Bullying or encircling the state?

On Wednesday, the report was made public. You must know which one I’m talking about – it’s all anyone can talk about. And while I’m interested in many aspects of it, for me the choice of language on uKhozi FM was… enlightening.

You see, two weeks ago, the phrase for ‘state capture’ was ukugwamanqa kombuso. Let me unpack it for you:

ukug(w)amanqa: the gathering together of a group of people in a single place; the surrounding of an object on all sides

umbuso: the state (more on this isiqu in another post)

So what we’re talking about with this phrase is the act of surrounding and capturing the state. Some hunting or military metaphors, but fairly clear – much like ‘capture’ in English. And that’s the phrase that was used on all nights except Wednesday, when another phrase suddenly popped up: ukuqhwagwa kombuso. Let me unpack that one too:

ukuqhwaga: to take something by force; to deprive someone of something; to compel someone to do something by force; to bully.

This is the passive of that verb, meaning that the whole phrase means ‘the act of experiencing compulsion, deprivation and bullying of the state (by an unmentioned agent)’. As in many other places, isiZulu uses the passive here to denote that the action is being experienced, and that someone else is responsible for it – in this case, to quote the ‘Capture of the State’ report, “laba bafana bakwaGupta”.

What’s really of interest here is that a specific word was changed, and another used in its place. Does this mean that the state is now being painted as a victim of bullying, as opposed to the victim of a hunt or an army encircled (and about to be wiped out)?

Yesterday, in the uKhozi FM headlines, gwamanqa was back. Hm. I wonder who’s making these decisions.


ukhetho / (s)election

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.

Road-language / uLimi lwemiGwaqo

I’ve been pondering how to phrase all this for some time now, but finding a way in is tricky. Previously, when I voiced some of these thoughts to my sister-in-law, I was met with the inevitable “don’t you think you’re just being paranoid?”

Well, maybe I am.

You see, you may not even notice any more. In South Africa, we’ve become so used to it that we don’t even think of it. I’m talking about the markings on the road. More specifically, the fact that they’re still (21 years on) bilingual in English and Afrikaans.

I’m not going to give you a history lesson about policies of European-language bilingualism in SA. You can find that elsewhere. Google it or something. What I’m talking about is the lingering presence of those policies, in everyday life. And, most specifically, the subtle way in which road-painters seem to be protesting this fact.

There’s no point in writing STOP bilingually – it’s the same in isiBhunu and isiNgisi. Here, at least, isiLungu is monolithic. But that’s not the same with the other two common road-markings – SCHOOL and SLOW. The first one’s isiBhunu counterpart, SKOOL, seems to be continued without much thought – perhaps it’s a compromise, since even isiNtu uses the Latin-derived term, as can be seen by isikole in isiZulu. So SKOOL remains.

But it is the counterpart of SLOW, STADIG, that seems to be the focus of a subtle campaign to change things. Let me explain. On Linksfield Rd, driving through Edenvale towards the centre of the suburb, there is a school on your left as you crest the hill. Leading up to it, of course, are the various measures introduced to control traffic and prevent accidents. And right outside the school there are road markings – SLOW followed a few metres later by STADAG. No, I didn’t mis-spell it. That’s what the road-painters saw fit to put there.

When I first noticed it, I did a double-take. My disbelief turned to ridicule of the road-painter, but that then changed to doubt. Surely a person has orders of what to paint on the road? If they do, then this was deliberate. It takes more effort and paint to render an A in big letters than it does to do a similar I. So someone went out of their way to deliberately mis-spell an Afrikaans word, right outside a school, in an area where there is potentially quite a high density of Afrikaans-speakers.

I’ll let that sink in as we move to the next observation. Up on the ridge, near the Observatory, there are numerous places where one is urged to be SLOW. Approximately 5, on my usual routes through the suburb, show a pattern of activity which is interesting – only the coat of paint on SLOW has been renewed, and STADIG has been left to fade, slowly, under the crush of rubber and the elements and time. This observation speaks of a different sort of deliberateness, and one which I would expect – it saves money and time, and allows the out-dated policies to fade into obscurity. But it is still deliberate. And as such it points to a decision to change. It’s less of a gesture of defiance than deliberately mis-spelling a word, but it is defiant nonetheless.

So now you can tell me whether I’m imagining things. Look at your own neighbourhoods. Observe. See what you find.


The last time I looked at the election posters, I focused on a subtle difference in word choice. The ruling party chose a verb that signified a gang mentality, overpowering a submissive public into continuing to vote for them. The blue house chose something different, opting for using isiZulu’s penchant for reciprocity.

This time round, things seem a bit clearer. For a start, it doesn’t seem like uKhongolose is really trying. Apart from the suddenly ubiquitous road-marking and verge-trimming here in our City at Work, which is so obviously like an abusive husband buying his black-eyed wife a bunch of flowers, the posters for the Municipal Elections are disappointing. One that I saw involved the use of at least four exclamation marks, after a garbled reference to the Freedom Charter. It was like the Sun kidnapped a second-year PolSci student after a rough night out in Greenside. Another is a confused vocative and an oblique imperative referencing democracy: “The People, Govern!” Again, the use of the exclamation point smells suspiciously like one too many Johnny Walkers.

Even though I traveled all over my home province in March, I did not see a single ANC poster in isiZulu. In fact, I saw very few posters for the party at all. Like I said, it seems like they’re not really trying.

So then I turned to the DA. They’ve had posters up for ages – simple, unequivocal, direct. Mmusi looks at us and tells us, in no uncertain terms, to Register for Change. But of course, you know that my focus is not on the English. What does it say in isiNguni/isiZulu?

“bhalisela ushintsho”

Hm. There’s nothing funny about the first word – registering is ‘causing writing’, and the applied impambosi gives the idea that you’re ‘causing writing for something’. Cool. The next word, however, is the issue. Firstly, it’s not an indigenous word. A noddy-badge to the first who can tell me which language it’s from.

Yes, indeed, it is one of uJoji’s words – ‘change’.

Now why would the DA knowingly use an imfakela from English in a poster aimed at speakers of isiZulu and its cognates? What other words are there for ‘change’? What, if fact, is ‘change’? What does it look like?

There are two main contenders for the word in proper isiZulu – impenduko and inguquko. First things first – they’re both in the seasonal noun class, meaning that they follow a repetitive or cyclical progression through time, like the moon. Secondly, they are both derived from verbs, and more specifically as the products of neuter verbs – meaning that they simply occur, intransitively. Thirdly, both of those verbs are deideophonic – they come from what can loosely be called ‘sound effects’. With no further ado, here they are in all their glory:

impenduko is derived from phenduka, which is derived from phéndu

change, conversion, repentance >> turn over (intransitive); change (intransitive); become converted >> a sound of turning, revolving (derived from an Ur-Bantu root -penda meaning ‘bend sideways’)

inguquko is derived from guquka, which is derived from guqu

change in character or opinion >> change (intransitive), undergo change, get turned, turn round (intransitive) >> a sound of turning over, changing, turning round

So why did the DA not choose these words? Well, for a start the first word is linked too much to religious conversion – although it might actually be apt to consider converting to the DA. It’s also linked to the word for ‘answer’, though – impendulo. And finally, it’s quite old-fashioned. Nonetheless, a noble applicant for the post.

The second word is a more fitting candidate. It is linked to words for transformation and revolution, and signifies a change in opinion rather than religious belief. But it does have that pesky click, which doesn’t go down so well up here in the Big Smoke where people, as a rule, pronounce almost all clicks as ‘c’. Nonetheless, if I’d been working on the campaign I’d have chosen ingququko. I like the way it rolls and revolves in my mouth, signifying an alteration.

Instead, the DA chose an English word. Admittedly, it has been fully naturalised – it’s even in the noun class for complex fluids, much like the word for election (ukhetho). Its spelling has also been altered to suit isiZulu, and it’s well under cover in terms of usage – it’s very common to see it in political rhetoric across the board (especially if the board is a placard at a service delivery protest). But it still smells like uJoji.

Which brings me to the point – is it not ironic that the DA chose a word for change which appears to be a departure from the traditional and yet which is actually an Englishman masquerading as a Zulu?

Iconoclasm (aka statue-smashing)

Iconoclasm – etymology: Ancient Greek, eikono-klazo (statue-smash).

I’ve been listening to, and reading, reports on our recent spate of statue-phobia ngesiZulu recently – it’s been difficult not to do so, what with catchy hashtags and clashing rhetoric and escalating levels of mutual disrespect becoming the order of things.

Iconoclasm is tricky business, you see. Whose icons do you smash? Who has the authority to smash them? Whose do you choose to fill the gap, once the cheering and brick-dust and spraypaint have settled?

While all these thoughts have been clattering around my head, another thing began to nag at me. As usual, it’s in my safe-zone – linguistic analysis. This time, it’s to do with a particular word-choice – what is the word for ‘a statue’ ngesiZulu?

SABC, through their mouthpiece of uKhozi FM, chose isichuse. Isolezwe, a member of the Independent Newspapers group, chose umfuziselo. They could also have chosen isithombe or isifanekiso, but they didn’t.

Let’s look at the two they didn’t choose, first:


1. an image or statue

2. a doll

3. an idol

4. a picture or a photograph

5. a dwarf



1. a sample, example, specimen

2. a statue, image, piece of sculpture

The first word is the one used most often ngesiZulu when one is referring to a picture. As a photographer, you thwebula isithombe (lit. whip/mesmerize/enchant a photograph) with your strange machine. An artist can also dweba isithombe (paint a picture). However the key to why this word wasn’t used is in the fact that this word is also used to represent a doll, an idol and a dwarf. The implication is that the likeness being created is not life-size, in contrast with the gigantic statues of colonial leaders on display in our cities.

The second word, however, is completely neutral. Ukufanekisa means cause-something-to-have-a-resemblance-to-something-else, so isifanekiso is the crafted/moulded/created likeness of something or someone. It is also used when talking about imagery in poetry. So why wasn’t it used?

Before I attempt an answer to that question, I want to show you the choice that Isolezwe made. Umfuziselo is a newer word than isifanekiso, and doesn’t occur in the 1958 Vilakazi and Doke Dictionary. Its meaning is transparent, however – ukufuza means “resemble or follow in terms of characteristics, looks, behaviour, manner, voice, gait etc.” and is included in the proverb “ukhamba lufuza imbiza” (the small pot resembles the big one, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). Ukufuzisela therefore means cause-something-to-have-a-likeness-to-something-else – pretty much exactly as ukufanekisa does. The difference is only in the choice of noun-class – umfuziselo would mean a thing made of one medium or one substance having that resemblance to something or someone else. No mixed media here.

While that word has a strange link to genetic resemblance passed from parents to their children, it’s still a fairly neutral word. Whereas isichuse most certainly isn’t.


1. a dummy, a scarecrow, anything set up to aim at

2. a butt, a nonentity, a person to whom no consideration is given

When I first heard this word being used to denote the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, a couple of weeks ago, I though that I’d misheard. I even went to look up other possible spellings – isicuse doesn’t exist, and isachuse means the same thing. I scratched my head, and wondered what to make of the radio using such an openly derogatory term.

As uKhozi FM is one of the mouthpieces of the ANC government, having heard all the platitudinous rhetoric being spouted about the need for transformation and discussion rather than the defacing of monuments, I didn’t expect such a clear stance to be portrayed by the use of this word. It turns out I was wrong.

I suppose if you’re going to be iconoclastic, you may as well belittle and denigrate the icon as much as possible. After all, removing a scarecrow or a dummy at which you aim your weapons is a lot easier than removing the likeness of an actual person. Ironically, though, this particular isichuse was given a lot of consideration before finally becoming the butt of jokes (please, no jokes about faecal matter here).

Hlanganyela vs ?

Discourse analysis is about asking two questions about word choice (diction) and sentence structure – “why?” and “why not?”.

For example:

“WHY did the ANC choose to use the word hlanganyela on their isiZulu election posters?”


“WHY did the ANC choose NOT to use other words for togetherness on their isiZulu election posters?”

The same question can be applied to a comparison of the ANC’s posters and those of the DA, where similar choices have been made.


We’ve all seen them. They have appeared in all 11 of our official languages (as well as in Portuguese, Italian, Cantonese and Greek), blossoming with the last heavy rains of summer on lampposts and at intersections, 20 metres tall in blazing lights or the size of a postcard in newspapers. They grow every day. Almost all have a face, though some show the proof of the promises (roads, houses, smiling well-fed schoolchildren) being made in black or white or red above and below them. Almost all bear a brand emblazoned on them – shields and fists and flags and suns, rainbows and elephants and all the other crazy symbols soon to clutter our ballot-papers. It is almost impossible for any citizen to be unaware of the impending election – and that is the point. We’re supposed to know. We’re supposed to be fully aware of what each party is promising.

The promises of two big contenders up here eJozi Maboneng, KwaNdongaziyaduma, kwaNyama’kayipheli-aphel’amaziny’endoda, centre around the same word in English – TOGETHER. You’ve seen the posters:

“Together we move South Africa forward” vs “Together for Jobs/Change”

It’s the same word in English, and not just in diction – either we move South Africa forward [i.e. we engage in progress] or we change South Africa. Togetherness is a pleasantly amorphous concept, reminiscent of the national anthem’s call for patriotism. In South Africa it is a particularly remedial understanding, the antidote to the apartness of Apartheid. As a result, the present government has spent much thought on the idea of togetherness (called social cohesion in recent years), spinning it into a reason to vote ANC. The word they use in their campaign is, in English, no different from the word used by their opponents, whom they would have you believe is aiming for anything but togetherness – a return to Apartheid and other Teutonic concepts espoused by its wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing.

In isiZulu, however, something unusual happens regarding the word ‘TOGETHER’. Pardon me some linguistic play, but this will prove enlightening.

In order to approach TOGETHERNESS, it is necessary first to approach APARTNESS. Apartheid is ubandlululo – the segregation and division of communities. It is a single aberrent concept. There is only one word for it, and its cognates are words for ‘discriminate’ or ‘exclude’.

Togetherness, on the other hand, is not so simple. Let’s have a look at some of various the Nouns the ANC didn’t use when translating TOGETHERNESS.

Unity, as a concept, is ubunye. One-ness. Being a single entity. This one hasn’t been chosen once in 20 years, despite the old motto of RSA, ex unitate vires (out of unity comes strength).

Cohesion is ubumbano, the way that clay sticks together in the forming of a pot. This word used to be the flavour of the month with the Zuma regime, and was the topic of a summit in Soweto a few years back.

Neither of these has been chosen in the current election campaign, or in any other (to my knowledge).

In fact, the campaigns of both 2004 an 2009 have used another trick that isiZulu possesses, rather than using some amorphous abstraction like ubunye and ubumbano – they have used reciprocal extensions of verbs. What this means for non-linguists is that they use verbs like “help-each-other” or “work-together”. This opens up a whole world of wordplay to the campaign planner, depending on which verb you choose.

Let’s have a look at two verbs which have consistently been chosen:

ukubambisana – to-hold-on-to-the-thing-together << famously used by the ANC in its 2004 campaign as part of the slogan “Ngokubambisana singenza okuningi” which was translated as “Working together we can do more”.

ukusebenzisana – to-make-use-of-something-together << currently being used by the DA as part of the slogan “Sisebenzisana ekuletheni inguquko” or “We are working together to bring change”.

So that shows that the DA’s choice of TOGETHERNESS involves everyone making use of the same system together, working together in the same place. It’s a pretty direct translation of the English, albeit a little clunky.

The ANC, by contrast with the previous choice of everyone pulling together at the same rope, hasn’t chosen either of these words this year. Instead, they have chosen a peculiar verb – ukuhlanganyela. Their slogan is

“Ngokuhlanganyela siqhubezela iNingizimu Afrika phambili”

“By Hlanangyela’ing we push South Africa forward”

Ukuhlanganyela is related to a more common verb for meeting or joining (ukuhlangana), but with an important twist. If you look it up in the most recent isiZulu dictionary (Mbatha, 2001), you will find that its primary meaning is “to form a group of people together with the purpose of attacking or pursuing a person or thing thereby outnumbered”. It basically means “gang up against”. Vilakazi and Doke (1948) define the verb as follows:

1. Unite against, combine against, make a combined attack. e.g. Bamhlanganyela (They attacked him in a body)

2. Act in unison, participate. e.g. ukuhlanganyela umsebenzi (to participate in the same work).

So it does have the same meaning as ukusebenzisana, and it has a definite use as a translation for someone “being involved in something”. It has positive connotations of active citizenship, but there is still that disturbing primary meaning hanging in the air over it. If you hlanganyela, you’re participating in a mob, ganging up on something or someone less powerful than you.

So the ANC’s election poster, translated directly, is

by-ganging-up-on-something-less-powerful      we-compel      South     Africa     forward.

Hm. That’s not such a positive choice of diction. Maybe someone should tell them.

Or maybe they already know.

You see, at this point I could launch into a description of the martial character of the amaZulu, connecting the culture’s militaristic social structures and history to our fiercely Zulu president, Msholozi, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma. But I won’t, because it’s all too apparent. It’s not about unity, or cohesion. It’s not about working together.

The TOGETHERNESS of the ANC is an invitation to join the powerful, to participate in the great mass of majority in a combined attack on those less powerful or numerous. It is an invitation to put patriotism and belonging ahead of minor issues like corruption, cronyism and mismanagement. It asks us to step forward and be part of a mob against the daily service delivery protests taking place across South Africa.

While I’m not sure of the amorphous TOGETHERNESS offered elsewhere, I’m very sure of what the ANC is saying in my vernacular. And I don’t like it.