Last weekend saw the breaking of an interesting story, about how one of the president’s wives allegedly poisoned him. It also saw a very interesting response from the Office of the Presidency, via our arch-Newspeaker, Mac Maharaj. I didn’t hear the response in English, but ngesiZulu (paraphrasing except for the important bit at the end):

Ihhovisi likaMengameli lichitha njengokuhlambalaza lawa mahlebezi, lithi uMaNtuli akamdlisanga uMsholozi ushevu
The office of the President dismisses these rumours as slanderous, stating that MaNtuli didn’t feed Msholozi poison. 

This is an interesting response, especially given the various signs to the contrary – how zacile he looked last year after the elections, the fact that she wasn’t at the SONA, nanjalonjalo.

It also got me thinking, as you can see. Khethiwe and I had already had a discussion about the different kinds of “poisoning” that are part of the culture of the amaZulu, and what each one means. Then I’d specualted about which one our Propaganda Ministry was liable to use. And I got it wrong. 

You see, there are a few different words they didn’t use in their statement. 

Before we jump in, let’s look at what the verb means:

ukudlisa         causative form of ukudla

1. cause to eat

2. share a meal, help to eat

3. administer poison

The third meaning is so strong that all nouns derived from this isiqu have that meaning and none of the others:

i(li)dliso        1. poisoning

       2. poison (especially to be administered via the mouth)

isidliso        poison

Which means that this is the perfect verb to use for poisoning. So what about the noun?

ushevu singular only

poison

It has no cognate verbs, and no other traces in the language apart from this one entry. It also interestingly fits into the Human Names Noun Class, like uGogo and ubhatata. In most instances, when a non-human thing is in this NC it’s because the name is in answer to the question “kubizwa kanjani le nto?” (What is this thing called?). 

However, the dictionary does suggest comparison with another word, ubuthi.

ubuthi poison; a poisonous concoction

ukuphuzisa ubuthi = to administer poison

Two things immediately jump out: firstly, this kind of poison seems to be associated with things that are consumed in liquid form (ukuphuzisa = to cause drinking); secondly, this word is derived from the noun isiqu “thi”, which is always associated with botanical things.

umuthi a tree or shrub or plant

medicine or medicinal charm

wood or wooden substance

u(lu)thi a stick; a long, slender wooden stick

a thin, emaciated person or animal

What this link means is that this kind of poison would be something concocted from various botanical sources, to be taken in fluid form. Again, this is not the noun that was used by Mac the Knife’s team of spin-doctors. 

In looking at ubuthi, there is another word suggested for comparison:

isihlungu derived from Ur-Bantu -kungu = bitterness, poison

poison (whether of snake or other), snake venom

antidote to poison

nettle-rash

medicinal treatment to ensure venomous results when one fights or strikes 

This word is interesting because it has very common cognates denoting pain (ubuhlungu and izinhlungu) and has its isiqu in the verb ukuhlunga meaning “separate, set apart, differentiate, sort out or winnow”. So the poison or pain is the thing that winnows?

It’s also interesting because of its apparently antithetical meanings of “poison” and “antidote”, which is not as uncommon as you might at first believe. The Greek word pharmakon has the same meaning, and in my past life as a classicist I presented a paper on the way that the word worked (in a similar way to “intelezi” ngesiZulu), and how modern medicine continues to use poisons (such as warfarin) to treat or counteract serious health issues.

Before going too far down the rabbit hole, let’s take stock:

The statement given by the Presidency stated that MaNtuli had in fact not caused Msholozi to consume (probably in solid form) a substance that was poisonous. 

The Propaganda Ministry didn’t use the other words, probably because it didn’t want to confuse an already confusing issue. Probably.

But there’s this nagging doubt in my mind, backed up by other details from the news report such as her expulsion from the compound and the Pres’s ill health last year. 

There’s the fact that, in a polygamous household, there is always tension of one sort or another. And hierarchical tension is often the cause of “alternative responses” such as witchcraft and poisoning – but what doesn’t make sense is what MaNtuli would stand to gain from the President’s ill-health or even (gasp!) his death.

So here’s my take on it – if MaNtuli was implicated in the ukuzaca kukaMsholozi, then what is likely is that she was not giving him a poison (ushevu), but rather some kind of medico-magical preparation to re-ignite his favour towards her following various allegations of infidelity on her part. And perhaps, just perhaps, Msholozi had an adverse reaction to this preparation. The fact that the Russians were the ones to cure him is not surprising – they have a long history of being adept poisoners (whichever word you choose here), and would be better equipped to administer the appropriate antidote. 

So that’s your dose of conspiracy for this morning. I hope you go out and find an appropriate antidote. I hear that the truth works really well in that regard.