When one talks about ubuntu, it’s easy to swallow the final few drops of euphoria left over from the Rainbow Days and drift off into a reverie where everybody loves each other and we are all free and honest and tolerant and forgiving. There might even be enough of it to drown out the smell of burnt hopes and tarnished school uniforms drifting over this city with the south wind. Maybe you’ll turn the music up enough, and drown out the hypocrisies, the unsaid things, the subconscious history of generations of umona and inzondo. What follows are a few lessons from the proverbs of the amaZulu, about ubuntu.

Nota bene, bantu besizwe sethu.

The first sub-category of izaga to do with ubuntu focus on the way that people treat each other (ezokuphathana kwabantu). The verb phatha is the arch-instrumental of the isiZulu language, and it means “to wield”, “to hold in the hand”, “to control” and all associated concepts. If you want to say “I am upset about this” ngesiZulu, you might say “kuyangiphatha kabi” or “the-situation is handling/treating me badly”. There are so many important proverbs among the 40 collected here by oSolwazi Nyembezi and Nxumalo, so I have chosen three to represent them.

IsiZulu devotes a lot of headspace to mutuality and reciprocity. Almost every single action can occur reciprocally, simply by adding the impambosi -ana to a verb stem. This means that this is one of seven main inflections of any action (the others being the -ela, -eka, -isa, -wa, -isisa and -ile  izimpambosi – for more, see this post). NgesiZulu, one can express the idea of mutuality and respect with the proverb kuhlonishwana kabili (it-is-respected-mutually  in-a-twofold-manner). This encapsulates the ideal of ubuntu – a relationship between two people, where the respect simply occurs as a matter of course, each experiencing and acting.

The second one I have chosen is one which might touch a few nerves given what’s been happening eSoweto recently – isisu somhambi asingakanani, singangenso yenyoni (the-stomach of-a-traveller is-not-so-big, it-is-as-big-as-the-kidney of-a-bird). This proverb is about hospitality (what the ancient Greeks called xenia), and its meaning is that one should always be hospitable to foreigners or those who are traveling, as one day it will be you doing that, and because being hospitable to them is such a small action. As small an action as the kidney of a bird, yet somehow we don’t have even that to give.

The most common proverb I’ve encountered in isiZulu is ikhiwane elihle ligcwala izibungu (the-fig that-is-beautiful is-full-of worms) – it translates most easily as “don’t judge a book by its cover”, although the idea is more “be wary of things that look too good to be true”. It’s also used when someone shows their true colours, and the maggots come crawling out from beneath the beautiful exterior.

The next sub-category of izaga concerning ubuntu are those concerning pride (eziphathelene nokuziqgaja). I need only mention the movie “7even” to draw your attention to the Christian West’s obsession with this particular deadly sin. In isiZulu, the idea of pride is inherently reflexive (the -zi- in ukuzigqaja is the reflexive infix), and so the proverbs here are also about being blind to one’s own faults. Usifumbu ubona uqhaqhazela (Mr-Hunchback sees Mr-Shakes) expresses the idea of “the pot calling the kettle black”, except that here it’s a slightly more macabre situation of a person with a hunch seeing (and laughing, commenting, deriding) a person with some kind of palsy or tremor. Another is more about an inflated sense of self-importance – nalapho kungekho qhude liyasa (even-there there-being-no rooster the-sun-rises). There’s no proverb in English for this (or none that Khethiwe and I can discern, after much discussion of petards and being too big for one’s boots), but there are idiomatic expressions that deal with the same idea. Having lived near a number of roosters, and imagined their demise by my hand at 3am, this proverb really resonates with me.

The third sub-category of proverbs to do with ubuntu deal with gratitude (ukubonga), and I’m just going to choose one. Isihlahla kasinyelwa (a-tree is-not-defecated-upon) is a fairly blunt mashup of “you don’t shit where you eat” and “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”.

Paired with the importance of gratitude is the collection of proverbs dealing with ingratitude (ukungabongi). My favourite here is the one about the honeyguide bird – ungayishayi ingede ngoju (don’t-strike the-honeyguide-bird with-the-honeycomb). Essentially, the bird is the one who leads you to the honey (the only sweet thing in the landscape) – and so to then throw the honeycomb at it is to insult the person who helps you. Another isaga about ingratitude is that umbeki wenkosi kabusi nayo (the-installer of-the-king doesn’t-rule with-him).

Finally, after all the discussion of gratitude and pride and treatment of others, isiZulu has a category of proverbs dealing with a complete lack of ubuntu (ukweswela ubuntu). There are two here that stand out:

wadlula ngendlu isakhiwa kayibeka qaza

(s/he-passed near-the-house while-it-was-being-built (and)-s/he-didn’t-add a-stitch)


uhamba lukeke njengelanga lobusika

(s/he-walks  slant-wise like-the-sun of-winter)

Both of these proverbs have to do with people whom Perikles called idiōtēs in his famous funeral oration – people who keep to themselves and don’t engage in the life of the city, the politeia. They skirt around the places where people gather, and are thus lacking in ubuntu.

So next time you’re thinking of ubuntu, let images of roosters, bird-kidneys, rotten figs and honeycomb thrown at honeyguides jostle for space in your head.

The next discussion looks at those proverbs to do with friendship and enmity (ubuhlobo nobutha).