When I first explain this concept to speakers of English, their reply is disbelief – “how can it be that each place has a praise-name?”

The answer to this question goes to the heart of much of the misunderstandings about land and place in South Africa, which I’ll touch on very briefly before going on to talk about some specific izithakazelo zendawo.

Firstly, though – the umbhudulo for ‘thakazela’:

isithakazelo – (n) adulation, flattering praise, laudation, congratulation; tribal salutation; term of polite or friendly address peculiar to each clan

{…which is a noun derived from…}

thakazela – (v) be genial towards, be kind to, show courtesy to; welcome, greet on arrival; adulate, laud, praise flatteringly; congratulate

{…which is the applied form of…}

thakaza – (v) show kindness, be genial; speak praisingly

{…which might be related to…}

thaka – (v) compound, concoct medicinal mixtures; mix up medicines

{…but which is more likely related to…}

tha – (v) give a name to someone, name someone; pour into a vessel with a small aperture; inject an enema; select, pick out the best.

So one way of summing up the idea of ‘isithakazelo’ is ‘anything spoken or said habitually, usually upon greeting or saluting, showing familiarity and good disposition towards a person or thing’.

Since nginguwakwaMkhize ngesiZulu, the habitual salutation is ‘Khabazela kaMavovo’, or ‘Gcwabe’. These izithakazelo go on for a while, and refer to famous ancestors and events. Check out zuluring.blogspot.com to see a pretty comprehensive list of them. People also have individual izithakazelo, which act as adulatory or laudatory versions of izifenqo (nicknames) – see the blog post on izithakazelo zikaBaba for more on this.

Now take this concept and apply it to a place. You may think that English doesn’t do this very often, except in epic poetry, but it’s still possible. In fact, English names for places quite often refer to some event or person or quality of the place – go look up a couple of major cities in England if you’re interested – the difference here is that isiZulu is almost constantly conscious of the historical or ancestral significance of place through the use of both the name for the place and the praises of that place.

Ngesibonelo (as an example):

Kwandongaziyaduma – Place-where-the-walls-resound (Johannesburg)

Kwanyama’kayipheli-kuphel’amaziny’endoda – Place-where-the-meat-doesn’t-run-out-but-the-teeth-of-a-man-run-out (Johannesburg)

Kwelikabhanana – Place-of-the-country-of-the-Banana (KwaZulu-Natal)

KwelikaMthaniya – Place-of-the-country-of-Mthaniya (KwaZulu-Natal)

Each of these is a blog on its own, so please feel free to add more izithakazelo zendawo in the comments on this post. {in fact, you get extra points if you know exactly who Mthaniya was, although amaMbatha and abakwaSibiya are excluded from this competition, for obvious reasons}

Suffice to say, the names given to places in English or other European languages are bland and at worst completely obscure when compared to the colourful and exact naming of place in isiZulu. It goes deeper than that, though – naming a place is a reverential act, similar to the reverence given to the ancestors who gave their names to it. Land is not just land – it has the bones and the names and the stories of generations in it. It is the place to which we will all return when we die.

Land and place are things requiring respect and remembrance, and this is accomplished ngesiZulu through the memory and daily use of the lyrical intricacies of their izithakazelo – in the same way you greet an old friend by reciting his/her family’s famous ancestors, you greet Joburg or Durban or Newcastle using their histories.