s’khath’sin?

It’s a common enough phrase for someone to hear in Joburg.

Most people know what it means, especially if it’s accompanied by the usual hand movements, and the tapping of the left wrist. Isikhathi means ‘time’. It also means ‘watch’.

Hold that thought.

Most people have their specific opinions around time, and particularly ‘African’ time. Some are disparaging about meetings starting three hours late, and abound with theories that Africa must truly be timeless – without a complex concept of the passage of time. Others claim that time is a Western concept, and should not be imposed on Africa.

Hold those thoughts.

In actual fact, a person speaking isiZulu would be amused that it took the Western World until the early 20th century to ‘discover’ the link between space and time.

There are four different nouns derived from one root, all denoting regular intervals in the space or time between two objects or incidents:

ili-khathi
{obsolete} an opportunity, a chance, the appropriate time for doing something

isi-khathi
Time (in a general sense); a clock, a watch, a timepiece

in-kathi
Time; period, season, age, epoch; grammatical tense

um-khathi
Space intervening between any two things; intervening distance; space between earth and heaven; firmament; duration, space of time between one specified point and another; interval; horizon

So, having held those thoughts, apply them now. Are you still keen to disparage ‘African time’?

Now add another element to the mix. The ur-Bantu root of all these words is -kati, which means ‘epoch’. It’s related to another ur-Bantu root, -kata. And the meaning of that root is intertwined in two nouns, one of which may be familiar to you if you’ve been alive and conscious for any period over the last 40 years, particularly in KZN:

in-katha
A grass ring or coil, used for placing on the head as a pad when carrying any weight; a load-support (on the head); a ring-shaped, coiled, circular object (e.g. A coil of rope, wire, etc.); a loop of sinew attaching string to the stave of a musical bow; a fix, a puzzle; an entangled affair; a secret tribal emblem, believed to ensure the solidarity and loyalty of members of the tribe, e.g. Inkatha yesizwe.

isi-khatha
A rolled-up object (e.g. A ball of wool); an entangled ball (as of string); a knot of people; a hair-ball found in the stomach of calves.

So if you haven’t yet guessed it, -kata means ‘ring’.

And if you haven’t yet worked it out, that means that the Zulu conception of time is of something ring-like or circular, which shares qualities with space and so is considered to be one and the same thing.

And as for the space-time continuum, that would be intuntululu yomkhathi-sikhathi. Or we could make it isikhatha somkhathi-sikhathi.

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