these kings don’t live in the traditional Western idea of a castle or palace such as, for example, Buckingham Palace in the United Kingdom. However, receiving generous royal salaries and benefits from the state, they do live in relative luxury in their residences located at what are variously referred to as royal houses, royal kraals, great places or great palaces. Some of these can be visited, but most are private and closed to the public, although you can view them from nearby by visiting the areas where you will also find much else of interest.

A panel of experts appointed by former President Thabo Mbeki in 2003, investigated traditional leadership disputes and claims dating back to 1927. The panel discovered that out of the 13 paramount kingships that existed then, only seve were qualified to be recognized as kingships or queenships. However, subsequently then president Jacob Zuma gave his assurance that those traditional leaders who were found to be illegitimate would not be dethroned, but that the title would come to an end on the death of the current incumbents.

The seven officially recognised kingdoms/queenships that remain in South Africa, are :

King Zwelonke Sigcawu of the AmaXhosa (Eastern Cape)

King Goodwill Zwelithini of the AmaZulu (KwaZulu-Natal)

King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo of the AbaThembu (Eastern Cape)

King Toni Mphephu Ramabulana of the VhaVenda (Limpopo) (currently being challenged for the throne by Princess Masindi Mphephu)

King Makhosonke Enoch Mabena of the AmaNdebele (Mpumalanga)

King Zanozuko Tyelovuyo Sigcau of the AmaMpondo (Eastern Cape)

King Thulare Victor Thulare of the Bapedi ba Maroteng (Limpopo)

Africa’s only queenship

Not to be forgotten, is Africa’s only real queenship, that of the Rain Queen Modjadji, the hereditary queen of the Balobedu of the Limpopo Province of South Africa. The origin, legend and latter-day existence of the Rain Queen reads like a Shakespearian drama of intrigue, scandal and family feuds.

Her hereditary title is something of an oddity in Africa where patriarchal systems dominate. In stark contradiction with all other African monarchical customs, the Rain Queen is a title that only a woman can obtain and is passed from mother to eldest daughter.  The Rain Queen is believed to have special powers, including the ability to control the clouds and rainfall.

Currently, there is no ruling Rain Queen, as the previous Rain Queen died in 2005 but a new Rain Queen, her daughter, Masalanabo Modjadji is expected to be crowned when she turns 18 in 2023. In 2016 then president Zuma gazetted a proclamation by which the state for the first time ever officially recognised the queenship of the Rain Queen.

The Rain Queen dynasty’s throne is located in the ancestral village of Modjadjiskloof in the fertile valley of Molototsi, about 141km from Polokwane. In the past visits to the Rain Queen could be arranged, but now one would have to be satisfied with a visit to the royal village or wait until the new queen’s coronation.

Mapungubwe Kingdom

There’s another old kingdom to be visited in South Africa…the very ancient Kingdom of Mapungubwe near the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers close to the border with Zimbabwe. However, complete castles or palaces you will no longer find here, but untouched remains of palaces, settlements and burial grounds, as well as many astonishing gold artefacts were indeed left behind. The latter are now housed in the Mapungubwe Museum in Pretoria. If you wish to know what the ancient kingdom must have looked like, a visit to nearby Great Zimbabwe (also known as the Zimbabwe Ruins) just across the border will be helpful.

Designated the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape by UNESCO, this World Heritage Site in Limpopo Province near the Zimbabwean border, today comprises the ancient Kingdom of Mapungubwe and the Mapungubwe National Park. Upon this open savannah, dotted with rocky outcrops and hills, near the confluence of the two rivers, this kingdom once flourished, being one of Southern Africa’s earliest and most sophisticated kingdoms between 1075 and 1220. After this brief period the area was abandoned.

Established at Mapungubwe Hill, the kingdom was home to some 5,000 people that became a powerful and wealthy tribe that knew how to work with gold and traded ivory and gold with Eastern cultures such as China and India. It is here that archaeologists found the famous golden rhino and other evidence of this wealthy African kingdom. The kingdom formed the first stage of what would later become the Kingdom of Zimbabwe further north.

Much evidence has been unearthed here of special sites for initiation ceremonies, household activities, sites for other social functions, cattle kraals and the accommodation of royals and commoners. Among some twenty-four skeletons that were unearthed in a burial ground on Mapungubwe hill, two were believed to be a king and queen of Mapungubwe. Walkways and lookout platforms have been created from where visitors can view key points of the kingdom. The area now falls within the Mapungubwe National Park administered by SANParks, which with the Tuli Block in Botswana and the Tuli Safari area in Zimbabwe, forms part of the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area, now officially known as Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area.

Fairy-tale castles on the beach

If it’s fairy-tale castles and palaces and their intriguing stories that tickle your fancy, you have to take a trip to Knysna on the Garden Route and its magical kingdom on the beach. I am talking of course about the intriguing, mysterious castles of Noetzie.

Just a ten-minute drive from Knysna at the mouth of the Noetzie River you will come to the edge  of a high hill and discover, far below, a secluded cove boasting a pristine white-sanded beach, a quiet estuary at the mouth of a river with dark water, a large variety of indigenous flora and fauna and, the big prize, an eclectic collection of stone-walled, turreted and fanciful castles.

Who are the kings and queens who might live in them, you may well wonder, before engaging the very steep walk or drive down. Well, there are none and no ancient battles ever occurred here nor did any kingdoms thrive here. What gave rise to this mysterious cluster of castles watching over this almost private little beach, was rather a family’s spirit of pure fun, wild imagination and carefree holidays and the castles are mere holiday homes.

Noetzie, derived from the Khoi word Noetziekamma meaning place of dark water, started out as a holiday destination for families from Knysna, Oudtshoorn and elsewhere. Long before the construction of the steep, winding road that could take motor vehicles to the bottom, those  seeking a quiet retreat would come here on their horse-drawn carts and make their way to the simple seaside huts and camping grounds below. Later people started building more permanent structures and eventually the cluster of castles would arise.

The earliest written reference to Noetzie was made on the 4th March 1786 by adventurer and captain of the Dutch East India Company Colonal Robert Jacob Gordon. However, archaeological excavations of the Noetzie midden show that Noetzie has been a popular  destination for the last 3,500 years.

The oldest castle, at the end of the beach, was built in 1930 as a holiday house by Herbert Stephen Henderson, who lived in what was then Southern Rhodesia. Building with local stone, Henderson had no intention of building a ‘castle’, but when a friend  who was watching the building, jokingly said, “All you need to do is to add a few turrets and you’ll have a castle”, he did exactly that. Upon completion his holiday home became known simply as ‘The Castle’. The trend caught on and soon more followed and today there are a number of ‘castles’ here. All but one of the six castles are available for vacation rentals, while functions such as weddings are also hosted here.

The Count’s castle

Over the years many other ‘castles’ have been built in South Africa, such as the Casa Labia in Muizenberg, Cape Town. This grand old mansion was built by genuine royalty, the Italian Count Natale Labia. He and his wife Ida, daughter of the mining pioneer Sir J.B. Robinson whom the count married in 1921, built Casa Labia both as a family home and to serve as the Italian Legation. It was to be a Cape version of the Palazzo Labia in Venice. It remained in the family who restored this much-loved national monument. It opened to the public on 5 May 2010 as South Africa’s most exquisite multi-functional cultural centre.

Another truly authentic castle is the Litchtenstein Castle perched high up on Karbonkelberg Mountain in Hout Bay, and which is based on the original Gothic Schloss Lichtenstein Castle in southern Germany.  Once a residence, this magnificent castle can now be hired as accommodation and for events. Such then is the story of South Africa’s castles and palaces. But then again, every person’s home is of course their own personal castle.