I just read that the SABC will no longer show footage of violent protests. I almost have no words. I understand that there might be issues around showing violence in general, but there is also the imperative to report accurately on what is happening in South Africa every day.

It happens in many many parts of the country – so many that on some days the people I work with can’t even get to the schools they’re working in, as a result of roads being blocked and black plumes rising into the air – and it happens every day, and has been happening every day for years.

umbhikisho.

It’s in the simple solid noun class, along with the words for noise (umsindo), fire (umlilo) and spirit (umoya). It is a basic element, and has the same shape every time it is repeated. The plural is imibhikisho. This word and its root-verb do not appear in Doke’s dictionary of 1958 – which is in itself historically interesting. Both do occur in Mbatha (2010), as one would expect:

ukubhikisha (isenzo) [-el-; -is-; -w-] – ukwenza isenzo esikhombisa ukungeneliswa okuthile. Abasebenzi kade bebhikisha befuna ukukhushulelwa amaholo.

ukubhikisha (verb) [applied; causative; passive] – to do a deed which shows dissatisfaction with something. The workers were protesting for a long time, wanting an increase in their pay.

and

umbhikisho (ibizo) – isenzo esikhombisa ukungeneliswa okuthile.

umbhikisho (noun) – a deed which shows dissatisfaction with something.

I think that, if you cast your eyes over those definitions, you will see why this is the word used when talking about protest, at least when speaking directly. It’s frequently paired up with descriptive phrases:

umbhikisho onodlame – a violent protest

umbhikisho wabafundi basenyuvesi – a university students’ protest

umbhikisho wezidingongqangi – a basic-service-delivery protest

It’s also used as a verb-phrase:

abafundi basenyuvesi babhikishela imfundo yamahhala – the university students are protesting for free education

amalungu omphakathi ayabhikisha – the community members are protesting.

But, as I’m sure you’ve realised, isiZulu is rather fond of both euphemism and idiomatic expression. Let’s start hysteron proteron – idiomatic expression. The main one here is ukuvuka umbhejazane – literally “to awaken a tendency to vicious inclination”. Let’s unpack:

ukuvuka: as seen in Treason Season, the word has 5 different non-idiomatic meanings. Briefly: wake up, awake from sleep; be resurrected; get up, rise; blow vigorously like the wind, rage like a storm, get into a rage or temper; attack something continually.

umbhejazane: a tendency to evil, passion, or vicious inclination (compare with ugovana)

The word umbhejazane in the idiom is probably being used adverbially, as ukuvuka is usually intransitive. For the transitive version (wake something up), isiZulu uses ukuvusa. What that means is that the community is the thing doing the ukuvuka, and the character of that action is umbhejazane. In terms of the origin of the word, it seems to come originally from one of my favourite izenzukuthi – bhee (9-9), which is the sound:

of flaring up of fire, of roaring of fire in grass; of raging temper; of the spreading of an epidemic; of the burning sensation of condiments in the mouth.

It is linked to many different nouns and verbs, and one in particular has several nouns in different izigaba which are very like umbhejazane –

isibhekazane: a raging, impetuous activity (as of a raging epidemic of disease or passion), a wild uncontrollable mental impulse to evil. uvuke isibhekazane sokweba = he is overcome with an uncontrollable impulse for stealing.

u(lu)bhekazane: an ungovernable impulse to evil

umbhekazane: an ungovernable impulse to evil.

So, overall, when someone uses the phrase “ukuvuka umbhejazane”, the images of ungovernable fires spreading across SA’s communities is not far off the idiomatic expression.

Which brings us to the euphemism, apropos of the SABC’s decision. You see, there are some ways in which it is impossible NOT to report on protests in South Africa – particularly when it comes to traffic. In the days when I still used to listen to uKhozi FM, I particularly liked the traffic reports (closely followed by the weather, in terms of linguistic interest), as they were full of idiom and euphemism and proverbs. These I will deal with in another post, but for now let’s look at how the SABC’s traffic reports used to refer to protests:

ngaseMbumbulu, kunesimo semfuno lapho – hlab’udlule njengenalidi.

near Mbumbulu, there is a situation of need there – stab and pass through it like a needle.

You see, even though the newsreader didn’t (or was ordered not to) say the word for protest, whether directly or idiomatically, they still managed it – isimo semfuno.

isimo: a form, shape, nature, character, situation.

imfuno: {not in Vilakazi 1958} the seasonal thing which is desired or wanted or looked for or needed.

Which ends up meaning something like “there are people burning tyres (and other, more permanent things), blocking roads, stoning cars and generally behaving in an ungovernable fashion as a result of the fact that what they want is not being given to them”.

And that pretty accurately describes SA’s culture of protest.

So, SABC, rather than adopting the “I’m not going to give these attention-seekers any airplay” approach, perhaps consider that NOT broadcasting the protests is an undemocratic act. That accountability to ALL of South Africa’s citizens, including those who are violently and openly dissatisfied with the government, is a basic principle of a national broadcaster.

You, and the president who has you on a short leash, are deaf to the cries of the citizens who put you in power. And the protests will get louder and louder until you can hear them clearly.