I understand it now.

When you’re faced with guilt, the automatic response is complete and utter denial. That explains Mr Shifty’s (aka Msholozi’s) actions of late. He’s issuing a programmatic response in accordance with this bit of wisdom, this isaga.

Here’s how it works. First, icala (3.2.2-8.9):

  1. anything wrong, deserving of complaint; a defect.
  2. a mistake, error or fault
  3. a crime, an offence against the law, guilt, guiltiness, blame, and responsibility for wrong
  4. a charge, law-case, or law-suit
  5. debt

Let your mind wander over that list of five meanings a bit, and you’ll see what the underlying issue is. The word is related to the word icala (, meaning an edge or extremity, or the side of a road or the bank of a river. What is implied is that the taking of sides in any of the five meanings is essential. One cannot stand in the middle of the road, for fear of homicidal taxis. One also cannot stand in the middle of a river, as equally homicidal izingwenya might be waiting for your slightest mis-step.

I almost feel like that’s enough, but one must continue.

The second part of this proverb is the verb-type-thingy in the sentence (the predicative). Here’s what it means:


Now, for a start the word ‘umphikwa’ is an archaism. More modern isiZulu might say ‘yimpiko’ or even ‘luphiko’, whereas this word is neither of those. In brief, impiko would be seasonal denial, u(lu)phiko would be the complex fluid process of denial, whereas umphikwa would be the simple solid denial.

It would mean that the act of ukuphika here was conceptualised as a stock refusal to admit guilt, a formulaic reply of ‘innocent, your honour’ in response to any implication of those initial five meanings. It is in the same group as the words for ‘ritual’, ‘function’, ‘law’ and ‘homestead’. You see where I’m going with this. These are patterns of behaviour that continue to occur, without much variation. They are not complex.

What about ukuphika, then? Anyone who’s ever studied isiZulu knows what it means grammatically – the negative form of a verb-type-thingy. ‘A’s abound. All very confusing.

But it also works as a verb, the umqondophika or antonym (see what I did there?) of the all purpose ‘affirmative’ verb, ukuvuma. Here’s what ukuphika means:

  1. enter into strife; be obstinate; wrangle, argue; compete
  2. deny, contradict; repudiate
  3. rely on (used with the instrumental adverb – nga-)

I think that quite accurately describes the recent circuses in the place once called Parliament, with an added bit of cronyism at the end. If you want to say no, and are spoiling for a fight, you use this word as your gauntlet. Amahemb’amhlophe will remove you from the chamber accordingly. But I digress.

So – back to the proverb for one last look. Here’s what uSolwazi Nyembezi (one of my personal linguistic and cultural heroes) has to say about it:

When one has committed a wrong, with many people the first thought that comes to them is to defend themselves as much as possible. Therefore they will deny all knowledge of the crime, until by questioning and cross-questioning they are made to confess. One always makes a desperate effort to save his skin.

I think the Prof’s words here are most apposite, and as I said at the beginning of this, sengiyakuqonda.

The next blog will be around the proverbs to do with ubuqili – cunning, trickery, craftiness and cleverness. Maybe Mr Shifty will make another appearance, with his gang of cronies in close attendance.