‘Votela ukunqoba i-Johannesburg’?

I posted this on FB recently, and there has been some debate. I offer it now to the wider internet. Let me know what you think.

votela ukunqoba i-johannesburg

Um, in my humble opinion there are a few issues with this poster.

1. I-Johannesburg isn’t a thing. I know that you might be meaning to say ‘Johannesburg Metro’, but it’s still not a thing. There are many ways of naming this city ngesiZulu, but that’s not one of them.

2. Ukunqoba = to defeat or overpower something, or to win over something, or gain victory over something. As in the ANC posters for the Siyanqoba Rally at Ellis Park, or (more bizarrely, the IFP adverts in today’s Isolezwe).

3. Not using a locative after nqoba means that i-Johannesburg is the object of that verb, i.e. ‘Vote to defeat Johannesburg’. If you were to use the locative it would mean ‘vote to win in Johannesburg’.

Any representatives of the blue house care to comment?


Sholoza, Msholozi

I couldn’t help but see you, on my drive home. There, the size of a building, is the message in yellow and black and green. And there you are, your face many times its actual size, staring out. I could see you, but I presume that you couldn’t see me.

Unlike many political adverts, such as Mashaba for Mayor and the other candidates for the upcoming election, you do not meet our gaze. You, Msholozi, stare out into the sky over Joburg, looking at some far-distant speck in the south-east. Perhaps you’re on the look-out for Gupta airways, hoping for someĀ deus ex machina escape from your present woes. On your face is the same look I’d imagine seeing on Euripides’ Medea, after her infanticide, her dead children in her lap, waiting for a chariot drawn by dragons to whisk her off to freedom from prosecution.

You avoid our gaze, Msholozi. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised – you’re just being true to your name.

And then, of course, there are the words. In black font, bold and capitalised, is the slogan. The isiqubulo. The same tired thing we’ve been seeing since 2009 – by holding and pulling together we drive our country forward as though it were a recalcitrant ox.

Except that you’d only know what it says if you speak an Nguni language. The choice, it seems, once again went with isiZulu. Not that I’m complaining or anything, since it provides grist for my mill. But a small look at the demographic data for Gauteng would show you that you’re avoiding the gaze of all people who do not speak isiZulu. And that’s quite a big bunch.

Just down the road, once I’m wending my way through Berea, I notice that your competitors have opted for a more nuanced approach – some seSwati, a bit of English and some Afrikaans. I even spotted a few seSotho posters.

But not from you, Msholozi. You and your party are quite happy to spend a considerable amount of capital on a poster the size of a building, in only one of the 11. I would admire your chutzpah, if I didn’t already know that it’s not chutzpah – it’s hubris.

izithakazelo zendawo

When I first explain this concept to speakers of English, their reply is disbelief – “how can it be that each place has a praise-name?”

The answer to this question goes to the heart of much of the misunderstandings about land and place in South Africa, which I’ll touch on very briefly before going on to talk about some specific izithakazelo zendawo.

Firstly, though – the umbhudulo for ‘thakazela’:

isithakazelo – (n) adulation, flattering praise, laudation, congratulation; tribal salutation; term of polite or friendly address peculiar to each clan

{…which is a noun derived from…}

thakazela – (v) be genial towards, be kind to, show courtesy to; welcome, greet on arrival; adulate, laud, praise flatteringly; congratulate

{…which is the applied form of…}

thakaza – (v) show kindness, be genial; speak praisingly

{…which might be related to…}

thaka – (v) compound, concoct medicinal mixtures; mix up medicines

{…but which is more likely related to…}

tha – (v) give a name to someone, name someone; pour into a vessel with a small aperture; inject an enema; select, pick out the best.

So one way of summing up the idea of ‘isithakazelo’ is ‘anything spoken or said habitually, usually upon greeting or saluting, showing familiarity and good disposition towards a person or thing’.

Since nginguwakwaMkhize ngesiZulu, the habitual salutation is ‘Khabazela kaMavovo’, or ‘Gcwabe’. These izithakazelo go on for a while, and refer to famous ancestors and events. Check out zuluring.blogspot.com to see a pretty comprehensive list of them. People also have individual izithakazelo, which act as adulatory or laudatory versions of izifenqo (nicknames) – see the blog post on izithakazelo zikaBaba for more on this.

Now take this concept and apply it to a place. You may think that English doesn’t do this very often, except in epic poetry, but it’s still possible. In fact, English names for places quite often refer to some event or person or quality of the place – go look up a couple of major cities in England if you’re interested – the difference here is that isiZulu is almost constantly conscious of the historical or ancestral significance of place through the use of both the name for the place and the praises of that place.

Ngesibonelo (as an example):

Kwandongaziyaduma – Place-where-the-walls-resound (Johannesburg)

Kwanyama’kayipheli-kuphel’amaziny’endoda – Place-where-the-meat-doesn’t-run-out-but-the-teeth-of-a-man-run-out (Johannesburg)

Kwelikabhanana – Place-of-the-country-of-the-Banana (KwaZulu-Natal)

KwelikaMthaniya – Place-of-the-country-of-Mthaniya (KwaZulu-Natal)

Each of these is a blog on its own, so please feel free to add more izithakazelo zendawo in the comments on this post. {in fact, you get extra points if you know exactly who Mthaniya was, although amaMbatha and abakwaSibiya are excluded from this competition, for obvious reasons}

Suffice to say, the names given to places in English or other European languages are bland and at worst completely obscure when compared to the colourful and exact naming of place in isiZulu. It goes deeper than that, though – naming a place is a reverential act, similar to the reverence given to the ancestors who gave their names to it. Land is not just land – it has the bones and the names and the stories of generations in it. It is the place to which we will all return when we die.

Land and place are things requiring respect and remembrance, and this is accomplished ngesiZulu through the memory and daily use of the lyrical intricacies of their izithakazelo – in the same way you greet an old friend by reciting his/her family’s famous ancestors, you greet Joburg or Durban or Newcastle using their histories.

Wooden bowls

The bell of the metal pedestrian gate rings once. I’m expecting someone, so I go to open without checking.


‘Sawubona Mama’

It wasn’t the person I was expecting.

‘Yes, hello Sir. Would you like…?’

She gestures to the hessian bag that she’s been lumping along the Linksfield Ridge all morning. I can see skillfully cut but simple wooden bowls there, all carefully packed in newsprint and plastic, unsold even now at the time of the bluntening of the eyes (isikhathi sokuqundeka kwamehlo).

She can see me looking at the bowls. She begins to remove them from the bag, and so I attempt to stall her.

‘Anginamali namuhlanje, mama.’

She smiles suddenly.

‘Uphumephi, baba? IsiZulu sakho simnandi!’

I explain my origins to her, and she listens, unpacking the bowls. I’ve been hooked already.

Once I have finished my story, she begins hers.

‘Ngivel’ eZimbabwe. Ngiyasikhuluma isiShona. These bowls were brought down over the border just this week. They were hand-made by my son.

You don’t have to buy them right now, Baba. You can pay me when you get money. Take this one. It is the heaviest. It is the one I have carried here for you. Take it.’

I recant my lies, and fetch my wallet, and hope that someone will need a wooden bowl as a present sometime.

Nhlolanja’s Locum Lesson

My old boss called me at 5 on a Friday morning. It just so happened that Friday is usually my regrouping day. And he needed a locum teacher for isiZulu.

So I drove through the morning sunlight and airiness of Killarney, avoiding the solid metal mash of the M1, and up to the gates of the school. Its typical Parktown curves and finials stood firm, having endured many different South Africa’s in its history.

Initially, I thought that the class was going to be second language isiZulu – so I’d planned a bit of an assessment of the class, to find out what they’d been taught. When I walked into the long dusty classroom, I realized that this wasn’t quite second-language. The notes on the board/bored were copied verbatim from a linguist’s textbook on isiZulu, talking about the different constituent parts of amabizo (nouns). I quickly assembled the list of isiZulu’s linguistic terminology in my head, still more than a bit unsure of the major difference between some of the terms, but knowing for certain that no teenager I’d ever met would be interested in this stuff.

However, after the excitement had died down (not many people are used to seeing a tall white guy teaching in an isiZulu classroom), I realised that it wasn’t really home language. It was the sort of class that happens in urban areas with a mixture of cultural and linguistic elements – kids who bear proud surnames, but don’t know the izithakazelo of those surnames, or the origins of those parts of them that came from the amaNguni. They are the sort of kids who know what they’re missing, and the questions quickly began to fly around me – some confidently asking in their carefully practiced isiZulu, some reverting to English or isiCamto.

They knew what they wanted – they knew the limits of their Soweto-Zulu, and they wanted to understand the metaphors and beauty and richness of the language that had raised at least one of their parents.

They certainly didn’t want to be falling asleep as their teacher droned the contents of dusty grammar textbooks into a January afternoon.