Ubuthakathi, abathakathi and ukuthakatha – a potential explanation

Posted in Explanations with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2012 by White Zulu

 As usual, I’m going to start my explanation with the linguistics. The root of these three words, -thakath-, is most probably related to the verb –thaka, meaning ‘to compound or concoct medicinal mixtures, to mix up medicines, to dispense’. This verb, however, as well as the related nouns ‘umthaki’ and ‘isithako’, does not have a negative connotation – it simply relates to the idea of ‘medicine-mixing’ or pharmacy. In fact, in Vilakazi and Doke’s dictionary, there is no relation drawn between the two words. Another potential relationship might be between the root and a related noun ‘ubuthakathaka’, meaning ‘limpness, softness, weakness, feebleness or debility’. 

However, before we dive in to the potential roots, what does the word mean? The verb, ukuthakatha, means ‘to practise witchcraft, deal in nefarious charms, concoctions, poisons, etc.’. The related agent-noun is ‘umthakathi’ (plural ‘abathakathi’), meaning ‘one who practises witchcraft’, whereas the concept noun ‘ubuthakathi’ simply means ‘witchcraft’. However, these terms translated thus are not entirely accurate. Christianocentric views of ‘witchcraft’ or modern ‘wicca’ are that it is a negative system of belief or worldview, but this does not reflect the true situation. In fact, a more useful translation of the words would be ‘to deal in nefarious charms, concoctions, poisons or any other negative medico-magical items or interventions’ for ukuthakatha, and then similar translations for the other two words, rather than using the contested and often inaccurate term ‘witchcraft’. 

But what does all this mean? What does it mean when someone is accused as an ‘umthakathi’, or accused of ‘ubuthakathi’? Generally, an umthakathi is someone who aims to use potions, spells, poisons and curses in order to harm other people. There are different versions of how someone does this – some claim that an umthakathi is not necessarily conscious of his or her actions, and that they thakatha at night. Others claim that the umthakathi is completely conscious, and aims to hurt – through cursing with lightning, placing of umeqo spells, or casting an eye (ukuphonsa ihlo) at someone. 

Berglund (1976: 266) argues that 

“the Zulu idiom ubuthakathi implies two fields of evil. Firstly, it refers to an incarnate power geared towards harm and destruction which manifests itself through humans and, either directly or indirectly, is addressed to human beings.

Secondly, ubuthakathi is associated with the embedded neutral powers of materia, imithi, the manipulation of which is geared towards evil ends.” 

So there is a difference between a malevolent and evil power (ubuthakathi) manifest in people (abathakathi) who then wield it in order to cause harm, and the use of neutral imithi in order to cause harm, through the knowledge of the medical materials’ power. 

This complicates matters somewhat – medical materia or imithi are by their nature neutral, and anyone can obtain such material in order to poison or to use those properties which they possess in order to harm someone. Thus someone who is an inyanga one day can, by selling medicines which can be used to kill, become an umthakathi the next day. For this reason, it is often innocent izinyanga who are killed because their knowledge of herbs is feared. The second ‘field of evil’ would best be translated by the English word ‘sorceror’ – someone who uses physical or chemical preparations or concoctions in order to effect magic. The first ‘field of evil’, however, implies something supernatural and mystical, associated with things such as flying through the air, invisibility, and gruesome unions with various familiars and beasts.

Another distinction is that the umthakathi yemithi – the sorcerer – is usually something transmitted from parent to child. The other type of umthakathi usually works outside of any social group or clan.

Whether this clears up the issue of ubuthakathi, or calls for another explanatory article, is part of the ongoing discourse on the subject. As Berglund wrote in 1976 (269),

“thinking on ubuthakathi does not always follow only traditional patterns of expressing itself. Zulu society allows for continual and ongoing additions to the ideas of the reality of evil. Ubuthakathi is inclusive in a remarkable way, no description however fanciful and incredible being too extravagant to be true in the realm of ubuthakathi”


MEC criticises the murder of one accused of witchcraft.

Posted in News Stories with tags , , , , , , on June 20, 2012 by White Zulu

Bawinile Ngcobo

20 Jun 2012  Isolezwe page 11 

The Minister of Community Development in KwaZulu-Natal, Mrs Weziwe Thusi, has criticised an incident in which an old woman from Thobothini in Ngwavuma was burnt, together with her grandchildren, at the weekend. 

Mrs Thokozile Tembe (72), and her grandchildren Slindile Mnguni (11) and Spesihle Nyawo (3) were burnt to ashes in the house in which they were sleeping. 

The daughter of Mrs Tembe, Miss Fikile Mnguni, told Isolezwe after the incident that her mother was a person who liked traditional medicines, and that there were people who accused her of committing witchcraft in the area.

She said that there was nobody who could support this who had come to them or who had gone to the induna of the area to speak about this matter, but it was something which was talked about in the area – and it is for this reason that they suspect that her mother was burnt by people.

Minister Thusi said that it is unfortunate that people are still continuing to lose their lives in this manner.

“Cold blooded murder of old people and children is needless. The government does everything in its power to raise awareness among people about the abuse of old people, but it is clear that we must try harder than before because it is apparent that people do not hear the message that we are putting out publicly,” said Mrs Thusi. 

She said that she urges community members to learn about the different situations which afflict older people when they are aged, and which cause them to do things which they would not normally do such as being continually confused and not knowing where they are.

“Two weeks ago an older woman was found just wandering around in the Pietermaritzburg city centre, who was brought to my office. When she was questioned it was discovered that she had come to town with her son, that they had lost each other, and that she did not know where she was. Does this then mean that she’s committing witchcraft? We must fight against this kind of abuse,” explained Mrs Thusi.

The police are investigating a case of murder and arson. 

What is a Tokoloshe?

Posted in Explanations, Zombie Maskandi with tags , , , , , on June 19, 2012 by White Zulu

Well, the first problem is one of spelling – is it Tokoloshe, Tikoloshe, Tokolo or Tokolosh? All of these are accepted, and (for the most part) the name is usually capitalised. It is unusual, except in cases like the Zombie Maskandi, for the plural to be used – this implies that the word was initially a name, a Mephisto or Hermes or Loki, rather than a description like ‘demon’ or ‘imp’.

Linguistically, the root of the word is not apparent – for one, what is interesting is the use of the hard ‘T’, which is fairly unusual in isiZulu. Other than the literal translations offered for the words used above, among which is…

“a fabulous water-sprite or kelpy, supposed to haunt certain rivers, to be very fond of women, to be mischievous to people, and to be used by witches for nefarious purposes, and said to resemble a tiny, hairy dwarf”

                                                                     (Vilakazi and Doke, s.v.)

… the only related words with the same root are ‘isitokolo’, which is inexplicably a kind of Tsetse fly trap, and ‘utokolo’, which is a contracted form of the full name. There are no verbs with this root, nor any other nouns. Expanding the search to include variant spellings such as ‘thokola’ or ‘thokoloshe’ reveals nothing at all. 

So the linguistics don’t help us – but we certainly have enough evidence from other areas, and particularly from people who claim to have seen or known the Tokoloshe. Berglund (1976, page 280) points out a number of interesting things about the ‘Tikoloshe’ – that he was traditionally harmless and mischievous, and “becomes harmful when he is caught by a witch”, and the he “is the most sought after of all the familiars because he can really satisfy (sexually) the hunger of the witches”. The sexual prowess of the Tokoloshe is well noted – Berglund’s informants stated that he “has an exceedingly large male member which, due to its size, has to be carried over the shoulders and around the neck”. In appearance he is “hairy like a pig”, is very short and has a split tongue – of interest here is that he cannot speak before a witch catches him and turns him into a familiar, and she is the one who splits his tongue so that he can speak the language that they understand.

There are many stories about the Tokoloshe, but one in particular adds another interesting dimension to the composite picture of this creature – on uKhozi FM, an isiZulu radio station broadcast from Durban, there was an interview one morning with a man who claimed to have the recipe for ‘seeing’ a Tokoloshe. The recipe ran thus:

First, you must remove the ubuthongo (the sleep) from a dog’s eye, first thing in the morning.

You must then put this sleep in your eye – dogs can see Tokoloshe, and so you must take their power into your own eyes before you can also see him.

Then, it is very importance that you stay far away from the hearth – the Tokoloshe is terribly afraid of fire, and the smell of smoke on your clothes will chase him away immediately.

You will see him in the lonely places, near water.

Seeing Tokoloshe is only the first step, however – there are many imithi which need to be used to strengthen yourself against his magic, and to trap him, and then to keep him. 

 So, how do these things fit together? What possible explanation can there be?

If you look at the different characteristics of the Tokoloshe, there are broadly two divergent aspects – his hyper-sexuality, and his fear of civilization.

The hyper-sexuality is a common feature of nocturnal demons such as succubi, as well as trickster or magical mythological figures such as Loki and Hermes. It may, in the South African context, be very tempting to trace the stories of Tokoloshe’s sexuality to more real predators, especially in light of one detail – the modern tendency to associate the Tokoloshe with the ‘bricks under the bed’. In modern South African homes, many people still raise their beds using bricks, or empty paint tins, in order to avoid the Tokoloshe’s advances. To anyone aware of the current issues around child abuse and rape in South Africa, these details speak of a fear of being sexually assaulted, as well as the fear of the real person committing the assault – by saying that ‘the Tokoloshe raped me last night’, you are avoiding saying that ‘my uncle raped me’.

However, in light of the fact that the Tokoloshe’s hypersexuality is found in other mythological and folklore figures around the world and across time, it’s probably better if we move away from the immediate context of South Africa and consider the facts a bit more objectively. Folklore figures noted for their prominent sexuality are often associated with fertility, and are equally as often associated with apotropaic (defending against evil) qualities, e.g. Hermes, and his ithyphallic statues used as street signs in ancient Athens. However, the ones who sneak into bedrooms at night, such as the succubi, are usually part of a more complex category of bogeymen – stories told to children to scare them into doing (or not doing, as the case may be) something or other. So the Tokoloshe is probably part fertility figure and part bogeyman.

But the issue of his fear of civilization is an intriguing one – according to many different sources, he only appears in wild places, near water, and at night. This may be an added feature of his bogeyman status, but there are also elements of Pan-type deities in this description. Of interest too is his fear of the smell of smoke from hearth-fires. I haven’t quite wrapped my head around this, but I have a few as-yet-unproven theories about it. 

So… what’s the deal with Gcabashe and his oTokoloshe in the courtroom? The simplest explanation would be to say that he is schizophrenic, and hearing the Tokoloshe speaking to him is just his way of explaining the voices in his head. But there is also the possibility that he was indeed bewitched in some way, and that the Tokoloshe is actually real. Maybe he found a dog, first thing in the morning?

‘Bhova’ sings yet another song in court

Posted in News Stories, Zombie Maskandi with tags , , , , on June 19, 2012 by White Zulu

Nokubongwa Phenyane

19 Jun 2012 Isolezwe, page 4

Headline on front page: Twists and turns as the Bhova impersonator raves and kicks about his surname

The matter of the case of Sibusisio Gcabashe, who made himself famous by claiming that he was the deceased Maskandi singer Kwakhe “Mgqumeni” Khumalo, is now just like a fairy story.

Yesterday when he appeared in the district court in Vryheid he offered a lot of testimony, but especially that he is now saying that people must stop calling him Gcabashe because this is not his surname.

Gcabashe again confused many people, and left them with many questions, when he said that he now wants people to call him Khumalo, not this ‘Gcabashe’ which he has agreed to be since he was arrested.

“I ask that people respect me and know that I am Mgqumeni, not this Gcabashe which they call me. I am Kwakhe Khumalo, and I ask that this be respected and that I not be called by the name of someone whom I don’t know,” said Gcabashe.

The presiding Magistrate, Mr Sifiso Madida, stopped him there and informed him that everything that he wanted to speak about will be discussed on the day that the case is heard next month.

Yesterday it was expected that the first day for hearing the case would be set, but because the investigator was on leave this did not take place.

It was suggested that the hearing of the case will begin on the 6th of July in the Vryheid court. Another thing which emerged was that the witnesses who would be needed when the case is heard must meet with the investigator, so that they may know when they will be needed in the court. This happened because Gcabashe apparently has received threats from certain people, because when he saw his mother and brother in the Magistrate’s court in Nquthu he told them who had sent him to call himself Mgqumeni.

When he saw them, Gcabashe told them that Nonhlanhla Majola, who was the girlfriend of the singer, took him and sent him to the Khumalo homestead, eSigqumeni in Nquthu, and that he arrived and was beaten there, and told that he must agree fully that he is Mgqumeni and that he rose from the dead. 

Gwede Mantashe Exorcises Malema’s Grave

Posted in Cartoons with tags , , , , , on June 13, 2012 by White Zulu

Gwede Mantashe Exorcises Malema's Grave

“What are you trying now? Awake not, foul spirit!”
Gwede Mantashe ‘chela’s’ the grave of Malema using the umuthi of the NEC or National Executive Council of the ANC. ukuchela is a practice of sprinkling specific medicines in order to ward off evil.From Isolezwe’s Wednesday 13th of June 2012 edition.

The one calling himself Mgqumeni has revealed who sent him

Posted in News Stories, Zombie Maskandi with tags , , , on June 5, 2012 by White Zulu

Nokubongwa Phenyane

Isolezwe 5 Jun 2012

Sibusiso Gcabashe has finally spoken about his arrival at the Khumalo homestead, when he claimed to be the Maskandi singer Mgqumeni, saying that

everything he did was to be with the daughter of Kwakhe “Mgqumeni” Khumalo, Ms Nonhlanhla Majola.

Gcabashe, who appeared in the Nquthu court yesterday, said that when his brother Mbheki Gcabashe arrived with his mother, Mrs Ntombifikile Gcabashe, he told them that everything was done just because of Ms Majola.

In Mbheki’s words, speaking outside the courtroom, they met with his brother who told them everything, and who said that he had been in a relationship with Ms Majola – who was the one who connected him with the Khumalo family.

He said that when they went to the Khumalo homestead, Ms Majola arrived and spoke plainly, saying that she wanted them to use him by saying that he was ‘iBhova’.

“I am Sibusiso’s younger brother. I came here to the court because I want to see what he would say if we were here as his family. I am happy because, as a result of us being here, he went to one side and was happy to see us, and because he related the story to us about his claiming to be Mgqumeni,” said Bheki.

He said that his brother told them that, during the time he was at the Khumalo homestead, with the adult men were there, it was arranged for him to see an inyanga who treated him, and that they consented readily that in every way he resembled Mgqumeni.

He continued by saying that they, as the Gcabashe family, want to apologise profusely to all those people in whom they had caused any anguish or pain, when his brother was afflicted by this mischievousness in connection with the Khumalo family. 

This case was delayed pending a bail application from Gcabashe’s lawyer, Mr Johan Botha, until he also did a complete volte-face, saying that they would no longer be filing an application for bail and that it was better for the case to continue.

The Magistrate, Mr Mpheleli Nkosi, said that he is sending the case to be appealed in the district court in Vryheid from June 18, where a judgement will be given.  

Jailed ‘Mgqumeni’ Gcabashe

Posted in Cartoons, News Stories, Zombie Maskandi with tags , , , , on June 1, 2012 by White Zulu

Jailed 'Mgqumeni' Gcabashe

Qaps Mngadi cartoon from Isolezwe 25 May 2012 page 18

“Get me outta here! The inmates will be the death of me! Aweeeh! And there are oTokoloshe in here!”