It was with some surprise that I heard the news – uKhongolose is intending to charge Malema with treason. Surprise turned to curiosity (of course) about the linguistic aspects of the word. Treason.

Firstly, the technical term for the charge (in Latin, of course) is maiestas. As a legal concept, it’s as old as the Roman legal apparatus. The word has a primary meaning of “majesty, greatness, dignity and grandeur”, which came to be shorthand for “the sovereignty of the state”. So a crimen maiestatis was then “an offence against the majesty and sovereignty of the people” or, more commonly, “treason”.

Treason, the more usual English word, also has Latin origins – from the same root as “tradition” and “trade”, it means “a handing over” of assistance, comfort, information or anything else to “the enemy”. It was fully adopted into Anglo-Saxon, and developed its own verb, ‘betray’.

Here’s where it gets more interesting. In isiZulu, the term that has been used in the days following Malema’s ‘barrel of a gun’ utterances is “ukuvukela umbuso”. Those of you reading this who were in my Class 9 group should remember the word, primarily in association with stories of Islamist terrorism in West Africa, where the compound word “umvukelambuso” is a synonym for “terrorist”, meaning specifically “a rebel”.

The word is derived from one of the most basic isiZulu words – ukuvuka. Here’s what it means:

  1. wake up, awake (from sleep)
  2. rise (from the dead); be resurrected
  3. get up, rise (from reclining posture)
  4. blow vigorously (of wind), rage (of storm); get into a rage or passion (of temper)
  5. attack continually, come back upon (used transitively)

More specifically, the word used for treason is the applied impambosi of ukuvuka, ukuvukela. It has two basic meanings:

  1. awake for or at; rise for or at
  2. rise up against, rebel against; attack

There is also a related noun, u(lu)vuko:

  1. a rising up
  2. an uprising or revolt
  3. an impulse

Now, in my mind, I have a picture of Malema being charged with being the vanguard of some ghostly force, resurrecting from the torpor of post-inkululeko politics like a raging storm, impulsively and continually attacking the state.

But what is the state? According to isiZulu, it is derived from the verb ukubusa:

  1. rule over, govern, reign
  2. enjoy life, live in freedom and comfort
  3. show off, exhibit one’s superiority or power
  4. {with the reflexive, ukuzibusa} be independent; show off

And, in the noun form umbuso, it means:

  1. dominion, kingdom, realm
  2. sway, rule, government, manner of ruling
  3. enjoyment of life, fine times; manner of enjoying one’s life, customary pleasure

So, in truth, what Malema has done is upset the ruling party’s fat-cat fun-time lifestyle of ease and comfort.

I think that’s pretty accurate.