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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

Protection of the impimpi

Tessa Dowling - 2010-08-31

If I worked in a government office and got this lovely, juicy bit of information about some political shenanigan that I felt should be made public property, I would be tempted to publish it in isicamtho (tsotsitaal), or even just a non-standard variety of an African language. There is one thing about i-information in African languages (even the standard ones): iyahamba (it travels), iyatshintsha (it changes) and awuyazi ukuba ivela phi okanye i-meaning ithini kanye kanye (you don’t know where it comes from or what its meaning is exactly), so the impimpi (informer) can let the ikati (cat) out of the ibhegi (bag) and then park off at Mzoli’s and watch the paw-paw hit the fan, which can be ama-zing! No one will be able to blame anybody for fokol (a polite word for “no” or “nothing” in many African languages), because the language will be so multi-meaningful that it will make you drunk before your first No 17 (lager beer).

You see, information is contained in words, but if the meaning of words in African languages is changing all the time, no one can pin you, or the information, down. So, for example, the English word worse doesn’t always mean “worse” in township slang. It can mean “better”, as in Umyeni wam ebendithanda kodwa uworse ngoku ndikhulelwe (My husband used always to love me but he is worse [ie loves me more] now that I am pregnant). Thus you can hide from the authorities the fact that you as a journalist know that the opposition is doing better and better by saying UHelen Zille wenza kakuhle, worse and worse kulo nyaka (Helen Zille is doing well, even better this year).

If you got into trouble for writing that those in authority should stop their nonsense, you could argue that what you really meant was that they should stop building fences around schools: isitopunonsense in township slang is a tall wall erected around a school. A journalist who criticises fringe benefits is quite capable of persuading the judge that the fringe benefitsbeing referred to were not company cars but female students. (A fringe benefit is a school pupil who is in love with a school teacher, who can then view her as his fringe benefit.)

If we are not allowed to talk about the mayhem caused by the public sector strike, we can rather refer to the August-hem. I recently heard an announcer on Umhlobo Wenene (the SABC’s Xhosa radio station) quip: “Kutheni ihem iyenzeka ngoMeyi qha? What about ngoJuni, ngoJulayi, ngoAgast? Masibe neJunehem, Julyhem, Augusthem, njalo njalo!” (Why should hem just happen in May? What about in June, July and August? Let’s have June-hem, July-hem, August-hem, etc, etc!)

If some secret information gets leaked out that Bafana Bafana are totally useless, we can avoid direct criticism by calling them freeways (township slang for “useless soccer players”). If the impimpi wants to reveal the scandal that teachers are not marking students’ work properly, she can say baya-dry-clean-a  (they dry-clean), while if the director-general of health kappas the minister, it does not mean she is chopping him, but that she is turning her back on him, as in the logo of the Kappa tracksuit.

If a government minister has left the country for a seriyas-ly long time, we could refer to that somebody as Bin Laden – a nice way of talking about a person you haven’t seen for a while. We don’t even have to admit that our comment that the Zulu don’t like iFrentsh is an incitement to xenophobia, because, we could plead, iFrentsh is just polony, really! Massive irregularities in the payment of child grants can be revealed by referring to the number of thri-lithas (a three-litre is a non-existent child for whom you claim a child grant) that women tend to keep at home – nothing sensational there. Phola! Relax!

Politicians’ penchant for crazy, undisciplined sex is something we could get around by referring to their need to have a rawund (round), which is a not just a round of drinks, but an intense spurt of sexual activity. People claim to have a number of them a night. We won’t be able to mention shady little bribes made to the big man himself, but if we do get into trouble for writing that someone “paid a lot of money for an umsholozi (Zuma’s clan name)”, we can plead innocence: “Honestly, m’lud, I was not referring to the accused bribing the president, but simply to his purchase of a Toyota Corolla”, a model often called umsholozi because the front looks like JZ’s head.

An investigative journalist who finds out that all the authorities in a certain local municipality are thugs and crooks can avoid stating that directly by calling them amachochoroach (cockroaches, township slang for “crooks”). Do you suspect that one of King Mswati’s wives is a loose woman? Rather than saying so, name her a dizzy moon (township slang for “loose woman”), because, let’s face it how much time does a polygamist have to unpack the semantics of a phrase? “Hmm, they are calling wife No 12 a dizzy moon – I wonder what that means? Maybe I will ask wife number 14 in bed tonight after I have flirted with potential wife number 15 at the cocktail party.”

Code-switching could also be used to cushion the effects of serious information leaks, because somehow one always appears less serious when mixing languages. The following report was broadcast (in excellent Xhosa) on Umhlobo Wenene on 19 May 2009:

UNdebele ufune ingcebiso kaZuma ne-ANC ngento ekufuneka ayenze ngeMercedes Benz exabisa isigidi seerand. Iingxelo zithi uNdebele owayesakuba yinkulu-mbuso yakwaZulu-Natal uyinikwe le moto ngabakhi kumsitho wokuthi indla’ntle eMgungudlovu ngokuhlwa ngoMgqibelo. Le ngxelo ithi abakhi bazuza kwinkqubo iVukuzakhe yeli phondo.

(Ndebele wanted Zuma’s and the ANC’s advice about what he should do about the Mercedes Benz, which costs millions of rands. Reports say Ndebele was given this car when he was premier of KwaZulu-Natal by contractors at a farewell function in Pietermaritzburg on Saturday evening. This report says contractors had benefited in the Vukuzakhe programme in this province.)

Now see how trifling the same report looks when we use code-switching (the kind of language variety that many Umhlobo Wenene callers-in use):

UNdebele ufune i-advice kaZuma ne-ANC about what he must do nge-Mercedes Benz which was so expensive. Ii-reports zithi uNdebele ebe-yi-premier of KwaZulu-Natal when uyinikwe le moto by ii-contracters kwi-goodbye party e-Pietermartizburg on Saturday evening. Le report ithi ii-contracters za-benefit-a kwi-Vukuzakhe programme kule province. 

Then you could always plead innocence by lapsing into surfer slang: “I mean, hey, I know I wasn’t allowed to know that, or report that about that bribe and that and I didn’t, hey, I didn’t. I was just amped to tune someone something about a Mercedes Benz, my bru, because it is classic, my bru. My focus was on the Benz, and that ou Ndebele – I wasn’t, like, insinuating that the bru is dodgy – hey, nooit, bru, no offence meant, no offence, the ou’s a legend, a legend. One time.” The courts wouldn’t be able to find an interpreter because everyone qualified in that particular language would be out surfing or enjoying a bit of Durban poison (marijuana), so the case would have to be postponed indefinitely. And if you happened to hear “Cover up!” that would only be our surfer journalist getting tubed (surfing in the hollow of wave).

So imagine South Africa in ten years’ time, when everyone speaks their own version of English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, South Sotho, North Sotho, Zulu, Tswana, Ndebele, Swati, Tsonga and Venda, or a lekker mixture of them all. Envision the headlines, my bra, my bru, my china, girlfriend! Imagine the code-switching muddle of our reports! No one would really have the faintest idea what anyone else was saying, and everything would be ayoba in this wonderful rainbow nation of ours, because our reporting would be as crazy as the repressed information itself.

Here’s a sneak preview of the kind of headlines and reports we might see in the press or hear on the radio.

UZuma uyiBin Laden! Zuma is Bin Laden!
URhulumente usenza ukappa. The Government makes us kappa.
Ootitshala bayadry-cleana. Teachers dry-clean.
Izikolo zifuna isitopunonsense. Schools want to stop nonsense.
UJulius Malema uthi wayeyi-fringe benefit. Julius Malema says he was a fringe benefit.
Oo-thri-lithas bayanda. Three litres are increasing.
Umsholozi ufumana ingozi. Msholozi gets an accident.
OoZuma bafuna iirawund. Zuma and co want rounds.
UKing Mswati ugxotha udizzy moon. King Mswati kicks out dizzy moon.

I- Protection of Information Bill ayikho rayiti whereby ama-journalists are taking i-decision yokuba maba-report-a nantoni na, whatever, nanini na, whenever.



Mathonsi, NN. 1999. Semantic variation and change in the Greater Durban area. South African Journal of African Languages 19(4):227–37.

Zungu, Phyllis and Lawrie Barnes. 1997. Sociolinguistic variation in Zulu: Contemporary codes and registers. Language Matters 28(1):182–213. 



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