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Getting to grips with our languages

| March 17, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Tessa Dowling

We all want to praise Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, especially now that he is an honoured ancestor, but somehow our words of love and admiration just don’t seem strong or deep enough.

The words penned on cards left with flowers outside his Johannesburg home seemed sweet and sincere (‘Rest in peace, tata’; ‘We will never forget you’; ‘Hero of the struggle, our Madiba’), but also a little lame, lacking in passion.

Maybe we need to get inspiration from Xhosa praise poets (or iimbongi), who know how to inspire, to get to the deep crazy heart of things with words that click and pop and phrases that pierce your soul. Praises that make the bones of the ancestors shake!1 Mandela himself, in his autobiography, talks about how a Xhosa praise poet made him realise how important his Xhosa identity was to him.

After a rousing performance by the famous imbongi S.E.K. Mqhayi, at his school in Healdtown, Mandela admits that he began to see himself as “a Xhosa first and an African second”.2

It might have been that very performance, during which the poet referred to Europeans as the Milky Way, who “quarrel over plenty”, and to the Xhosa as “a proud and powerful people”,3 that led Mandela famously to remark: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”4 So if we really want to understand the Xhosa side of Nelson Mandela, what better way than through a few lines from poems dedicated to the great man himself, in his own language.

Leapfrogger, Strutter

Sokhawulela (Leapfrogger) and Ngqolomsila (Strutter) are clan praises and nicknames of the Madibas, and therefore of Nelson Mandela. Dlomo, one of Mandela’s ancestors, became chief by defeating his elder brother, Hlanga. Thus, because he seized Hlanga’s right to succession, Dlomo was then called Sokhawulela (Leapfrogger). “After defeating his brother, Dlomo became very proud and walked around with pride showing his success to everyone, then he was bestowed the praise name.”5

 Long stick to beat nations

Mandela’s height is magnified in the new statue outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria,6 but hyperbole with reference to the tallness of our favourite leader is not something new. Sithole likens Mandela’s height to a long stick:

Undincamisile fafa olude lukaMandela,
Undincamisile ntonga ende yokubetha izizwe,

(You have overcome me, tall one of Mandela,
You have overcome me, long stick used to beat nations.)7

Zolani Mkiva, the leader’s official praise poet, in describing Mandela’s tallness, says his uxhongo (long leg) could penetrate the depths of a deep pool:

Bathi isiziba siviwa ngodondolo
Kodwa into kaMandela isiva ngoxhongo.
(They say the depth of the pool is tested with a long stick
But the son of Mandela tests it with a leg.)8

Another poet, D.L.P. Yali-Manisi, refers to Mandela as Ingxangxosi ehamba ngamadolo yakwaHala (The secretary bird that walks on knees from Hala).9

Mandela fighting for all ethnic groups Mandela’s fight against apartheid and for the liberation of all black people, irrespective of ethnicity, is foregrounded in this poem, again by Yali-Manisi:

Ubakhonzile abaMbo nabaNguni;
Wabakhonzile abeSuthu nabaTshwana;
Wawakhonzile amaZulu kaSenzangakhona;
Wawakhonzile amaSwazi namaNdebele;
Wawakhonzile amaTshona, amaNyasa namaKhalanga;
Wadibanisile izizwe ezikhulu nezincinane.(You have served abaMbo and abaNguni;
You have served abeSuthu and abeTshwana;
You have served amaZulu of Senzangakhona;
You have served amaSwazi and amaNdebele;
You have served amaTshona, amaNyasa and
You brought huge and small nations together.)10

Mandela as humble

Mandela’s humility is also revealed by Shasha in the poem UMandela enkundleni (Mandela in court), in which he is presented as saying:

Andinamoya wabunjubaqa,
Wokuphehla inyhoko-nyhoko;
Andinantlonti yabuqwebedu
Yokuthanda ukuqhushumbisa;
Hayi, hayi mna andinjalo.
(I do not have a rude spirit,
To start trouble;
I do not have rude mischief
To like destroying;
No, no I am not like that.)11

I love the phrase “rude mischief ” as it suggests that mischief itself is not bad – something that Mandela’s name Rolihlahla, meaning ‘trouble-maker’, speaks to – but it is ‘rudeness’ that is destructive. We will always remember Mandela for his charm, gentleness and bravery – and yes, his polite and gracious mischief. And, of course, his ability to build, not destroy, a nation. 

Tessa Dowling is senior lecturer, African languages section, School of Languages and Literatures at the University of Cape Town. In this column, she explores the richness of various African languages.

1. Kaschula, R. (2002) The Bones of the Ancestors are Shaking. Cape Town:
Juta & Company Ltd.
2. Mandela, N.R. (1994) Long Walk to Freedom. Randburg: Macdonald
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Bobelo, N. (2008) IsiXhosa Poetry on Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela.
Unpublished master’s thesis. University of Johannesburg. Available at:
6. See, for example,
7. Mtuze, P.T. and Kaschula, R. (1993) Izibongo Zomthonyama. Cape Town:
Oxford University Press.
8. Satyo, S.C. (1998) IsiXhosa Nokubhaliweyo NgesiXhosa. Cape Town:
Oxford University Press.
9. Mtuze, P.T. and Kaschula, R. (1993) op. cit.
10. Ibid.
11. Shasha, W. (1994) Zihlabana Nje Ziyalamba. Arcadia: Bard Publishers.


Category: Autumn 2014

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