Three things happened that year, in my life. I’ve been thinking of those three things a lot today, remembering that day 21 years ago when we watched the news at school and saw the snaking multicoloured lines of people casting the first free ballot ever. I knew what that meant, then. I was only ten, but I knew what it meant.

The year began with Dada’s death. His place in my life had been a stern tall shadow in the rarefied altitude of their Westcliff house. He and my maternal grandmother had been the reason for the six hours in a car at almost every Easter and Christmas of the first ten years of my life. I knew him only as old, angular, crisp and more than a little distant. He is the only grandfather I have ever known, and so the shape he took is the archetype for “grandfather” in my psyche.

I have since learnt many antithetical things about him – how his principles denied him attendance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and left him with only the Springbok badge, that he read Law at Oxford but never practised it here, how my grandmother spurned his first advances and responded to his subsequent courting only because she then lacked an eye, and how he eventually became yet another architect of our continent’s modern slave trade to the gold mines, earning himself a gold watch, a mansion on the ridge and other trinkets because of it.

His life is one of many reasons why my mother became the person she is, as a reaction against everything that he stood for, and his death signalled the end of his era. It is appropriate, in hindsight, that he passed away at the beginning of 1994, in the final year of Apartheid. 

In between the event of his death and the third one of that year is this day, with all of its consequences. I had barely seen my father for months leading up to it. He was often high above the country, flying between Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town and elsewhere, meeting with the great and the aspirant, the good and the evil. He has only told me some of those stories since then, in bits and pieces. I knew the significance of the 27th of April, though. I had sat with him four and a bit years before that day, watching a man we had only ever spoken about walking out of prison to rapturous applause. I had heard all the fear and the hope from the adults at our school in the Natal Midlands. Mostly fear.  

As a nine-almost-ten-year-old, looking at the headlines on that morning’s edition of the Natal Witness, I am totally aware of what the day signifies. I remember that. I remember getting into arguments with the other boys, the rich capitalists’ kids, about the politics of it all. I remember wondering who would win the election, but knowing that things would be different. Dad is on the provincial lists, so I’m hoping he’ll get elected. In the end, he does. He and Mum attend the inauguration at the Union Buildings. The country changes. 

Which ushers in the third thing in that year. Six months into our new democracy, the Rainbow Nation is in full swing. IFP has taken full control of the new KwaZulu-Natal, and my parents are at the AGM in Ulundi, along with my brother and I. I am now a little over ten years old. Dad is a new member of the Provincial Legislature, and all the fears of the  Things are looking up for the family. But the weekend ends in tragedy, and my whole life spins out of control. My brother’s death alters me permanently. It takes me many years to find any sort of peace about it. It is, in many ways, what makes me who I am today. 

So while this day is the birth of our freedom, inkululeko yethu, it is also tinged with other feelings for me. I cannot witness the majority of our nation, its twenty-first, without thinking of those other memories. 


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 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.

Translating KwaZulu-Natal’s Municipalities

On Thursday mornings, I teach Paul – though sometimes he ends up teaching me about by-elections or Hebrew grammar or pivot tables. This last Thursday, following the hype around the Umzimkhulu by-election (in isiZulu, ukhetho lokuchibiyela or ‘the election of filling in the gaps’), we ended up translating the names of KwaZulu-Natal’s municipalities (which isn’t as dull a job as you might think!).

Let’s start with the District Municipalities:

DC21 – Ugu > Water’s-edge

DC22 – Umgungundlovu > what-is-surrounded-by-elephants

DC23 – uThukela > named after the Thukela river, which probably means ‘the-one-that-gives-sudden-surprises’ (from the second meaning of thuka, the first meaning being ‘swear at’ or ‘abuse’)

DC24 – uMzinyathi > named after the uMzinyathi river, meaning ‘buffalo-homestead’

DC25 – Amajuba > literally, ‘the-doves’ – famously misheard as Majuba, the name of a battle-site in the first Anglo-Boer war.

DC26 – Zululand > quite self-explanatory, really.

DC27 – uMkhanyakude > ‘what-shines-from-afar’, a name for the fever-trees so prominent in this area

DC28 – uThungulu > ‘coastal bush made up of Natal plums’ (Carissa Grandiflora)

DC29 – iLembe > ‘the blade/hero’ – one of iNkosi Shaka kaSenzangakhona’s izithakazelo 

DC43 – Sisonke > ‘we are whole’

Ethekwini Metro > either ‘at the place of the thing with only one testicle’ or ‘at the bay’ – i.e. Durban


Under each of these district municipalities are the various local municipalites:

DC21 has Vulamehlo (Open-the-eyes), Umdoni (the water-myrtle tree, syzygium cordatum), Umzumbe (the heavy-weight-parcel river), Umuziwabantu (homestead-of-the-people), Ezingoleni (I’m reserving judgement on this one, because one of the meanings is a bit rough), and Hibiscus.

DC22 has Umshwathi ( the-walking-in-a-pathless-place-river, or the-river-that-slips-in-secretly), Umngeni (the-river-that-enters), Mpofana (the-little-Eland-river, the Zulu name for the Mooi), Impendle (the-bleakly-exposed-place), Msunduzi (the ‘Duzi’ river, the ‘river-that-shoves-things-aside’, which runs through Pietermaritzburg), Mkhambathini (at-the-place-resembling-a-flat-top-Camel-thorn-tree, the umkhambathi or acacia xanthophloea) and Richmond.

DC23 has Emnambithi (the tasty place), Indaka (the mud-and-dung-coloured place), Umtshezi (brick-red-place), Okhahlamba (in the place of the row of upward-pointing spears) and Imbabazane (the-stinging-nettle place). 

DC24 has Endumeni (the-place-of-thundering), Nqutu (uncertain, but probably to do with ‘the back of the head’), Msinga (the whirlpool) and Umvoti (the water river – highly imaginative).

DC25 has Newcastle, Emadlangeni (in-the-place-of-the-vultures) and Dannhauser.

DC26 has Edumbe (in-the-place-of-the-amadumbe-plants), Uphongolo (the-protruding-bluff-river-area), Abaqulusi (the-people-shivering-naked-in-the-cold, or the-people-who-reject-determinedly), Nongoma (unsure – please help me here) and Ulundi (the high pinnacle, the apex, the edge).

DC27 has Umhlabuyalingana (where-the-earth-is-equal), Jozini (in-the-place-of-the-broad-bladed-spear), Big 5 False Bay, Hlabisa (assist-in-the-sacrifice, or cause-to-pierce, or present-the-sacrificial-beast) and Matubatuba (possibly the-crumbled-up-pieces place).

DC28, lapho engikhulela khona, has Mfolozi (named after the Umfolozi or ‘Zig-Zag’ rivers), Umhlathuze (listed simply as ‘a river in Zululand’, the name suggests ‘the-river-that-goes-hláthu’, where hláthu denotes ‘working for a short time’), Ntambanana (perhaps a metathesis of Ntambamana, meaning ‘the early afternoon’), Umlalazi (the-whetstone-river-place), Mthonjaneni (at-the-springs) and Nkandla (this most controversial ‘forest district’ in KZN has a name possibly derived from the verb khandla, meaning ‘exhaust’, ‘fatigue’ and ‘weary’, has cognates like umkhandlu meaning ‘assembly of men’).

 DC29, the district of the Blade who conquered all others with sharpness (iLemb’eleq’amanye ngokukhalipha), has Mandeni (defying exact translation – help please), KwaDukuza (the site of the kraal-so-large-one-could-lose-one’s-way), Ndwedwe (unsure here – help needed) and Maphumulo (the place of the-tribe-where-resting-places-are-needed-on-account-of-danger). 

DC 43, the last lot, has Ingwe (the Leopard), KwaSani (Sani’s place), Greater Kokstad, Ubuhlebezwe (the-beauty-of-the-country) and Umzimkhulu (the-great-homestead-river). 

If reading these names sparks memories of each of the places they stand for, please tell me – they certainly remind me. 

What do you mean, ‘White Zulu’?

Some might be offended by the way I talk about myself, and some might even go so far as to say it’s impossible for someone to be White and a Zulu at the same time. So, this is a blog to explain what I mean by the name ‘White Zulu’.

If you don’t know anything about the amaZulu, then there’s a lot of explaining to do. If you do, skip to the next paragraph. The amaZulu are a people traditionally living in the south-eastern portion of South Africa, between the Indian Ocean to the East and the Drakensberg mountains to the West, and between the Ubombo mountains in the North and (arbitrarily) the umTamvuna River in the South. The boundaries of their traditional homeland have shifted over time, whether because of the colonial expansion of European empires, the wars between them and other groups of people, or the arbitrary boundaries drawn up first by white and then by black governments. When colonists from England and other European nations first came to this part of Africa, the amaZulu were organised under the paramount chieftainship of uShaka kaSenzangakhona, an inkosi of the Zulu household. They were pastoralists, herding cattle and engaging in agriculture. As a result of the various forces already mentioned, the amaZulu way of life has changed dramatically over the 180 years since the first contact between them and the European colonists. Some of this change will become apparent over the course of this blog and my other blogs.

The language of the amaZulu is isiZulu. It belongs to the isiNguni language sub-family, along with isiXhosa, seSwati, and isiNdebele (which is a fairly recent dialectical derivation of isiZulu compared to the other two). More broadly, it is part of the Bantu language family, spoken in one form or another in much of sub-Saharan Africa. The features of this language are very different from the Indo-European language family, to which English, French, Hindi, Greek and Russian (to name a few) belong. These differences will also become apparent over the course of this blog and my other blogs.   

So, knowing all this, how do I have a right to call myself a ‘White Zulu’? 

My father was raised speaking isiZulu, and learnt to speak English when he went to school. He has always been more comfortable in isiZulu than in English, using it in every facet of his life – making speeches in parliament, mediating land disputes and other conflict situations, farming, telling stories and making jokes in isiZulu. He is uMashinashina, Inkunzi ‘kayihleli, uSinqunte, uMasikisikisind’isilo sakhe. He raised me in isiZulu, growing up on a farm in eNtumeni, near eShowe in Zululand. 

My mother grew up in Johannesburg, and as a young woman became very involved in Women for Peace and the struggle against Apartheid. For driving medical supplies and other necessities into Soweto during the 1976 riots, she was given the name uKhanyisile (the one who brought the light). She met my father at the 1979 centenary of the Anglo-Zulu war at Ondini, the royal kraal of the Zulu household. She had already begun to learn isiZulu in Johannesburg, and this was accelerated by her marriage to my father. When she was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1999, she preached and conducted services in isiZulu. 

When I was born, I was taken home and presented to the people living with us on our farm, and the induna (village headman or foreman) gave me the name uMabhengwane, the wood owl. I grew up in a house where isiZulu was as common (and sometimes more common) than English. I traveled to political meetings and traditional events with my parents from when I was very little, and drank in the culture of the people around me. 

When the choice came for me at school, between isiZulu or Afrikaans, I immediately chose it. We were part of the first group given the opportunity to take isiZulu to Matric, and our ‘guinea-pig’ class was a wonderful place filled with the freedom of learning a language that had previously not been offered. 

When I left school, I began doing freelance translation work, both from isiZulu to English and from English to isiZulu, while studying Latin and Greek at University. My bilingual upbringing made my mind very receptive to new languages. 

So that’s the short answer as to why I’m calling this blog ‘White Zulu’ – you’ll have to read the rest to find out more.