2440 vs 2261 / uqhekeko

Some ideas marinate for a long time before reaching the right moment to come forth.

I had written the words down on an envelope, about 9 months ago. That envelope has travelled with me all over, tucked into the depths of whatever bag I was carrying or floating freely in the back of my car.

In the centre of it is an isenzukuthi:


Though the act of exploring that word-root was born in a moment of fury, of making sense of being broken into (ukuqhekeza) and robbed earlier this year, the envelope has soaked up the various molecules of this zeitgeist in which I find myself immersed.

Qheke has two basic meanings:

  1. ukuvuleka kwento eqinile eyomile

the-act-of-getting-opened of-a-thing that-is-hardened (and) that-is-dry

  1. ukuklayeka

the-act-of-getting-klaya’d (I’ll explain in a moment)

The first meaning has signified various points of this year for me – the sudden splitting apart of so many taken-for-granted things, the lack of coherence and integrity in the world around us, the feeling that we have all been violated in some way by the different types of order we have put in place to govern ourselves – and it has acted like a koan on which I could meditate in moments where I could see the accepted world breaking open before me, revealing its dried-out bones and desiccated innards.

The second meaning relies on understanding ukuklaya:

to cut through lengthwise

to split

to cleave

to cut across the veld where there is no pathway

This is what has been realised in what has happened this evening, as the izinkonjane swoop through cloudless skies and ululation and vuvuzelas mark the end of a chapter in our history. The path that we could have taken has not been taken. A new path is being made as you read, through the long grass that has grown up in the recent rains. It is Zibandlela, after all. Kodwa beware – oxamu bayabusa ekweneni (monitor lizards are happiest in the overgrowth).

2440 vs 2261.

I knew by the sudden sound that is so much a part of this continent – ukukikizela. Ululation. A howl of joy repeated to the sky as we were spared yet another of Msholozi’s dodges.

At the heart of the numbers this evening is the fact that the party was almost evenly split down the middle.

uKhongolose uthi qheke. (the Congress goes “qheke”)

Ukuqhekeka means “ukuvuleka noma ukuhlukana phakathi kwento ebihlangane” (the opening out or separation within an object that used to be joined) as well as “ukuvula kakhulu; ukuba sobala kungafihleki” (being very open; being clear with nothing hidden).

I’m not so sure about the last one, to be honest. That remains to be seen – but I’m cautiously optimistic.

The noun for what has occurred is u(lu)qhekeko, which is

isenzo sokuhlukana phakathi; ukuqembuka; ukuhlubuka

the act of internal differentiation; factionalism; betrayal

That escalated very very quickly indeed.

You see, the splitting over the votes today shows a kind of split in loyalty, a turning against the established order. It is also a point of decision, and Mbatha adds these two lovely descriptions of ukuhlubuka:

ukuguquka emazweni akhe umuntu

alteration in a person’s words

ukulahla abantu obukade uhambisana nabo ekwenzeni kwezinto

the act of dumping those with whom you used to cooperate when doing things


And those of you with some sense of the language would have noted that uku-qembuka gives us iqembu, a team or party.

How ironic.

The opposite of all of this is ukubumbana. It is the mutual action required of all the particles shaped into a single clay vessel. If one molecule falters, the vessel cracks. impurities that need to be corrected are removed before firing it in a kiln.

It is my hope that we can find some ubumbano in this moment. And that we shape this new vessel in such a way that it holds true in the kiln. Because there’s nothing worse than a pot that explodes during firing. Collateral damage is severe in those cases.


umbhikisho / protest

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.


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.


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.

izenzukuthi / ideophones

I’ve been wanting to write about these for a very long while already. They have always fascinated me, and I believe that they are the heart of isiZulu. 
For all of you who don’t know what an ideophone is, I’ll explain here. For those of you that know already, proceed to the next paragraph. 

Let’s start with definitions. Isenzukuthi means the-complex-solid-thing-that-uses-ukuthi. That’s as clear as mud so far. So we must look at ukuthi in order to understand these strange beasts. Ukuthi is, as Vilakazi and Doke put it, a defective monosyllabic verb. If there were a Bedlam for Zulu words, thi would have a padded cell and a straight-jacket, along with azi and sho. This verb forms half of the Zulu arsenal for expressing speech (sho, on a thorazine drip in a neghbouring cell, is the other half). It magically opens a speech bubble in the sentence, into which can be inserted any sound, whether uttered by a human or non-human source. Most often, thi is followed by direct speeh, as well as by that which is perceived or thought. However, thi can also be followed by a sound-effect to capture a specific situation or action. 

Think of graphic novels – BAM! WOLOKOHLO

So an isenzukuthi forms part of that speech or sound bubble, following thi, using a sound to capture the essence of an action or state. Ideophone is from the Greek (of course, isn’t everything?), and means unique (or private) sound (or voice). It shares a lot with the word ideosyncratic, which is the best way to describe these things. Basically, isiZulu has a set of words which express a unique sound to mimic or capture an action or state or colour. 

“Ideophone: a word, often onomatopoeic, which describes a predicate, qualificative or adverb in respect to manner, colour, sound, action, state, or intensity”

The izenzukuthi are not curiosities or genre-specific things in isiZulu. They go beyond the realm of creative story-telling or poetry. They are a part of everyday language. 

As a brief aside, let it be known that I am a strange beast – I enjoy reading the dictionary (in any language), and it is my custom to code as I read. I do so using nine different colours – Red for Astronomical Phenomena, Blue for Birds, Orange for Arthropods, Green for Botanical, Brown for Animalia, Light Blue for Marine Creatures, Pink for Relative Qualificatives, Black for Key Verb Stems and Purple for Ideophones. I do this not because I’m insane, but rather so that I can start to map the entire language. And it allows me to make statements such as the following:

There are precisely 100 ideophones beginning with the consonant m. From máka (denoting slapping someone in the face with an open palm) to mbrr (of birds flying) and mvénene (denoting tingling, or running at full speed), this is only one letter’s worth of ideophones. 

Q is even more of a goldmine for izenzukuthi – 113 are recorded in Vilakazi’s dictionary. It is unsurprising to me just how many of these creatures are formed from the click-consonants. If you have ever been a little child, or are currently a beatboxer, you’ll know how satisfying the clicks can be in expressing a variety of things. Q begins with qa (of sudden vision, of seeing something for the first time), moving through qángqalazi (of dying, coming fully into view, or rolling), qéngelele (of standing out, being conspicuous, of smartness or ability), qhámu (of unexpected appearance; of coming suddenly into view), qíngqo (of suddenly springing to life, as a bird when stunned), qóngqo (of reaching the summit or making a knocking noise), and ending with qwíbi (of being alone, single). 

Without getting too bogged down in each and every letter in the alphabet, the last thing I want to talk about here is the way that isiZulu uses ideophones to create new words. There are 22 letters for which isiZulu has ideophones (none for a, e, i, o, r or u, plus one for bh), and this is not yet even the most astounding thing about them – any given ideophone can automatically and regularly give rise to entire lineages of nouns in any of the 8 izigaba, as well as over 4 different types of verbs. That means that they are even part of what are considered to be ordinary parts of speech, like superheroes with their underpants on the inside. 

Let’s just look at one ideophone and its children – ndúlu. It denotes two things: of acting in a dazed or stupid manner, as when giddy, or of streaming out. 

It gives rise to the following nouns:

  •  isindulundulu – a person who acts in an aimless and stupid manner
  •  ubundulundulu – stupidity, aimless or confused action
  •  induluzane – an unenlightened or ignorant person; a person of unsound mind

In addition to these it is the source of four verbs:

  • ukunduluka – to stream out, come out in a stream
  • ukundulula – to send out in a stream or drive off in numbers; to obtain in large quanitities
  • ukunduluza – to act as though dazed or stupid; to look about as if at a loss what to do
  • ukundundulula – to send out in a stream; to obtain in large quantities; to play a trick on someone such as sending them on a senseless journey.

This is just one ideophone. I don’t know (yet) exactly how many there are, but it is my opinion that the majority of nouns and verbs in isiZulu come from them. Which means that rather than treating them as curiosities, they should be taught as early and as constantly as possible in the classroom. 

If you have any special requests for ideophones – your favourite one, or for a description of those relating to a certain action – comment on this blog. 

For now, that’s me done. All that’s left to say is khúmu.


My wife’s sms comes through mid-morning:

how would you define an ideophone?

I imagine the conversation diverging from the task at hand, the English teachers (supposed to be) discussing next term’s syllabus and sharing out the work for it, and the sudden foray into isiZulu linguistics. I try to figure out what the best approach would be, knowing the people around the table.

A word which mimics a sound descriptively associated with an action or state in which an object, animal or person is. A sound effect, much like the ones used in graphic novels or cartoons – though more extensive in application. Kind of a sound effect mixture of adverb, adjective and verb.

And I leave out so much – that they are one of the most wonderful characteristics of the language of heaven. That there is an ideophone for the breaking of a heart, and one for mass-production. That there are two different ideophones for silence, and countless ones for the way that people walk or talk or are. That there is an ideophone for each different kind of touch, from a caress to a slap.