There’s a verb stem that seems, strangely, to be on everyone’s lips. It’s strange because the stem has, up until recently, only been used in religious or political contexts – but now it’s used to talk about a particularly virulent form of intergenerational transactional sex.

Here’s a riddle for you – how are State Capture, Blessers, the new Public Protector and JZ’s nephew connected?

The answer is a verb-stem in Nguni languages. This stem is BUS-a, and it has four different meanings:

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

At this stage, unless you speak an Nguni language, you probably haven’t yet made the connection. So far, this verb stem seems to describe a specific way of ruling – living off the fat of the land, strutting your stuff and basically letting everyone know that you are the boss, and nobody else. Basically, we’re talking about feudalism and monarchy, with some added hubris. Perhaps it reminds you of someone?

There are four nouns (and one very big name) associated with this stem. This is where the full extent of isiZulu’s plasticity of meaning becomes apparent:

  1. umbusi: a ruler or governor
  2. umbuso: a dominion or kingdom or rule; one’s sway, rule, government or way of ruling; enjoyment of life, fine times; manner of enjoying one’s life; customary pleasure.
  3. umbuswa: one subject to another’s will or command; a subservient person; a vassal or subject.
  4. i(li)buso: a hlonipha term for inkunzi (a bull).

So ruling, and the kingdom itself, are linked to the way that those who rule actually live – ‘the fine times’ that one can only experience when one has vassals, waiting on you hand and foot. A modern version of umbuso is ‘the state’, whenever it is the legal or political entity – see the recent post on ‘state capture’.

What is problematic about using this word to mean ‘the state’ is that it implies a way of life based on exploitation, hierarchy and cronyism – so pretty much what we have in South Africa.

And the name? Well, like I said, it’s a big one: Khulubuse. What it means is “grow big that you may busa”, which I think he has taken very literally.

Now, as you hopefully know from elsewhere in the language, the meaning of a verb can be extended (or distorted, perverted, altered) through judicious addition of a suffix or two. And so even if you’ve worked out the (linguistic) connection between State Capture and Khulubuse, the other two might be elusive until now.

All you need do is add -ISA to the stem, and suddenly you have this:


  1. to bless
  2. to cause to live a life of comfort
  3. to cause someone to rule

The first thing to glean from this is how Blessers got their name – they are the ones who cause you to live a good, comfortable life. The level of comfort they provide determines the level of Blesser they are (see social media for memes and other expressions of this).

The second is that there are three nouns derived from this stem, and two names:

  1. isibusiso: a blessing, a benediction
  2.  u(lu)busiso: blessing, benediction
  3.  umbusisi: a person who blesses or who causes someone to lead a good and comfortable life.
  4.  uSibusiso (uS’bu): Blessing (as a name)
  5.  uBusisiwe (uBusi): the one who has been blessed (as a name)

So, finally, we can see how many things come back to the same isiqu – the capturing of umbuso, the-ones-who-cause-busa, Advocate She-who-has-been-caused-to-busa, and Mr Grow-big-that-you-may-busa.

All I can say is “bless”.