The idea of choice is at the heart of an election. E-leg-ere is a Latin verb, meaning ‘to pick out’ or ‘to select’ from a list of candidates. And the Zulu verb uku-khetha means exactly the same thing. I’ve spoken about it before, I think. I should have, at any rate – my darling wife’s name ngesiZulu is Khethiwe, the one chosen.
So an election, whether in Latin or Zulu, is an act of choice. Here in Mzansi, however, it’s about a lot more than just your final choice (should you happen to be a citizen of this place) by means of an X on the day in your preferred box.
You see, it starts with a choice in terms of time – when to have the election. The ruling party could have chosen any time of the year, but they chose August. In the traditional lunar calendar of the amaZulu, uNcwaba is the very first month of the New Year. It is the month of the new green shoots emerging from the blackened ash of the winter grass, scorched in streaking red and yellow snakes of fire, stoked and fanned by the last gasps of the uNtulikazi’s great dusty wind on the hills in the last nights of the lunar year. One might even see all this as a metaphor for the official and unofficial purges executed by uKhongolose in the long dry 2016 autumn and winter.
Then there is a choice of when your campaign will blossom – if timed incorrectly, the posters will fall prey too soon to drunken and suddenly political students stumbling home from a rough night, angry at the cheek of your smiling faces above them on the lamppost. If left too late, they will bloom only partially, withering in the shade of the others already clinging to the cold grey metal.
The DA blossomed early, in the middle of winter, and bluer even than the sky (much has been written on this, here and here), followed by the ANC’s yellow and green and avoidance of eyes shooting forth after a cold front, festively decking the long industrial streets with their wordy slogans. The last but one was the EFF, their roughly painted simple slogans blushing with promises as yet untested. And then, finally, in a few rare places and seemingly at random, a few almost colourless shadow-flowers, elephants dimly visible in the bottom corner under yet another three-letter-acronym, IFP, blossomed briefly with a single word (to be discussed shortly) before dying, cheap photocopies torn to shreds by last week’s hailstones.
Most of all, though, there are the language choices that have to be made – which language, and where, and how to use it to most effect (read “how to bless voters so that they’ll let you have your way with them for another four years”). Let’s look first at which language one uses to get to first base.
The DA opted for the shotgun method – any and all languages that are in the umthethosisekelo were dutifully plastered over all of their posters, sometimes with disastrous mistakes but often with good and simple messages. I also heard radio adverts, in solid English and reasonably good isiZulu (I can’t speak for the rest, as I’m not proficient enough to judge).
The ANC followed them, but chose to lead with Phunga noMageba (which seems like an obvious choice, given Msholozi’s clan affiliations). In the early days of their campaign, I suspected them of hubris in their choice of language for a building-high billboard with JZ’s gaze to the southeast. Then I heard and saw things that made me really wonder. Firstly, on uKhozi FM, I heard an election advert for the ANC. This in and of itself is not surprising – but it was very surprising that it was entirely in English. I thought that maybe it was just a simple mistake – somebody at the Bureau for Propaganda and Citizen-Brainwashing had plugged in the wrong recording, unable to distinguish between Gedleyihlekisa’s belly-laugh in two vastly different languages – until I read the newspaper this morning.
It was Isolezwe. Now, I’m used to certain institutions making the mistake of recycling English adverts for the Zulu papers – some insurance companies, a couple of NGOs, KFC (strangely abandoning their previously eloquent and idiomatic isiZulu in favour of the homogenous pink mist of English ad-speak), and a handful of misguided educational institutions – but I never suspected a party run by a Zulu-speaker to make the same error. Until this morning. There it was, an entire letter written in English, inserted verbatim on page 13, following a banner at the bottom of page 8 (also ngoJoji) with the slogan “Local Government is in your Hands” in inverted commas. As an FB friend put it, WTF?
I have seen only one advert for IFP in the newspaper – almost necromantic in aspect, as though someone had summoned the ghost of a 90’s poster and added a slightly more modern soundtrack, Shenge still gazing benevolently at the world through his black-rimmed spectacles – and it left me feeling slightly underwhelmed. But at least they chose correctly – it was in isiZulu. And, on uKhozi FM, I was blown away by an awesome advert of theirs, in which an isangoma divines the future in IFP-led municipalities, accompanied by a chorus of nubile young voices shouting ‘siyavuma’. 10 points to Inkatha, then, even if it seems to be too little too late.
EFF? I have seen nothing and heard nothing. I’m disinclined to interpret too much from this, since I’m approaching this from a bourgeois white stronghold. Perhaps if I could be a fly on the wall in a revolutionary Sandton sushi-bar or a shebeen in KwaMamengalahlwa or down a mine-shaft, I’d hear some really choice beret-language. Now there’s a thought.
All of this jostling and shoving to be at the forefront is not just physical – we don’t just see or hear it. In fact, much of the battle is fought in our sub-conscious minds, in the discourses scurrying beneath the words used. So here are a few of them, in brief, as chosen by your favourite political entities.
nqoba: used by the ANC, DA and IFP (as part of names for rallies as well as ill-conceived slogans). The word is derived from the ideophone nqo, denoting ‘knocking or striking something or someone in the sweet spot’, and means “Overcome, master, overpower, conquer, defeat, gain victory over, get the better of”. The word is inherently physically violent, unlike its synonym ukwahlula. Derived nouns include umnqobi (a conqueror or victor), amanqobo (decisive action or deciding factor) and inqobo (a decisive action; what gives victory; the actuality or truth of a matter).
amandla: redolent with struggle nostalgia, the word is used exclusively by the ANC (as it wishes to use Mandela’s legacy). It has two basic meanings – strength or power; moral strength, authority, power or ability. Words derived from it are an adverb, ngamandla (meaning “in a powerful way” or “strongly”), and uSomandla (a noun meaning “The Almighty”). It is answered by saying ‘awethu’, meaning “(it is) ours” – if you ever find yourself lost in a rally and wonder what to answer.
qhubela: used again only by the ANC, this is the applied from of the verb qhuba, meaning “drive along (as one drives loose cattle)”, “urge on”, and “make progress, push along (used with a locative)”. The ANC specifically chose the meaning with the locative, which still leaves one feeling as though we are but cattle to them – a source of wealth by which to lobola foreign plutocrats, dumb and obedient to the pricks to which we are subjected each day. Together with phambili (forward), which seems a little tautologous, the noun inqubekela-phambili means “progress” or “advancement”.
umphakathi: Once again used only by the ANC, this is the ultimate sociological signifier – the Community. It is derived from the locative adverb meaning “inside” or “between” – phakathi. As it denotes inclusion and belonging, it must always be remembered that there where there is an inside there must also be an outside, and where there is inclusion there is by necessity exclusion.
Finally, the slogans or iziqubulo:
The DA’s choice has been adequately explained elsewhere. Suffice to say that they leave a lot to be desired.
The ANC’s choice is extremely wordy: “Ngokubambisana siqhubela phambili amandla abantu kuyo yonke imiphakathi” – “By cooperating we make the power of people in all communities progress”.
The EFF chose to go with a very simple slogan – “Vote EFF”. No translation, no confusion, just red and black and white.
The IFP’s? Simply “Sethembe” – “Trust us”.
And that is where I leave you for now. Think of the choices that each party has made, and make yours wisely next week.