You may know him by many different names, some more flattering or familiar than others. JGZ. JZ. Jacob. Msholozi. (Dis)honourable Mr President.

In my classes, many of my students ask me what his name means, and it’s a side-track on which I am happy to embark. So let’s have a look.

Jacob. Biblical Name. Treacherous brother of Esau who stole his birthright by careful application of fur to his arms and face. His name famously means “he who grasps the heel” as he was born holding on to his slightly older twin’s foot. The name also means “the one who supplants (the rightful heir)”. No wonder he changed his name to Israel a bit later. I’m sure you’ve all heard of Israel.

Ten points to the first non-Zulu to pronounce the Pres’ second name correctly. No, that ‘sh’ sound is not the way you pronounce ‘hl’. Think Welsh.


(not gej-lay-ee-shlekh-ee-sah)

There are two parts to this name (which a less respectful commentator might call his ‘real name’ in contrast to his ‘slave name’). Firstly, there’s the Gédle bit. It’s an ideophone (go here for more info about these wonderful things), and it denotes the following:

a grating sound, as of wagon-wheels; a rumbling noise

It’s linked to the verb uku-gedla, meaning

1. grind with the teeth; make a gnawing sound
2. cause a gnawing pain, gripe
3. gnaw something hard; gnaw away; saw into; chop at; eat into
4. bring down, kill off (as by witchcraft)
5. produce a grating sound, as when breathing during bronchitis
6. do down, backbite, defraud, destroy a good name

What I say to my students when they ask my how one verb can have so many different meanings is that, in actual fact, the meanings are all contained in the one verb. It’s English that makes them different. Basically, this verb means “do the gédle thing”.

There are many different nouns and verbs derived from this verb/ideophone root:

isi-gedla: an ox with horns pointing downwards, or a pair of clippers
ulu-gedla: cockscomb, crest, gravelly soil
in-gedlane: one who defrauds or despoils; a backbiter, informer
isi-gedle: loose stones
uku-gedleza: to rattle, rumble, creak; to cut down or in two at one stroke

I think you’ll agree that the first part is generally not positive – grind someone down at one stroke until they are left loose-limbed and probably in two different pieces. So what does the second part mean?

My class 9s and upwards would tell you that the verb is hleka, and that it has a causative impambosi (if you know not what strange beast an impambosi is, go here). I like telling my students that uku-hleka is derived from the adjective -hle (positive, good, beautiful, ordered), and that it means “be beautiful”, as when you “laugh” or “smile” you are at your most beautiful. In fact, the verb is actually derived from another ideophone, hléke, denoting splitting apart the way your face does when you laugh or smile.

So far, though, this is looking like a nice antidote to the first part of our president’s name. But what does it mean when you attach a causative to hleka? Basically, it makes “make someone laugh” or “cause laughter”. That doesn’t sound too bad – just that the person is comical in some way. Inhlekiso is less positive – “the subject of ridicule” or “laughing-stock”. So hlekisa would mean “make a laughing-stock of someone or something”.

However, we’re missing that -yi-, which is an object concord. No mention is made of exactly which noun is the object, but this one usually refers to the most important noun in the seasonal noun class – inkomo. In phrases like “uyihlabe esikhonkosini”, the -yi- is the object concord for the cow that you have just stabbed at the third cervical vertebra, thus killing it swiftly. However, it could also be the concord for indoda (a man), intombi (an unmarried girl or woman), inkosi and others.

Let’s put it all together now – Gedle-yi-hlekisa could mean:

{grind-or-kill-until-disjointed} – {the cow or man or girl as object} – {while ridiculing it}

Basically, the person who reduces you to a rattling sack of bones while chuckling at you. Take note – his behaviour in Parliament recently is just him staying committed to his name.

So, having looked at his first two names, let’s have a look at his isibongo (his surname).

Zuma is a very common surname in KZN, and you’re likely to encounter clan-members all over the province. However, one of the traditional “clan seats” is kwaNxamalala, just up the hill from where my parents currently live.

The clan’s name is derived from a verb, uku-zuma, which means:

surprise, take by surprise, take unawares

It is derived from an Ur-Bantu verb -uwima, meaning “hunt”. A variant of the verb exists, and would be significant to our president’s wives for reasons which I will shortly explain.

That variant is uku-juma, which means:

take by surprise, take unawares, attack unexpectedly

Incidentally, both verbs are used figuratively to denote suddenly being ambushed by sleep, in the verbs’ neuter forms – uku-zumeka and uku-jumeka. Now the reason why I bring this other verb up is that his wives and children would not ever be able to use the verb uku-zuma, as a result of the practice of inhlonipho (for more on this, see here). They would, if wanting to refer to someone taking them by surprise, use uku-juma.

Uku-juma has a more transparent derivation than the Z version – from the ideophone ju, denoting something

dropping down suddenly as when shot

So to juma something is to do the action which results in what your hunting dropping down suddenly when hit by your thrown isagila or umkhonto. Same then goes for uku-zuma, though there is no correlative ideophone zu. Incidentally a duplication of the ideophone would give you júju, which denotes “hurling” or “tossing”. Ukujuja means “beat cooked vegetables into a mash; urge on or goad; and perish”. Read into that what you will.

Finally, if you put aside all of these other names, our president is most often called Msholozi. If you know nothing of izithakazelo, go here. Basically, uMsholozi is one of the famous ancestors of the Zuma clan, and is the agentive noun for the verb uku-sholoza, which means:

act in a preoccupied, uninterested manner
stand aloof
be unsociable
act guiltily

I think that’s where I’ll end.