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”