izimvubu nezingwenya

In all the change and chaos this week brought to things in general, what with last-minute about-turns and an 11th-hour resignation, there was one little gem that I choose to pick out.

It involves hippopotami, crocodiles, and isaga sesiZulu (a Zulu proverb).

You see, just before 18:30 on Wednesday (usuku lwezithandani, futhi) I was on my way to a lesson – and, of course, I was listening to uKhozi FM. Specifically, I was listening to Abasikibebunda, the evening current affairs programme – and when I tuned in it sounded like Msholozi had actually passed away. An anonymous reporter was recounting everything that had happened in the years that he had been president, obituary-style. And then the presenter welcomed Nhlanhla Mntaka to the show – a political analyst and editor of Bayede newspaper. I’ve mentioned his other engagement with uKhozi FM before – Hlaziya ipolitiki ngolimi lwakho (Analyse politics in your language) – and I am a great fan of his work. Perhaps I am an even greater fan after the story I’m about to relate.

With the commercials needing to be aired, and with the headlines at 18:30 drawing near, the presenter interrupts the analyst’s flow of speech, and says:

MfokaMntaka, sesiphethe-nje – ngifuna siphinde sibuyele lapho enkulumeni uMengameli  abe nayo, ekhethekile, noSABC. Nokuyilapho phinde futhi khona ngaphambi kokuba aphethe inkulumo, akuchasise khona ukuthi-ke kungase kube ne-crisis eNingizimu Afrika, uma ubheka indlela lolu daba olusingathwe ngayo ngubuholi be-ANC.

{Man of the Mntaka clan, we’re wrapping up now – I want that we return to the speech that the president gave, the special one, with the SABC. And specifically the point just before he concluded his speech, where he explained that there may actually be a ‘crisis’ in South Africa, if one looks at the way that this issue was dealt with by the leadership of the ANC.}

And he replies:

IsiZulu sinaso isisho. Sithi isiZulu: Ak’kho zinyane lemvubu ladliwa zingwenya kwacweba isiziba. Angikwazi ukuchaza ngokudlula lapho.

{the Zulu language has a saying. What the language says is: it doesn’t happen that the hippo calf is eaten by crocodiles and the pool (in which they both dwell) remains clear. I am not able to explain this more accurately than that.}

And it ends there. The presenter thanks him for his input, and the show cuts to commercial. A proverb is considered a perfect answer to the topic under discussion.

But how does this proverb relate to the issue at hand? Who is the hippo-calf, and who the crocodiles?

Firstly, the way the proverb was used in the broadcast is a variation of the more standard one: “Izinyane lemvubu kalidliwanga yingwenya kwacweba iziziba” {with the hippo’s calf not eaten by a crocodile, the pools remained clear}.

Here’s how uSolwazi Nyembezi explains it:

  1. Inqolobane, ekhasini 158: uma uzwise omunye ubuhlungu obukhulu, lindela ukuthi naye hleze aziphindisele. {if you cause another great pain, expect that they will of course exact revenge}
  2. Zulu proverbs, page 79: Crocodiles and hippopotami live in the water. The crocodile, if it should ever eat the hippo calf, must expect trouble from the parent. The water cannot be clear because of the blood of the calf, and also because of the fight of the parent. Therefore, when one does something which hurts extremely, one should expect results.

So, there are a few more questions. Is Zuma the hippo calf? In which case, who’s the hippo cow or bull that will defend him? Is Ramaphosa the crocodile?

While I leave you to ponder the effect of the battle between a hippo and a crocodile on our economy and our daily lives, I want to say one more thing.

I think it is absolutely awesome that an answer that makes sense, gets listeners thinking and that is culturally resonant can be expressed as a single proverb.

Ngubunyoninco bangempela.




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 some 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.

icala ngumphikwa – a charge is a thing denied

I understand it now.

When you’re faced with guilt, the automatic response is complete and utter denial. That explains Mr Shifty’s (aka Msholozi’s) actions of late. He’s issuing a programmatic response in accordance with this bit of wisdom, this isaga.

Here’s how it works. First, icala (3.2.2-8.9):

  1. anything wrong, deserving of complaint; a defect.
  2. a mistake, error or fault
  3. a crime, an offence against the law, guilt, guiltiness, blame, and responsibility for wrong
  4. a charge, law-case, or law-suit
  5. debt

Let your mind wander over that list of five meanings a bit, and you’ll see what the underlying issue is. The word is related to the word icala (, meaning an edge or extremity, or the side of a road or the bank of a river. What is implied is that the taking of sides in any of the five meanings is essential. One cannot stand in the middle of the road, for fear of homicidal taxis. One also cannot stand in the middle of a river, as equally homicidal izingwenya might be waiting for your slightest mis-step.

I almost feel like that’s enough, but one must continue.

The second part of this proverb is the verb-type-thingy in the sentence (the predicative). Here’s what it means:


Now, for a start the word ‘umphikwa’ is an archaism. More modern isiZulu might say ‘yimpiko’ or even ‘luphiko’, whereas this word is neither of those. In brief, impiko would be seasonal denial, u(lu)phiko would be the complex fluid process of denial, whereas umphikwa would be the simple solid denial.

It would mean that the act of ukuphika here was conceptualised as a stock refusal to admit guilt, a formulaic reply of ‘innocent, your honour’ in response to any implication of those initial five meanings. It is in the same group as the words for ‘ritual’, ‘function’, ‘law’ and ‘homestead’. You see where I’m going with this. These are patterns of behaviour that continue to occur, without much variation. They are not complex.

What about ukuphika, then? Anyone who’s ever studied isiZulu knows what it means grammatically – the negative form of a verb-type-thingy. ‘A’s abound. All very confusing.

But it also works as a verb, the umqondophika or antonym (see what I did there?) of the all purpose ‘affirmative’ verb, ukuvuma. Here’s what ukuphika means:

  1. enter into strife; be obstinate; wrangle, argue; compete
  2. deny, contradict; repudiate
  3. rely on (used with the instrumental adverb – nga-)

I think that quite accurately describes the recent circuses in the place once called Parliament, with an added bit of cronyism at the end. If you want to say no, and are spoiling for a fight, you use this word as your gauntlet. Amahemb’amhlophe will remove you from the chamber accordingly. But I digress.

So – back to the proverb for one last look. Here’s what uSolwazi Nyembezi (one of my personal linguistic and cultural heroes) has to say about it:

When one has committed a wrong, with many people the first thought that comes to them is to defend themselves as much as possible. Therefore they will deny all knowledge of the crime, until by questioning and cross-questioning they are made to confess. One always makes a desperate effort to save his skin.

I think the Prof’s words here are most apposite, and as I said at the beginning of this, sengiyakuqonda.

The next blog will be around the proverbs to do with ubuqili – cunning, trickery, craftiness and cleverness. Maybe Mr Shifty will make another appearance, with his gang of cronies in close attendance.


I was 10. I remember that, because so many things happened that year. I remember you, in your first version – the A4 Interim Constitution of 1994. I still have it, sitting in my bookshelf – a pale blue cover, printed on the same paper as the last Apartheid laws. I wonder who was commissioned to make the rather abstract drawing for the cover. It was my first contact with law, and as I began to read it I realised how many voices had been woven together to create you.

When you were amended, in 1996, my father proudly brought home your little A5 self. In his office in Parliament on Longmarket Street, protected by the imperious statue of Queen Victoria, I remember that there was also one translated into isiZulu. I respected you, especially since you had such an impressive name – Umthethosisekelo. You were more than law. You were a declaration of our commitment to a new idea of nationhood.

In high school, whenever I debated, I proudly displayed you on the table in front of me. My arguments featured highlights of your best features – the rights of all citizens, the organs of state, the checks and balances. You inspired me in my teenage idealism. I carried you with me to international student leadership conferences in the United States, opening to your first pages to wow the monolinguals with our anthem and other stirring visionary statements in many different vernaculars.

When I left home, I left you behind. I was confident that you would remain unchanged, a solid piece of the 90’s to prevent the chaos everyone feared. I heard of various attacks, and of your defence. I rooted for you through all the chaos of the first decade of the third millenium, through denialism, xenophobia, corruption and abuse.

And when I moved up to Joburg, in the second decade, I visited your court. I marvelled at that shrine to the basic truth of your law, set in apposition to the abuses perpetrated before you existed.

A few years later, one of my new students found an old isiZulu version for me. I treasured you in that form, the ornate beauty of your formal Zulu a marker for me of how the language could be used to express visionary and life-changing concepts. I taught you to the next generation, proud that I had known you for your entire life. They wrote essays on your rights and organs, checks and balances. They were also inspired by your visionary quality.

You were then 20 years old. You had weathered some heavy storms. But when I saw the disregard being shown you and your protectors, I despaired. Powerful men and women didn’t seem to recognise you any more, even when your honour guard decided in your favour. And when, in your 22nd year, the most powerful man of them all was finally taken to task, we waited with bated breath.

Last week a vote of no confidence in a man who has been found to have violated you and your law, our law, turned into a vote of no confidence in you. 225 representatives of the ruling party voted that they preferred a man who violates the most basic of laws. They voted that they don’t care about you, or your most basic principles.

So what do we do now? There’s no one else. No other law is called, in most of the vernaculars of our country, “the foundation of law”. All other law stems from you. So if you are ignored, defiled and violated, what does that mean about all your children?

To paraphrase Plato’s Crito: “Do you imagine that a state can continue to exist and not be turned upside down, if the legal judgments which are pronounced in it have no force but are nullified and destroyed by private persons?”

I hope that this is not your obituary. I hope that you will not be cut down and trampled, having barely reached a quarter-century.


Last weekend saw the breaking of an interesting story, about how one of the president’s wives allegedly poisoned him. It also saw a very interesting response from the Office of the Presidency, via our arch-Newspeaker, Mac Maharaj. I didn’t hear the response in English, but ngesiZulu (paraphrasing except for the important bit at the end):

Ihhovisi likaMengameli lichitha njengokuhlambalaza lawa mahlebezi, lithi uMaNtuli akamdlisanga uMsholozi ushevu
The office of the President dismisses these rumours as slanderous, stating that MaNtuli didn’t feed Msholozi poison. 

This is an interesting response, especially given the various signs to the contrary – how zacile he looked last year after the elections, the fact that she wasn’t at the SONA, nanjalonjalo.

It also got me thinking, as you can see. Khethiwe and I had already had a discussion about the different kinds of “poisoning” that are part of the culture of the amaZulu, and what each one means. Then I’d specualted about which one our Propaganda Ministry was liable to use. And I got it wrong. 

You see, there are a few different words they didn’t use in their statement. 

Before we jump in, let’s look at what the verb means:

ukudlisa         causative form of ukudla

1. cause to eat

2. share a meal, help to eat

3. administer poison

The third meaning is so strong that all nouns derived from this isiqu have that meaning and none of the others:

i(li)dliso        1. poisoning

       2. poison (especially to be administered via the mouth)

isidliso        poison

Which means that this is the perfect verb to use for poisoning. So what about the noun?

ushevu singular only


It has no cognate verbs, and no other traces in the language apart from this one entry. It also interestingly fits into the Human Names Noun Class, like uGogo and ubhatata. In most instances, when a non-human thing is in this NC it’s because the name is in answer to the question “kubizwa kanjani le nto?” (What is this thing called?). 

However, the dictionary does suggest comparison with another word, ubuthi.

ubuthi poison; a poisonous concoction

ukuphuzisa ubuthi = to administer poison

Two things immediately jump out: firstly, this kind of poison seems to be associated with things that are consumed in liquid form (ukuphuzisa = to cause drinking); secondly, this word is derived from the noun isiqu “thi”, which is always associated with botanical things.

umuthi a tree or shrub or plant

medicine or medicinal charm

wood or wooden substance

u(lu)thi a stick; a long, slender wooden stick

a thin, emaciated person or animal

What this link means is that this kind of poison would be something concocted from various botanical sources, to be taken in fluid form. Again, this is not the noun that was used by Mac the Knife’s team of spin-doctors. 

In looking at ubuthi, there is another word suggested for comparison:

isihlungu derived from Ur-Bantu -kungu = bitterness, poison

poison (whether of snake or other), snake venom

antidote to poison


medicinal treatment to ensure venomous results when one fights or strikes 

This word is interesting because it has very common cognates denoting pain (ubuhlungu and izinhlungu) and has its isiqu in the verb ukuhlunga meaning “separate, set apart, differentiate, sort out or winnow”. So the poison or pain is the thing that winnows?

It’s also interesting because of its apparently antithetical meanings of “poison” and “antidote”, which is not as uncommon as you might at first believe. The Greek word pharmakon has the same meaning, and in my past life as a classicist I presented a paper on the way that the word worked (in a similar way to “intelezi” ngesiZulu), and how modern medicine continues to use poisons (such as warfarin) to treat or counteract serious health issues.

Before going too far down the rabbit hole, let’s take stock:

The statement given by the Presidency stated that MaNtuli had in fact not caused Msholozi to consume (probably in solid form) a substance that was poisonous. 

The Propaganda Ministry didn’t use the other words, probably because it didn’t want to confuse an already confusing issue. Probably.

But there’s this nagging doubt in my mind, backed up by other details from the news report such as her expulsion from the compound and the Pres’s ill health last year. 

There’s the fact that, in a polygamous household, there is always tension of one sort or another. And hierarchical tension is often the cause of “alternative responses” such as witchcraft and poisoning – but what doesn’t make sense is what MaNtuli would stand to gain from the President’s ill-health or even (gasp!) his death.

So here’s my take on it – if MaNtuli was implicated in the ukuzaca kukaMsholozi, then what is likely is that she was not giving him a poison (ushevu), but rather some kind of medico-magical preparation to re-ignite his favour towards her following various allegations of infidelity on her part. And perhaps, just perhaps, Msholozi had an adverse reaction to this preparation. The fact that the Russians were the ones to cure him is not surprising – they have a long history of being adept poisoners (whichever word you choose here), and would be better equipped to administer the appropriate antidote. 

So that’s your dose of conspiracy for this morning. I hope you go out and find an appropriate antidote. I hear that the truth works really well in that regard. 

JGZ (aka Msholozi)

You may know him by many different names, some more flattering or familiar than others. JGZ. JZ. Jacob. Msholozi. (Dis)honourable Mr President.

In my classes, many of my students ask me what his name means, and it’s a side-track on which I am happy to embark. So let’s have a look.

Jacob. Biblical Name. Treacherous brother of Esau who stole his birthright by careful application of fur to his arms and face. His name famously means “he who grasps the heel” as he was born holding on to his slightly older twin’s foot. The name also means “the one who supplants (the rightful heir)”. No wonder he changed his name to Israel a bit later. I’m sure you’ve all heard of Israel.

Ten points to the first non-Zulu to pronounce the Pres’ second name correctly. No, that ‘sh’ sound is not the way you pronounce ‘hl’. Think Welsh.


(not gej-lay-ee-shlekh-ee-sah)

There are two parts to this name (which a less respectful commentator might call his ‘real name’ in contrast to his ‘slave name’). Firstly, there’s the Gédle bit. It’s an ideophone (go here for more info about these wonderful things), and it denotes the following:

a grating sound, as of wagon-wheels; a rumbling noise

It’s linked to the verb uku-gedla, meaning

1. grind with the teeth; make a gnawing sound
2. cause a gnawing pain, gripe
3. gnaw something hard; gnaw away; saw into; chop at; eat into
4. bring down, kill off (as by witchcraft)
5. produce a grating sound, as when breathing during bronchitis
6. do down, backbite, defraud, destroy a good name

What I say to my students when they ask my how one verb can have so many different meanings is that, in actual fact, the meanings are all contained in the one verb. It’s English that makes them different. Basically, this verb means “do the gédle thing”.

There are many different nouns and verbs derived from this verb/ideophone root:

isi-gedla: an ox with horns pointing downwards, or a pair of clippers
ulu-gedla: cockscomb, crest, gravelly soil
in-gedlane: one who defrauds or despoils; a backbiter, informer
isi-gedle: loose stones
uku-gedleza: to rattle, rumble, creak; to cut down or in two at one stroke

I think you’ll agree that the first part is generally not positive – grind someone down at one stroke until they are left loose-limbed and probably in two different pieces. So what does the second part mean?

My class 9s and upwards would tell you that the verb is hleka, and that it has a causative impambosi (if you know not what strange beast an impambosi is, go here). I like telling my students that uku-hleka is derived from the adjective -hle (positive, good, beautiful, ordered), and that it means “be beautiful”, as when you “laugh” or “smile” you are at your most beautiful. In fact, the verb is actually derived from another ideophone, hléke, denoting splitting apart the way your face does when you laugh or smile.

So far, though, this is looking like a nice antidote to the first part of our president’s name. But what does it mean when you attach a causative to hleka? Basically, it makes “make someone laugh” or “cause laughter”. That doesn’t sound too bad – just that the person is comical in some way. Inhlekiso is less positive – “the subject of ridicule” or “laughing-stock”. So hlekisa would mean “make a laughing-stock of someone or something”.

However, we’re missing that -yi-, which is an object concord. No mention is made of exactly which noun is the object, but this one usually refers to the most important noun in the seasonal noun class – inkomo. In phrases like “uyihlabe esikhonkosini”, the -yi- is the object concord for the cow that you have just stabbed at the third cervical vertebra, thus killing it swiftly. However, it could also be the concord for indoda (a man), intombi (an unmarried girl or woman), inkosi and others.

Let’s put it all together now – Gedle-yi-hlekisa could mean:

{grind-or-kill-until-disjointed} – {the cow or man or girl as object} – {while ridiculing it}

Basically, the person who reduces you to a rattling sack of bones while chuckling at you. Take note – his behaviour in Parliament recently is just him staying committed to his name.

So, having looked at his first two names, let’s have a look at his isibongo (his surname).

Zuma is a very common surname in KZN, and you’re likely to encounter clan-members all over the province. However, one of the traditional “clan seats” is kwaNxamalala, just up the hill from where my parents currently live.

The clan’s name is derived from a verb, uku-zuma, which means:

surprise, take by surprise, take unawares

It is derived from an Ur-Bantu verb -uwima, meaning “hunt”. A variant of the verb exists, and would be significant to our president’s wives for reasons which I will shortly explain.

That variant is uku-juma, which means:

take by surprise, take unawares, attack unexpectedly

Incidentally, both verbs are used figuratively to denote suddenly being ambushed by sleep, in the verbs’ neuter forms – uku-zumeka and uku-jumeka. Now the reason why I bring this other verb up is that his wives and children would not ever be able to use the verb uku-zuma, as a result of the practice of inhlonipho (for more on this, see here). They would, if wanting to refer to someone taking them by surprise, use uku-juma.

Uku-juma has a more transparent derivation than the Z version – from the ideophone ju, denoting something

dropping down suddenly as when shot

So to juma something is to do the action which results in what your hunting dropping down suddenly when hit by your thrown isagila or umkhonto. Same then goes for uku-zuma, though there is no correlative ideophone zu. Incidentally a duplication of the ideophone would give you júju, which denotes “hurling” or “tossing”. Ukujuja means “beat cooked vegetables into a mash; urge on or goad; and perish”. Read into that what you will.

Finally, if you put aside all of these other names, our president is most often called Msholozi. If you know nothing of izithakazelo, go here. Basically, uMsholozi is one of the famous ancestors of the Zuma clan, and is the agentive noun for the verb uku-sholoza, which means:

act in a preoccupied, uninterested manner
stand aloof
be unsociable
act guiltily

I think that’s where I’ll end.


You know why I was prompted to look this word up. You know what’s recently been in the news.

This word is mentioned once in Vilakazi & Doke’s dictionary, and it is prefaced by (Mod.), meaning that in 1958 it was a ‘Modern’ term. Here’s what the entry says:

a private lover (of either sex); a paramour

It’s related to a verb, too – shendeza. The verb means:

have a paramour; flirt

I’m unsatisfied by the thinness of etymology for the word, so I go searching for something more. In Mbatha (2006), the definition of ishende is:

umuntu enithandana naye ngokufihla; isincanakazana

tr. a person with whom you have a love-relationship in secret; {this word isn’t cross-referenced in Mbatha, although it probably just means ‘your little female bit on the side’ as it’s derived from the adjective -ncane meaning ‘small’}.

So I’m still not satisified, and I head for Nyembezi (1992). I’m disappointed again, as it appears that Mbatha simply borrowed the definition from his dictionary.

However, Nyembezi does have a definition for isincanakazana:

owesifazane othanda owesilisa, isincinza, isingane, ishende

a female person who loves a male person, a concubine, a very special friend, a paramour

Incidentally, the word for concubine (isincinza) is derived from the word for ‘taking a pinch of snuff’. Yoh.

Looking for some redeeming feature in the sea of acceptable infidelity, I give up when I find Mbatha offering the following example sentence for the verb shendeza:

Ungacabangi ukuthi ukushendeza lokhu kusha, kudala kabi

Don’t think that having an ishende is something new, (as) it’s (actually) terribly old.