Archive for ubuthakathi

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?

ubuThakathi suspected in the case of suicides in the Nongoma area

Posted in News Stories with tags , , , , on May 30, 2012 by White Zulu

Simphiwe Ndwandwe

Isolezwe 10 April 2012 

People in Ekuvukeni in the Nongoma area are living in fear at the rise, since the beginning of the year, in instances of people hanging themselves – something which has led to a rash of accusations that there is a person selling an evil concoction, designed to destroy, in the market of this town. The first person to commit suicide by hanging was a teenage boy of the Nsele area, who ended his life in January this year after complaining that his mother was abusing him, even though he knew that her actions were a result of her own mental disturbance. Mr Goodwill Nyembe, a councillor in Ward 10, said that the death of this young man had greatly distressed the community, since they had long known that the mother was ill and were now asking themselves what cause him to end up taking his life in this way. While there was still shock at this incident there was another – this time another young man of the Zwane area had also killed himself, at the beginning of February, by means of hanging – and this was the start of the outcry in the area. Nyembe said that the thing which really put fear into the hearts of the people was that as February was ending it came to light that a girl from the area had hanged herself, which confirmed for them that something sinister was afoot. 

Although it is not absolutely clear that people’s suicide is linked to the deeds of witchcraft, Nyembe said that there are other issues which can be linked to those deeds, such as those which afflict people spiritually and then they kill themselves. 

“So we told the youth who are our ambassadors in the community that they should help us by finding the troubled ones for us, so that it may become clearly apparent regarding what is afflicting them. I urge those who feel in themselves the stirrings of suicidal feelings to hurry and contact me so that I can find help for them. Regarding those things which have been alleged, we will not let them go – we will investigate them and we are committed to finding out who the person is who is selling the evil medicines which destroy a person when they are present,” said Nyembe.

Mr Sithembiso Gumbi, of Ward 2, said that last week in the Njoko area there was a woman who died who had hanged herself because of a quarrel she had with her father, over her intention to live with her lover. With regard to the woman, upon her return to her lover’s house it is said that she locked herself in her room, in which she killed herself, but that she had left a letter in which she apologized to her parents for her actions.

Gaps in the feed of Zulu occult stories

Posted in Explanations with tags , , on May 4, 2012 by White Zulu

No, I wasn’t taken by an umkhovu, nor was I thakatha’d – I was on holiday! But, in the month since my last posts, there have been many strange and wonderful things in Isolezwe – stories about ubuthakathi causing a rise in suicides in Nongoma, follow-ups on the ‘Zombie Maskandi’ weirdness (on page 13, on Friday the 13th, no less!), and postponements in the case of the murdered demoniac. These will all be translated and posted soon, along with explanations where necessary. If at any point you’re unsure of something, comment on the blog or find me on twitter (@Teiresias13).

Thwasa – a definition

Posted in Explanations with tags , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2012 by White Zulu

As mentioned in the article on the initiate sangoma being fired from her workplace, here is the first of the explanations:

An ithwasa is a person whose state is best translated by the term ‘initiate’. The root of the word, -thwas-, has the verbal meaning of “emerge for the first time (as a season or new moon)” as well as “become possessed by a spirit (as occurs during divination)”. 

In the applied form ‘ethwasa’, the verb also means “show signs of a changing state, as by spirit-possession to become a diviner or doctor”.

In another form of the root, intwasa is the hlonipha (need another explanatory blog here) term for inyongo or bile. Bile or inyongo in Zulu medicine has similar associations to choler in the Galenic system of humours, and is quite often spiritually significant.

So an ithwasa is, linguistically speaking, a person emerging from a chrysalis, on the path to becoming an adept channeller of the amadlozi (explanation to come). A person who is in this state is particularly vulnerable to ubuthakathi (to be explained) and possession by amandiki, and so must burn impepho (also to be explained) and chela (sprinkle protective medicine) in the areas in which he or she works and lives.

An important point here is that ukuthwasa, the process of initation into ubungoma (the practice and traditions and essence of isangoma), is a strictly controlled and ritualised process, and is at no point associated with the western negative conception of ‘witchcraft’ (or the isiZulu concept of ‘ubuthakathi’). 

Initiate isangoma fired from work

Posted in News Stories with tags , , , , , , , on March 29, 2012 by White Zulu

Expect an ‘explanation’ blog about this one soon.

One accused of witchcraft shaking in anger

Mlungisi Gumede

Isolezwe 29 March page 16

A woman from KwaNdengezi is angry and confused, having been removed from where she was working at Elangeni FET College in Pinetown, and sent to KwaDabeka because she was accused of practicing witchcraft and of burning impepho at work.

Miss Thandi Mtshali (35) was a security guard and she cooked food for the learners at the institution in Pinetown. She disputes these allegations, saying that she did use to burn impepho and that she spoke with the amadlozi at the school, and that she used to sprinkle protective medicine in the yard of the institution in the morning.

“I know who the people are who have been fanning these lies into flame because they hate me,” is what she said.

Miss Mtshali complained about the way that the institution’s authorities had acted about this issue.

“This issue has upset me greatly, being removed from work on charges which have no basis,” she said.

She said that she is a person who is afflicted by an idlozi, as she is currently an initiate isangoma, and furthermore it happened that her idlozi came upon her at work and ended up doing things of which she herself was not aware.

“I don’t deny this, that at my previous place of employment (before I was hired at Elangeni) I burnt impepho because my idlozi troubled me greatly,” she said.

She said that at Elangeni also it happened that the idlozi came upon her with its rough rasping breathing noises, adding that when there was something which had upset her it arose greatly and started to speak so that other people could hear it.

“When they took the decision to remove me from Pinetown they took me to KwaDabeka and told me that the children were now afraid of me because I was continually making rough rasping noises and because they had heard voices of people whom they could not see,” she said.

Miss Mtshali said that when they removed her from her position as a guard of the children they said that they would hire her to clean the institution, but she refused because she said that this would be a demotion from her previous position. She added that they finally said that she could not work in the office where she would be faced with lots of people, as they feared that the idlozi would come upon her in front of them.

Mrs Dudu Goba of the institution’s HR department said that the issue of Miss Mtshali was confidential and that she could not talk about it in the newspapers.

“Miss Mtshali was obliged to follow the internal code of conduct of the institution, and if she is unsatisfied with the way in which her matter was handled then she should not be talking to the newspapers,” she said.