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!


Word Route: -Lo

Looking at the two letters above, it’s hard to imagine how significant they are in the language of the amaZulu. You may even be thinking I’m crazy, or lost, or both.

Let me show you.

-lo is the meaning portion (the root) of the noun isilo, which has izilo as its plural. It has numerous derivations, and one very particular cultural frame of reference – it is the title of the Zulu King.

Basically, though, it means

a) a wild beast, a wild carnivorous animal

b) a leopard, a lion (the term is particularly applied to these two beasts)

c) a red intestinal worm

d) prey, victim, target

There are numerous idioms around these two small letters:

isilo asithintwa          a wild beast is not disturbed (let sleeping dogs lie)

isilo sengwe               the leopard’s prey, an ambush or conspiracy

isiLo samaBandla, iNkosi Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu
isiLo samaBandla, iNkosi Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu

There are a number of terms of address for the Zulu King:

“IsiLo samaBandla! Wena weNdlovu! Ndabezitha! Bayethe! Inkosi yoHlanga! Ngonyama! etc.”

In this short burst, you have a number of different metaphors or links being created:

“Wild-Carnivore of-the-Assemblies-of-Men! Oh you of-the-Elephant! One-Spoken-of-by-Enemies! Bring-em-on! Lord of-the-Reeds! Lion! etc.”

It is because of these titles that the amaZulu do not use the word ‘ingonyama’ to mean ‘lion’ in common speech, nor do they use ‘isilo’ to mean ‘leopard’ – because of inhlonipho, the system of respect offered between people who are kin or bound by social agreement.

This is a system in which those portions of other words which contain the syllables of names of people of importance are rendered unusable because of that fact – so you cannot use the two syllables ‘-nyama-‘ to refer to ‘meat’ if you’re from the Zulu clan, as those syllables are part of the titles of the amaZulu – ngoNYAMA. You have to find a different word (a synonym) – and isiZulu uses iNgcosa to refer ngenhlonipho (politely) to meat.

Instead of Ngonyama meaning Lion, isiZulu uses the word i(li)Bhubhesi. Instead of isiLo, they use iNgwe.

The same inhlonipho requirements do not apply to the diminutives derived from isiLo – isilwana/e and isilonyakazane.

isilwana means ‘a small wild beast, a contemptible wild beast’ or ‘a small leopard’

isilwane has different meanings entirely: a) animal (domestic or wild); animal life; b) wild beast, ferocious animal (= isilo); c) animal or person of outstanding qualities.

isilwane then seems to have created, by horizontal formation, both an abstract and a very strange noun from the stem -lwane, as well as two further diminutives – isilwanyane and isilwanyakazane.

The abstract noun is ubulwane, denoting ‘animal character or bestiality’. Hectic.

The very strange noun is umlwane – which surprisingly belongs to the same Noun Class as certain inanimate natural objects such as rivers and trees, even though it describes something human: a) a worthless, good-for-nothing person; one despicably poor or chronically ill; b) a departed spirit (more usually i(li)dlozi). It would be a good translation for ‘you worthless pathetic creature’.

Finally (hopefully) the diminutives have the following meanings:

isilwanyakazane is an insect, a little creature, or vermin.

isilwanyane is: a) a small animal or b) a small creeping or flying creature; a terrifying little creature (more usually i(li)nunu)

and isilwanyazane means: a) an insect or b) a ‘monster’.

Interesting. And all from just two letters.

And what does it say about some of isiZulu’s underlying metaphors? That the King is like a great carnivorous beast, devouring and triumphing in protection of his pride, roaring out over his kingdom. That leadership is always considered to be violent?