iSilo siyaPhefumula – the ‘Beast’ Breathes

Umuntu uyakhuluma, kodwa iSilo siyaphefumula.

A person speaks, but the ‘Beast’ ‘breathes’.

This was just one thing I figured out a little while ago, on the birthday of the current ruling monarch (iSilo) of the amaZulu, uNgangezwe-lakhe, uHlanga-lomhlabathi, uBhejan’ophum’es’qiwini.

Out of respect, I shall not refer to this person by his igama. If you are uncertain why I’m doing this, refer to something I wrote a way back, on Inhlonipho. If you already qonda, continue.

So iSilo began to phefumula, on UKhozi FM (in the spot usually reserved for Sisexhibeni, one of my favourite things at the moment ngesiZulu) at about 8:22. I try to imagine the programme manager in a prior meeting, slotting His Majesty in with only 8 minutes to go until amanqampunqampu.

‘Hhayi, kuzolunga – kuzodingeka isikhashana-nje, protocol observed-nje’

‘No, it’ll be fine – only a bit of time is needed, just protocol observed’

And this would have been the case (probably) if this was just a ‘protocol-oberseved-nje’ thing – a birthday greeting from a public figure, ticking a few cultural points and gaining a bit of a swell in listeners. But the act of phefumula-ring – a vote of thanks to uNkulunkulu for allowing His Majesty to be the longest-reigning monarch in the history of ubukhosi besizwe amaZulu, and the need for people not to be izinhlanya (crazies) – quickly turned into khuza-ring  – which is much more than just protocol-observed-nje.

Ukukhuza is an interesting polysemic concept:

  1. to express astonishment, sympathy or other fellow-feeling (like saying hawu)
  2. to express disapproval, to rebuke or chide (also like saying hawu)
  3. to shout at someone (like memeza, but with added rank)
  4. to marshal troops; to give orders

And the khuza-ring was getting into full stride by about 8:28. ISilo ‘breathed’ directly at the DJ, and he responded with a series of respectful utterances of ‘Yebo’ and the audience listened in silence. His Majesty had, in 6 short minutes, switched to describing the illnesses affecting the current times. He started with an actual illness – igciwane leNgculazi (the germ of the Great Spear / AIDS) – and the need for people to act with respect, and be formed in school so that “umuntu avume ukuhola noma ukuholwa” (a person may say yes to leading or being led). The ukukhuza picked up pace, then – references were made to the nonsense at tertiary institutions, and ukubulalana kwabantu (the mutual murdering committed by people).

At this point, His Highness was approaching full stride, with such perfect examples of ukukhuza as:

Ngifuna ukubaxwayisa ukuthi basenza isizwe sethu inhlekiso kwezinye izizwe.

I want to make people aware of the fact that they are making our nation a laughing stock among the other nations.

Once shame and honour came into the equation, there was an automatic course to be traveled – the mentioning of his great ancestors – and specifically iSilo sasOndini, the one who defeated the English at Isandlwana. With this invocation complete, he khuza’d the following:

Ake sibuyiselwe kumaZulu lesiya sithunzi.

Would that the isithunzi of those long ago days were returned to the amaZulu.

Isithunzi is, as you’re probably gathering, a little too complex for me to do the usual thing of combing the meanings. It is related to words for shadow and shade, and has the meaning here of ‘reputation’ as well as ‘status’, ‘prestige’ and ‘dignity’. Essentially, it is the shadow that one casts, and which people must respect.

Having reached that height, iSilo descended via references to theft and crime, amanyala (disgusting habits and actions), amahlazo (shameful things characteristic of someone who is green or uncultured), unity and disunity post 1994, racism and the need for racial harmony, the economy, and landing up finally at destruction of property.

At this point, the khuza-ring thinly masked as ‘the breathing’ began to eat into the time usually reserved for izikhangiso (adverts) – and then the first interruption was heard.

Emanating from the DJ, the interruption was a single word. It was encoded very respectfully, with a slight rising intonation at the end (indicating a polite question).



(Your Highness)

However the interruption was interpreted not as a sign to wrap up, but rather as a spur to further khuza-ring – on the Land, poverty, famine, and the spread of isizwe samaZulu in the whole of SADEC.

And then, in what he was saying, there was a moment akin to an actor acknowledging the stage and the audience and his socially-constructed role in it all:

“… ngoba kubalulekile-ke ukuthi sizenze izinto ngendlela eyiyo, ngoba asikwazi ukuthi… ukuba… kushaya umoya… yingenxa yokuthi ngiyakhuza, ngikhuze izinto engibona ukuthi azihambi kahle… ngoba nakubantu kuyabonakalela ukuthi izinto zihamba kabi ezikhathini eziningi.”

“… because it is important that we do these things in the proper way, because we cannot just relax… and it is for that reason that I am khuza-ring, and I khuza the things that I see are not going well… because even to the people it is clear that things are going badly a lot of the time.”

Then came the second ‘Ndabezitha’. And His Highness continued for isikhashana. But having reached that height of self awareness, the khuza-ring returned once more to straightforward phefumula-ring, with a final take home message – ‘yekani ukulwa’

And then the final Ndabezitha came, followed by ‘Bayede’ (a complex little word with a deep cultural resonance, derived from the dialect of iLemb’eleq’amany’amalembe and his pronunciation of ‘balethe’, meaning ‘bring-em-on’).

And then the time-stamp: “Eight…. thirty…seven”. Then silence followed, as the segment had begun, by a recording of the traditional war-cries of amabutho greeting the monarch.

No headlines. No sport. No adverts.

Now, this is something that really stood out for me – for all the talk of ‘African Time’, uKhozi FM keeps to quite a tight schedule. Government Ministers, Religious Leaders and even Msholozi would have been interrupted and told in no uncertain terms to hlala phansi, if they had encroached on the sacrosanct time devoted to the adverts, headlines and sport. But not iSilo. Now that is true power.

Bayede. Wena wendlovu! Ndabezitha!


umEndo uyashisa

It’s been four months since our last lesson. I realise that as my brain sends the car down unconscious turns, around familiar doglegs and across cautious intersections, through the streets spattered unexpectedly ngomkhemezelo-nje, ngovivi lokusa. The radio plays in the background – Ezanamuhla on uKhozi FM, JGZ spouting promises of an end to corruption while union leaders gxeka and suggest ubumbano rather than ingxabano.

And then I arrive, we xhawulana and enter, the house heavy with the silence of the last few minutes of the weekend.

“Dad was wondering about your… radio silence.”

“Ja, you must have been busy!”

I explain about the new job, and the new system, and we chat about the perks of teaching at a school and having holiday-time.

And then I hear about Nomvula’s upcoming marriage, and am relieved to admit that politics and other matters of severity won’t play a part in today’s lesson – even though the politics of a traditional Zulu marriage might present more of a challenge.

There are four iziqu to do with marriage, and they mostly favour activity for the bride and passivity for the groom:

QOM – to choose, to engage, to prefer. The bride qoma’s the groom – uyaqoma – whereas the groom is qoma’d – uyaqonywa.

GAN – to wed, to choose. As above – intombi iyagana, indoda iganwa.

SHAD – to undergo Christian marriage or marry by civil rites (as opposed to traditional marriage). Not as strict on the passive rules, as the word is borrowed from isiXhosa – tshatha.

END – to travel to marriage, to be married. It is an ancient isintu root denoting travelling, still found in Chichewa, Kiswahili and other languages.

These actions, of choosing and travelling, are all tied up in the fact that marriage is patrilocal. The bride’s people will always be the strangers, and the bride will have to be initiated into the husband’s family group. The bride’s family, joined spiritually with her groom’s through the exchange of ilobolo, continues to be honoured by the fact that her maiden isibongo and izithakazelo are used when addressed her, even as she is uNkosikazi kaSibanibani.

So when we deal with the names for the complex interconnections created by marriage, we must start with a simple premise – all Zulu kinship terms are relational, not absolute. There are different words used for the same object depending on your relation to that object.

The parents of the bride are umukhwe and umkhwekazi, but only to the groom. The ‘in-laws’ to him are ubukhwe or ubulanda, both abstract essential nouns denoting the wife’s father’s umuzi or umndeni.

The parents of the groom are ubabezala and umamezala, but only to the bride. Her in-laws are simply umndeni, the family. To them, she is the outsider. She is umakoti, derived from an ideophone for behaving like a bride – respectfully, the hair woven into the inkehli, izihlonipho peppering every sentence.

{We talk for a while of the potential for abuse in this system, and about migrancy and urbanisation. Then we return to the A3 page we’ve cocreated, and I continue}

The bride (or fianceé) is also ingoduso – the one-taken-home-to-one’s-parents.

The parents of both the bride and groom refer to each other as umna(k)wethu (with the usual -wethu, -wenu, -wabo pattern found in umfowethu) or more simply as umnawe. {this is a term I didn’t give you in the lesson, but it’s a nice catch-all term, meaning both fellow parent-in-law, parent-in-law or younger sibling}.

The siblings-in-law refer to each other as umlanda (groom referring to bride’s people), umlamu (a noun denoting the bride’s in-laws and disturbingly related to a verb, lamuza, denoting “marry one’s wife’s sister”)  or the more usual udadewethu and umfowethu.

{on the page in front of us is a complex web of interrelationship, to which I add one more set of concepts}

umkami / umkakho /umkakhe as opposed to umyeni.

my wife / your wife / his wife as opposed to “the stranger” (husband).

Which brings us back to the fact that a woman is the one who marries a stranger, to whose umuzi she travels in order to be part of umendo there, an endless travelling among strangers. That she is the one who qoma’s with the spear, picking her man from among the others.

I tell you a few izaga about marriage, we glance through some charts on iziNyoni and imiThi and suddenly, the rhōdodaktūlos eōs a faded picture through the windows, our lesson is over. I pack the flurry of charts and dictionaries back into my bag and we say our goodbyes and wish each other well for Phasika. I feel my brain waking up despite the dull grey sky, as I drive off with the Vuka Mzansi Breakfast Show warbling in the background.



It is only later, about an hour ago, that I realise something. It’s just a theory, mind, but it’s interesting, so bear with me.

The verb ukuKHa means “to pick flowers”, “to gather or pluck fruit”, “to draw or dip up water at a river” or “take a fancy to, be attracted to”. The passive is KHiwa.

My wife is the one whom I picked, the u-m-KHa–mina. Her family is the the thing picked by me, the ubu-KH-w-e.

Maybe that’s easy for me to say, though, because her Zulu name is uKhethiwe (the Chosen one).


PPS I’ve just discovered that there’s a proverb for umendo that’s even better than the one I used in the title:

umendo ngumthobisi wamagagu – marriage is the tamer of the cheeky.


The random beauties of translation work

Wednesday morning, 15 minutes free in the middle of it, and the following pops into my inbox:

I require a 30 word document translated from Zulu to English

Are you available?

Yes, I’m available. By when do you need it?

We require it in the next few hours

the cost would be negligible – 15ZAR. I am happy to do it, though.

Do you accept paypal?

In this instance, I wouldn’t charge. It’s an interesting translation. I’m almost finished it.


Here is the translation:

The payment of the bride-price by {man’s full name} at the {woman’s family’s} houshold in Soweto’s Chiawela area on the day of the {insert date here}

Those present were the following:
{a list of seven signatures}

There was a mutual agreement to the price of 18 cattle.

13 cattle were taken out.

{here follow 7 signatures, 3 accompanied by the names of the signatories, 3 by the date, and 1 on its own}
{here follows a telephone number}

End of translation.

This has been received

Many thanks

We will be in touch if we require your services again


It is on Saturday that the differences seem to be most stark. Driving to Wits University for a debating tournament, I am greeted by the amaZulu understanding of Saturdays – burial and wedding announcements, imingcwabo nemishado, followed by Maskandi and Gospel on UKhozi FM. Of the four teenagers in the car, only one is anywhere close to speaking enough Zulu to get what’s going on. I teach him on Wednesdays, with three other boys, to make up for their fragmented understanding of the language.

“Don’t let the Gospel music irritate you – it’ll change to Maskandi later, once the weddings and parties start. Do you know any Maskandi?”

They shake their heads in disbelief. It’s too early for teenagers, especially in this drizzle. Our conversation quickly turns to the task they have ahead of them today – to argue whichever side they are given, on whatever topic. I feel them stretching their linguistic patterns in the car, limbering up metaphor and cadence, example and counterpoint.

And as we drive, we tour parts of Yeoville, Hillbrow and Houghton, like a knife cutting through a cake made of classes, spiced with languages and the occasional charismatic church and dusted with colour from hanging laundry and rose bushes.

We walk into a room filled with different voices and uniforms, and the day progresses into long sessions of argument and interesting points, a bit of disappointment and a lot of thinking.

And then we go home and try it again tomorrow. But Sunday’s rhythms are different, and we’ll have to test them then.