L’esprit d’escalier

caution: this blog contains some swearing / isixwayiso: kunenhlamba kuleli blog

I had my fighting shoes on. Tan brown hightops, white t-shirt and jeans. I strode in there demanding justice, and was met with four occupied attendants.

So I sat down, and waited, and surveyed the battlefield.

Yellow. Everything was yellow. The colour of ubuhlanzo. I felt nauseated just sitting there.

Four potential opponents. Would it be the isimomondiya and isidudla on the right? Or inkwishelana and insizw’emfushane on the left?

I waited patiently, sitting, hearing the joy in people’s voices as they were told of the wonders that were in store in-store once they put their signature on the dotted line and handed over their money.

“Be careful”, I wanted to shout – “Qaphelani!”

Not all that is yellow is gold. No matter how much it glitters.

So, I waited, until finally I was caller number zero in the queue. Ground zero. Insizw’emfushane. Protocol observed (he opted for Joji, so I went with it), we got down to business.

“I’m here because it’s been two weeks since my wife’s phone was stolen, and we still haven’t heard anything from you guys. I see that Paul isn’t here. That’s lucky for him, cos he’s in a lot of shit. He hasn’t been responding to emails or answering phone calls.”

“When did you guys send in the claim form?”

“About two weeks ago.”

“Ok, let me phone them.”

Five minutes pass, during which time insizw’emfushane multi-tasks – first with a mate, ngesiJozi, about phones, then taking out the trash, then helping someone with photocopying. Eventually, as he’s finishing his call, he comes back to sit down.

“You see, the problem is that they don’t have any record of the ID number or the Cell Number on the system.”

“How can that be? She’s been paying the insurance each month. Paul must have fucked up somehow. We are going to escalate this – give me the number of someone higher up.”

“There’s only this one number for the Insurance people.”

“And a Manager? Where is he today?”

“Ah, no, there’s no Manager.”

At this point I lost it. Completely.

“What? What the fuck? You know what? We are taking you to the Ombudsman, and to court if we have to, because this is bullshit. Fuck this shit.”

And as I left, I declared “Fuck you” over my shoulder.

Now, that would have been the end of it. Except that one cocky motherfucker laughed. So ngishay’ i-handbrake turn and I walked back in there. Time for the Zulu dub.

I berated them all, in my biggest and shoutiest isiZulu voice (channeling Mntwana kaMinya’s spirit).  Along with the necessary berating body language, I used tone and pause to great effect, and broke all the usual rules for eye contact. In short, I was an angry white man shouting isiZulu fluently and with vigour.

But afterwards, of course, as I made my way shakily to my care, adrenalin coursing through my veins, I thought of better, meatier things to say.

So {L’esprit d’escalier} is in the curly brackets.

“Nihlekani?” {Ngiyinhlekiso kinina?}

“Sikhokh’ imali la” {Sikhokhel’ iholo lenu}

“Kune-contract” {Kunesivumelwano ngaphakathi kwethu}

“Wumthetho” {Sizobonana enkantolo}

“Sukani!” {Tsek, bosathanina}

Needless to say that as I engaged in a translated version of my previous exit from the shop, there was no more laughter. There was a stunned silence.

As a conclusion, into this space here, I add a few other imprecations:

Tsek, MTN, and all your Insurance Agents.  You lie. Since you never read your HelloPeter page, I doubt you’ll ever read this. Ninamanga.

Tsek, Paul at MTN Killarney. You are a lying shit. And you are fraudulent in your business dealings. Tsek. Suka. Unamanga.


Gender pt 1: -lili & the basics

This is the first part of a three-part series on Gender ngesiZulu, which is something I’ve recently been researching for two different friends.

This is an ancient or ur-Bantu root meaning ‘bed’. It’s very different from the word u(lu)cansi, meaning ‘sleeping mat’ or (euphemistically) ‘sex’. There are no cognates of -lili meaning ‘bed’ specifically.

This root is used in only two of the noun classes – the abstract (ubu-) and the constructed (isi-/izi-). Firstly, and perhaps most easily, have a look at ubu-lili:

  Sex, Sex Gender

            ubulili besifazane (female gender)

            ubulili besilisa (male gender)

The two examples give a clue about isiZulu’s inherent dualism – there are two genders, in much the same way as French or English or others. The ubu- class is ideal for representing this idea, because that’s what it’s for – ideas, essences, abstracts. But, as with almost all the ubu- nouns, there is something concrete from which it is distilled – in this case, isi-lili. Have a look at this one:

The sleeping place on the floor of the hut

             1. isilili somfazi

            left-hand side of the hut, where the woman sleeps;

feminine grammatical gender

            2. isilili sendoda

right-hand side of the hut, where the man sleeps;

masculine grammatical gender

So, if you’ve never seen an abstract representation of a hut, allow me to show you:


Each gender would have equal access to three key places in the hut or indlu – the door (umnyango), the hearth (iziko) and the sacred place (umsamo).

Take a closer look at the second parts of those two examples – umfazi and indoda, starting with umfazi:

  1. a married woman or wife (NB: do not use this word to denote ‘a woman’)
  1. a term of endearment or admiration for a little girl who is particularly good at domestic work
  2. a term of insult for a loose woman

Well, that escalated quickly. Maybe you’re thinking ‘Perhaps it’s not just with umfazi, let’s have a look at indoda first before making up our minds’. Here you go:

  1. an adult male person, a man.
  2. a husband (when used with possessive or in context with a woman)
  3. an able person of either sex; a manly person. (contrast with i(li)nina)

So the word umfazi tends toward the negative, whereas the word indoda contains only positive and somehow goes beyond describing those who are biologically male.

In order to take a closer look at the understanding of a man, let’s look at the other words using the same isiqu of the word – uku-doda, ubu-doda and isi-doda.


  1. be a man, act the man, do the work of a man
  2. do the man’s work for someone


  1. manliness
  2. semen (a euphemism for amalotha)


  1. male sexual organs (a euphemism for umthondo and amasende
  2. semen

So basically men are sexually defined, in a definition that links to a gendered division of labour (more on this in part 2).

Looking at words that modify the isiqu slightly, things get very interesting:

in-dodana (lit. little-man)

  1. son
  2. son-in-law

      in-dodakazi (lit. female-little-man)

  1. daughter
  2. daughter-in-law

So children are associated with the male, even to the extent of feminising a diminutive of the word for man in order to create a word for daughter.

There are similar derivations from um-fazi, and this is where our quest leads us now:


womanhood; the state of being a married woman

isi-fazana / isi-fazane

  1. woman-folk (a collective term)
  2. the pronominal form owesifazane (a human of the women-folk) is the usual term for woman


poor sort of women (a collective term)


  1. a contemptible or common woman
  2. the praise name of ingungumbane, the porcupine.

Glancing at these four words shows that there is a high degree of insult associated with the words derived from umfazi – and sadly this is not where it ends (a comprehensive discussion of insults and other derogatory words that are gender-specific is still to come).

There are some equivalents with other words from indoda, including:


insignificant man, contemptible man.


group of worthless fellows, contemptible villagers.

But in the end, there does not seem to be the edge to these words that there is for the feminine words.

But why is there no equivalent for isifazane for the words derived from indoda? Why is there no isidodana or isidojana? This question is answered by the use of a separate root entirely, -lisa, in the form


  1. male kind, men-folk (collective term)
  2. the pronominal form owesilisa (a human of the men-folk) is the most neutral word for man
  3. semen


  1. male, male person
  2. able man, daring man

So, once more, the words for male are associated not only with semen, but also with positive qualities. It is quite clear that, even at this most basic level of understanding, gender ngesiZulu is a contested concept that weighs in heavily in favour of the male.

In the next part of this series of gender, I will be looking at different words for humans in terms of gender roles and actions.

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.

‘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?

Beniphethe? – a pantoum

As part of our organisation’s ‘Home Week’, my dear friend John led us in a reflection on the intersectionality of all forms of exclusion and prejudice, and did so by guiding us in a pantoum exercise.

He asked us to reflect on a moment, and more specifically an interaction with another person, in which we were caused to question our unconscious prejudices or the ways in which we excluded others.

The product of this exercise, which is grounded in oral poetic forms and devices and traditions, is a 20-line poem. I also added a few lines at the end, in order to reach the fullest reflection on the incident that I could possibly reach.


I was sitting and eating, with you and the others who had been holding vigil

I can feel the close dark heat beating at the windows, in time to the chanting

I can taste the umngqusho in my mouth, my ears filled with isiZulu

We are finally resting, after mass and my translation, and we are eating.

I can feel the close dark heat beating at the windows, in time to the chanting

I feel the exhilaration of the group, the exhalation of catharsis

We are finally resting, after mass and my translation, and we are eating.

I feel as though my job is done, and fairly well – I’m in the clear

I feel the exhilaration of the group, the exhalation of catharsis

I am emptied out, scraped clean, pushed beyond

I feel as though my work is done, and fairly well – I’m in the clear

I know that there were things I messed up, but I’m hoping for forgiveness

I am emptied out, scraped clean, pushed beyond

I am not strong, I am in fact totally vulnerable.

I know that there were things I messed up, but I’m hoping for forgiveness

You noticed, you saw the weakness, and you asked the question

I am not strong, I am in fact totally vulnerable.

I can taste the umngqusho in my mouth, my ears filled with isiZulu

You noticed, you saw the weakness, and you asked the question

Beniphethe? – were y’all in a position of using people like instruments?

I am emptied out, scraped clean, pushed beyond

You noticed, you saw the weakness, and you asked the question

I was sitting and eating, with you and the others who had been holding vigil.


I have been trying to write about this incident for a long time, and this was the first instant (four years later) in which I was able to reflect on it. I can fill in the gaps a little – I had been hired to translate (English to Zulu) for a Jesuit at the Fatima Pilgrimage near Empangeni. The translation occurred between 1 and 3 am, which is an exhausting time to be engaging in any mental gymnastics. Afterwards, in the only building on the site apart from the church itself, we broke our fast. Enquiries were made about my origins, to which I replied that I had grown up near Eshowe (pointing roughly Southwards through the darkness), and more specifically Entumeni near the small game reserve there. His voice rang out over the sounds of eating, and he asked me:


were y’all in a position of using people like instruments?

were you  and your people ‘in charge’ / were y’all landowners?

To which there could never be any satisfactory reply. For which I could offer only equivocation and explanation. By which I was forced to evaluate the true extent of shared responsibility for a dehumanising system. In which I gained new insight into my role as a creature of two spirits.

Ingqalasizinda – an (unexpected) Word Route

It’s been a busy week so far – a 3500-word backtranslation and two sets of radio scripts for a retail chain, in between the usual paths of public holidays and normal weekdays teaching around Gauteng, landing without a sound at a creative and refreshing hour’s lesson with Mr Thursday in Yeoville (after a late night as a result of procrastination). And it’s taken me the better part of this thursday to come to terms with a towering isivivane of mail and tasks and to-do lists. So here I am, as WhiteZulu, wondering what to write.

I pull out the black journal and see if there’s anything there, but the notes for the two translation projects are putting me off a little for now (I’m not in the mood to be outraged at the disrespect shown to isiZulu by both of the other translations I encountered), so I page forward.

I see the headlines from Tuesday, some ticked where I tried to tweet them in a carefully AC’d seminar room above Rivonia looking East. It’s like sifting through driftwood, looking at these two pages. Decontextualised, I try to remember which umfundisi it was who was killed, and where.

And then I find a word worthy of a blog:


{noun} {common animals noun class} {singular}

compound of ingqala & (i)sizinda [by analogy with ingayizivele]

ingqala: A first sight (i.e. thing seen for the first time); a first occasion; rare or surprising sight, action, or occurrence; something of surpassing beauty or excellence {derived from the verb ukuqala}

isizinda: 1. the remaining contents of a vessel; 2. Origin, essence of anything; 3. Ancestral kraal; 4. Chief woman of the ancestral kraal, or woman appointed to bear the heir to the kraalship; 5. Heir to ancestral kraalship; trustee for other members of family in the estate of his father. {derived from the verb ukuzinda}

And the modern meaning? You can only find it in Nyembezi (1992):

-qalásizinda (íngqalásizinda) bz

amalungiselelo enziwayo esizeni noma endaweni lapho kuzokwakhiwa khona okusondeza okuzoba yizidingo.

ingqalasizinda n.

preparations made on an isiza or a place where building will take place in order to bring closer by hurrying forward that which will be necessary

In other words, ‘infrastructure’.

And with that, I’m off to do some real work. If you know a little Latin, try working out the root of the word ‘infrastructure’.

06/06/2013 Isolezwe Headlines (selected)

Basola ukuthi uzingqongqisile obebalisa ngendlala – 30 points {front page headline}

Basola ukuthi uzibulele obehlala ebalisa ngosizi – 25 points {page 3 article}

Owesifazane waseNhlangakazi eNdwedwe obehlala ebalisa ngokweswela kwakhe nomndeni wakhe, kusolwa ukuthi uzithungele ngomlilo waba ngamalahle, kwasinda umzukulu wakhe ngempelasonto kusha indlu abebekuyona.

Bashaqekile ngohlahlele intombi wabe esezibulala – 20 points {page 3 article}

Sishaqise abaningi isenzo sowesilisa ohlahlele ngocelemba intombi yakhe ehlathini ngaphambi kokuthi aphuze ushevu wokubulala amakhizane maqede wazilengisa.

UMlaba akasiboni isidingo sokuphawula ngokaManase – 10 points {page 6 story}

Obeyimeya kaMasipala weTheku, uMnuz Obed Mlaba, uthi akayingeni indaba yokuphawula ngokuvela kwegama lakhe embikweni kaManase wenkohlakalo yezigidi zamarandi. Uthi akasiboni isidingo sokuphawula ngawo ngoba awusho lutho.

UMchunu wexwayisa othishanhloko – 5 points {page 14 article}

Ungqongqoshe wezeMfundo KwaZulu-Natal usexwayise osikhwili phambana nobhoko bothishanhloko, abagweva nezitifiiketi zabafundi abebenza u-matric nyakenye ngoba bengazibuyisanga izincwadi, ukuthi abkuyeke lokhu ngoba akuvumelekile. 

Ufukala abanye olokhu edlondlobala kwezamabhizinisi – 35 points {page 26}

Kudingeka kubanjiswane ukuze kongiwe ngendlela imvelo – kuloba uDkt Bandile Mkhize, Isikhulu esiphezulu seKZN Ezemvelo Wildlife – 35 points {page 27 column, ‘Siwela imifula’}

IChina izotshala u-R3 billion: Radebe – 5 points {page 30}

Kuzohlomula ngamathuba emisebenzi inqwaba yabantu baKwaZulu-Natal abakhele izindawo zamakhosi njengoba osomabhizinisi baseChina, ngokubambisana nohulumeni wesifundazwe behlela ukutshala imali engu-R3 billion emhlabeni ongamahektha angu-40 000.

As usual, feel free to post translations – some of the opening sentences were interesting, so I’ve included them here. What always amazes me is the degree to which dialect is encouraged in the paper.