AJCR 2005/2

An Overview of the Forms of Expressing Social Conflict in Southern Africa

With special reference to the Zulus


In this study, an analysis is made of the strategies used by Zulu people in which they articulate their social conflict, frustrations and discontent through particular oral discourses, viz. izibongo (‘praise’ poetry/oral ID’s) and naming practices, which render the expression of these sentiments acceptable to the community within which they are voiced. Studies involving conflict expression in the political and industrial/commercial environment are far more commonplace than this one which deals particularly with various social settings. My particular field of research has involved issues such as the contextual variations that affect the language used in communication, involving specific concerns such as the physical circumstances of the speech event, i.e. the setting, as well as the participants and their relationship roles, the particular aims and purposes of the speech event and the coherence of the discourse. The oral expressions that provide the vehicle for venting dissatisfaction in a way that is socially acceptable are of particular interest as they are an intricate part of the oral tradition of the Zulu. These are commonly used in rural communities, but they also echo in urban social settings. Hostility and ill-feelings are thus channelled through the sanctioned form of these various oral expressions either as a means of merely airing one’s dissatisfaction or as a means of seeking personal redress. The ultimate function of making public one’s displeasure and discontent is conflict reduction.

General Introduction

Conflict can arise in virtually any social setting, whether it is between individuals, groups, organisations or nations, and it is unavoidable in human society. It is the management of these issues of conflict through specific forms of articulation amongst Zulu people, and how this reflects the value systems of the group, that is of interest in this paper.

In researching oral strategies used by the Zulus as a means of conflict articulation, one must view these social conflicts as contextualised events in their specific social setting. This entails taking into account not only the cultural setting, but also the social discourse, the context and a review of events leading up to and surrounding the conflict situation. In some instances this involves more than just the disputing party; it involves the entire social network in which the conflict is situated. This way of viewing conflict and its articulation as events in the comprehensive continuum of social life, is common in Africa. This is because of the community-based style of living prevalent amongst Africans. Social life in communal societies is the area in which values and norms function, and is the environment in which cultural traditions are formed and handed down in a predominantly oral fashion, from one generation to another. In societies such as this, where the oral mode of transmission is favoured, inter-personal communication on a daily basis characterises social discourse and interaction. It is in this environment of constant human communication and interaction that the energy comes which may fuel conflict. In modern urban environments, where extended family-homestead living styles no longer proliferate, changes in the channels and mode of expressing conflict are taking place. This point was brought home to me recently after I had given a Cross-Cultural Presentation to the Durban group of Life Line counsellors, a voluntary association of people who give advice and solace to people who phone in with personal problems. One of the issues which was raised by their head counsellor after I had given my presentation to their trainee counsellors in October 2003, was the marked increase in the number of Zulu women who were phoning in to discuss their problems and asking for advice. One of the matters often discussed by these women was that they had nowhere and no-one to turn to with their marital and family problems in urban areas. The situation seems to have been easier to deal with when these difficulties could be shared with members of the extended family and others from the immediate community. The requests almost always made over the telephone are that these women seek personal one-on-one counselling, as opposed to telephonic counselling. This is typical of oral-style societies where physical presence is essential in the articulation of the message. To accommodate this increased request for help, Life Line in Durban started a drop-in, face-to-face service on 11th March 2002, called the Ukuba Nesibindi VCT Site (Be Strong Voluntary Counselling and Testing Site). Initially, all the interviews dealt with the issue of AIDS, but Sister Dudu, in charge of the Site, informed me that it had increasingly become a centre not only for issues directly to do with AIDS, but also for dealing with all sorts of social conflict issues including those dealing with domestic problems, rape and family violence.

Traditional Forms of Conflict Expression

The traditional forms of oral expressions under investigation in this study include izihasho/izibongo (oral compositions which serve as oral ID’s) about both important and ordinary people, and the art of personal naming. In each case, the person is criticised within the context and framework of the oral tradition which has always been the recognised public forum of censure amongst the Zulu. These particular genres of oral studies, that of izibongo and names, are but two facets of a much wider field of discursive practices common amongst the Zulu. Story telling in the form of izinganekwane, proverbs, idioms, various categories of song, riddles and other oral games, also serve as oral media through which conflict may be aired.

This is in stark contrast to many contemporary literate urban societies in which values, norms and cultural traditions may be communicated rather through the media or through books, memos, letters, notices and emails. This mode of communication tends to alleviate and even prevent conversation and extended oral communication. Literate societies tend to focus on individualism and an individualistic style of life, whereas in societies which are ‘orally based’ and communal in lifestyle, the important element functioning throughout all social life is the network of extended human relations. Family ties and community networking are constantly respected, maintained and strengthened. Whenever kinship or social relationships are disturbed by a dispute, priority is given to restoring the balance. Jannie Malan (1997:24) makes the point about African communities that it is the social context which makes a significant difference if the purpose of the conflict resolution process is formulated in social, relational language. The essence of the philosophy of ubuntu is the restoration of balance in relationships that have been broken or damaged. Wrongs inflicted within the community need to be rectified and in this way justice is met and peace restored. The whole procedure of resolving the conflict is merely an event in the continuum of social life.

Description and Context of this Study

In this study, an analysis is made of the strategies used by Zulu people in particular oral discourses, viz. izibongo (‘praise’ poetry/oral ID’s) and naming practices, in which they articulate their frustrations and discontent in various social settings. My particular field of research has involved issues such as the contextual variations that affect the language used in communication, involving specific concerns such as: the physical circumstances of the speech event, i.e. the setting, as well as the participants and their relationship roles; the particular aims and purposes of the speech event; and the coherence of the discourse. The oral expressions that provide the vehicle for venting dissatisfaction in a way that is socially acceptable are of particular interest as they are an intricate part of the oral tradition of the Zulu. These are commonly used in rural communities, but they also echo in urban social settings. Hostility and ill-feelings are thus channelled through the sanctioned form of these various oral expressions either as a means of merely airing one’s dissatisfaction or as a means of seeking personal redress. The ultimate function of making public one’s displeasure and discontent is conflict reduction.

The articulation of disputes or conflicts in social environments occurs in the context of condensed or extended family settings, in the context of the neighbourhood or in a combination of family and neighbourhood. As important as the function of conflict articulation is the form that these oral expressions take amongst the Zulu. In the words of the famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, ‘form follows function’. This involves an examination of the various oral modes of expressing conflict that occur in social behaviour as well as the mnemonic forms in which it is done – as mnemonic form is the way in which information recalled from memory is specifically structured.

Sanctioned Forms of Oral Expression Used in Expressing Social Conflict

Oral traditions are still very much alive and thriving amongst the majority of Zulu people, particularly those in rural areas, and, inextricably linked with these traditions, is the culture from which they emerge. Oral practices are part of the heritage of the Zulus’ cultural wealth in its various forms and expressions. They live on, irrespective of whether they are recorded in writing or not. They continue in parallel with written records, often intermingling with them. It is the ‘style’ in which the composition is delivered which gives us the vital clue as to what kind of society the text emanates from, i.e. one that favours the oral mode over the written. In such societies the memory is of paramount importance and must be ‘practised’, hence the reliance on the mnemonic Oral Style (Jousse 1990, 2000, 2001). The particular function of the specific type of izihasho and amagama (names), both forms of oral ID’s being examined here, is conflict reduction. The function of these oral forms is that of a ‘socio-cultural archive’ (Conolly (3) 2001), which is vested in the memory of those who can express in performance – by chanting, singing or reciting – their renditions of personal and group identity. One must regard these particular recorded oral texts as shifting and elusive, continuous in form with both the ‘oral’ and the ‘literate’, the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’. Malinowski’s claim (1926) that there is ‘no text without context’ is undeniable. The oral texts require a responsive audience, with the performer acting as the leader. This audience is attuned to the performer because they share the same collective memories and culture, and they are therefore able to decode the messages contained in the texts because of this common history. Performers and composers of these recorded forms are ordinary people. In some instances, certain lines or phrases are composed by peers; in other cases they are self-composed. Some of the language contained in many of the texts is regarded as coarse and unsavoury by people from both within and outside the tradition. Such language, however, is acceptable within the specific constraints and context of the actual performance.

Reference to the written form of text as I have used it in the ambit of this paper means a stream of thought initially orally conceived and expressed which is then recorded in writing. As Finnegan so aptly describes the process of recording the oral text, it should not be regarded as a final fixed form once recorded.

Significance of the Study

The history of South Africa over the past three decades and the prevalence of conflict and violence in the political arena as well as the social sphere during this time, makes this study of the features and functions of various speech forms and expressions particularly pertinent, as it serves to throw an important light on how African communities articulate conflict.

Of late, the identification of features of oral studies, and especially the issue of conflict and their terms of reference, have become topics of increasing interest amongst researchers in southern Africa. The National Research Foundation is now encouraging academics to focus on the area of Indigenous Knowledge Systems. Included in that focus area is the recommendation that research be done on the impact of Indigenous Knowledge on lifestyles and the ways in which societies are run. The study of ways in which specific societies articulate issues of conflict has a direct bearing on the understanding of the broader field of conflict. This study deals specifically with Oral-style communities (in this case Zulu speaking) and how they use particular oral strategies to cope with issues of conflict. As a group typical of many Oral-style communities, the Zulu people have not only found an acceptable way to manage and ameliorate conflict in social situations, they have based it very significantly on an age-old mnemonic oral tradition which is socialised and accepted as a norm of group behaviour.

Conflict Expression in Africa

Africa generally

When researching the topic of conflict in society, what becomes glaringly apparent is the dearth of information based on African history and tradition. There is a large amount of information that is rooted in Occidental experience, but African modes of perception, imagination and thought are a relatively new field of research. Bozeman (1976:65) writes that Africa’s cultural consciousness is an undisputed fact today, but that the difficulty of comprehending it arises for several reasons. The first is that African society is traditionally a non scribally-literate world in which the unity of African culture projects the sum total of values, beliefs and institutions that have been shared by countless generations. This represents a ‘socially complex mosaic’ of heterogeneous elements in a huge continent, where present lines of political organisation are fluid, and where neither anthropologists nor political scientists have as yet been able to agree upon generally applicable categories of classificatory schemes. Bozeman suggests that any inquiry into the role of conflict in African politics or society requires a shift of focus to the small folk community, the form of group life that Africans themselves have regarded as enduringly meaningful throughout the centuries. It is in these small communities, in which neighbours and kinsmen are in close contact, that interpersonal conflicts are likely to be cast in terms of witchcraft and sorcery to account for inexplicable events such as death, illness and misfortunes. It is here, in the context of relations between people who know one another well, that friction, jealousy and hatred is most pronounced.

In societies that favour the oral mode of expression over writing, an individual is perceived primarily as an extension or representation of the group to which he or she belongs, either as a member of a family, clan, lineage, village or other grouping. The Occidental idea of the autonomous person, endowed with individual rights and responsibilities is a very different conception from that of the ‘communal’ African person. This then explains the affirmative African approach to conflict as a socially and psychically vital function. There is a shared perception of conflict as a structuring or constitutive force in communal affairs, where well-regulated adversarial confrontations provide fitting circumstances for the blunting of socially threatening tensions. In view of the fragility of social ties between members of an African community, actual or potential conflict situations have consistently challenged the traditional genius for maintaining the closely-knit community life. Each African speech community has its own code of customs for abating antagonisms, conciliating disputants and ultimately re-establishing communal accord.

There is quite obviously not one single homogeneous African approach to conflict. Nevertheless, when the various approaches are surveyed in the perspective of shared cultural patterns, certain common features readily emerge and these are as different from Western (literate) approaches as the situations that provoked them. This is because African systems of conflict control emanate from established social practice and are therefore virtually synonymous with the entirety of social life. Furthermore they depend primarily upon the medium of the spoken word. Bozeman (1976:222) notes:

Unlike the West – where peace and harmony are posited as primary value, thus dictating, as it were, the definitions of their opposite, and where ‘order’ is viewed as a function of peace – Africa reverses the argument. There, order is understood, symbolised, and institutionalized unequivocally in terms of controlled conflict. Personal and social ‘peace’, as this concept is understood in the different value languages of the Occident, has no counterpart there.

Recorded forms of oral communication and conflict in African countries

Finnegan (1992:222) mentions the use of oral ‘poetry’ and song in Africa for the expression and resolution of hostilities between individuals or groups in social settings as well as in the political arena. The west Nigerians composed satirical political songs to express their frustrations in the 1959 federal elections, and Bashi singers in the Congo composed songs which were sung in the workplace to express their dissatisfaction and grievances. Finnegan states:

…expression in poetry takes the sting out of the communication and removes it from the ‘real’ social arena. And yet, of course, it does not – for the communication still takes place. It is a curious example of the conventions that surround various forms of communication in society, where, even if the covert ‘content’ remains the same, the form radically affects the way it is received – whether or not it is regarded as a confrontation, for example.

Okpewho (1992:147) (in his research on African Oral Literature) similarly refers to the ‘critical spirit’ in oral forms. He calls these songs of personal abuse ‘lampoons’. In Nigeria, the tradition was used by individuals to wage personal vendettas against various members of the community. However, the usefulness of these songs in the oral tradition was to encourage those in society to observe good conduct, while developing a sense of responsibility, and at the same time these ‘lampoons’ were intended to act as a warning against those in the group who might be indulging in behaviour that is regarded as detrimental to the well-being and general survival of the society. Okpewho (1992:154) also discusses songs and oral compositions as a preferred form of expression in the political arena in Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Mapanje and White (1983) document various forms of conflict and protest in the oral expressions of Africa from Mozambique, Sudan, Ghana, Uganda, Zambia, Somalia and Nigeria. In their anthology, there is a specific chapter on ‘poems’ which reflect aspects of protest and satire. Mapanje and White (1983:129) argue that African oral composers are allowed an unusual freedom of speech:

Sons may criticise their fathers, wives their husbands, workers their employers, and everybody the chiefs or officials who rule them, so long as it is done through poetry or song.

Vail and White (1991) also offer numerous examples of the expression of complaint in song and in oral composition in Africa. They cite examples of the work of Evans-Pritchard (1948) and his collection of work songs amongst the Dinka, Hugh Tracey’s (1948) recordings of songs amongst the Chopi, Gluckman (1963) and subsequently Kuper’s work (1964) on the Swazi Ncwala (first fruits) songs in the context of political struggle, as well as Mafeje’s work (1967), among others, on the role of the Xhosa imbongi in the 1960s. Lullabies are also documented by Finnegan (1992) as providing an indirect means of critical expression amongst the Nyoro of Uganda, the Dogon, the Rundi and the Kamba.

In Tanzania, Mutembei and Lugalla (2002) argue that oral expression has been used by the Haya community from time immemorial as a pedagogical tool to shape social norms and behaviour. It was used not only to preserve the wisdom of the nation, but in more recent times, to document the dilemma of modern societies facing the scourge of AIDS and AIDS-related problems. These researchers have concentrated on the genre of oral ‘poetry’ from the Kagera region of Tanzania as they state that unless those engaged in the fight against the pandemic, whether they be governmental or non-governmental bodies, use the language of the communities, their intervention measures against the spread of HIV will be of limited success. They cite a study carried out in Uganda where the emphasis is put on the use of language that is understood and accepted by the local communities:

Promotion of preventive measures will be most effective if carried out by peer educators who ‘notice’ and communicate social messages in appropriate language situations. This may be important in campaigns aiming at changing attitudes, behaviours and practices (Obbo 1991:84).

Mutembei and Lugalla go on to say that the most important reason for oral compositions to be given prominence in HIV/AIDS-related education campaigns, is that it gives women a chance to be heard and to air their complaints and anxieties, a channel not normally open to them in other modes of discourse. In addition, the study of these specialised oral compositions creates a unique understanding of the way people themselves construct reality in relation to the epidemic.

Recorded forms of oral compositions used in expressing conflict in Southern Africa

Scholars such as Bryant (1929), Samuelson (1929) and Grant (1929) were early recorders of Zulu izibongo. Their information was gleaned from individual izimbongi (bards) as well as commoners who had extensive knowledge of the izibongo of certain clans and kings. It is from the collection of James Stuart, however, and later the editing of his work by Trevor Cope (1968), that discussion on the examples of the izibongo zamakhosi is based. Cope’s selection of izibongo includes a selection of oral compositions of the Zulu royal line, of chiefs, of outstanding warriors, royal women and two white men. Cope was meticulous about placing these oral compositions, collated and edited from Stuart’s work, in a social and political context.

Opland’s well known work, Xhosa Oral Poetry (1983), is as valuable in the Xhosa domain as this work of Cope’s on Zulu Izibongo, and shows the resilience as well as the awareness of change in social and political conditions amongst the Xhosa. He highlights the role of criticism in these oral compositions by iimbongi, of the current ruling chiefs, and their subsequent incarceration and harassment during the Apartheid era because of their views on matters such as the so-called independence of the Transkei. These findings are echoed in Kaschula’s subsequent research on the Transitional Role of the Xhosa Oral Poet in Contemporary South African Society (1991). He records the role of the Xhosa imbongi as former unfettered social critic and political commentator and comments on the changes that occurred from the late 1960s to the end of the 1980s. He quotes the example of Chief Ndamase who regards the imbongi today simply as an entertainer. As the imbongi was, and still is, at risk for what he says, we find a total change in the role of the traditional imbongi. He no longer acts as mediator between the chief and his people, someone who may at will extol or criticise with impunity. Urbanisation, economic pressures on the individual, the influence of Westernisation, the highly charged political atmosphere of the apartheid state, the role of the media, formal education and the changing political situation are all documented by Kaschula in the changing conditions facing the contemporary imbongi.

Okphewo also discusses the role of ‘praise singers’ who have license to criticise their rulers with impunity. He comments (1992:148) that this oral form of personal redress throughout Africa is common outside of ruling circles as well.

Gunner (1984) has also conducted extensive research in the field of Zulu contemporary oral compositions. She assesses the key role of izibongo in presenting and expressing identity. She traces how the public role of the royal izibongo in current times shows the ways in which this form of oral composition may be adapted to become part of a new political tradition, still able to create a unifying consciousness for contemporary speakers. In addition, she looks at the form and content of individuals’ izibongo, and describes the performed aspects thereof. In her discussion on allusion as a form of criticism she deals in passing with certain aspects that revolve around criticism and conflict. The point that Gunner makes, albeit briefly, is that conflict, when it occurs in men’s izibongo, is usually only one of a number of briefly explored topics. In women’s izibongo, however, Gunner states that criticism and complaint tend to be the dominant themes. She points out that this allusive criticism is also prevalent in the izangelo (izibongo of infancy) which are normally recited in front of audiences comprising women only. Gunner (1984:330) also mentions briefly the theme of conflict in the izibongo of ordinary people where the content of the izibongo is extremely negative and critical, and in this way exerts social pressure and ‘pulls behaviour back into line’.

This topic of social pressure and ‘pulling-back-into-line behaviour’ has also been the focus of previous research by myself (Turner 1990, 1992, 1995, 1997, 2001) in documenting the oral compositions of Zulu men and women, where the emphasis in the examples cited is largely on highlighting behaviour that needs correction.

In their publication Musho, Gunner and Gwala (1994) present a collection of oral compositions of national figures, chiefs, as well as ordinary men, women and children. In their introduction, the authors describe izibongo as a ‘key art form in the political discourse of the day’ where the izibongo of the kings and national figures were used increasingly in the 1960s and 1970s as part of political gatherings. Conflict expression is touched upon briefly in isolated examples. Groenewald’s research (1991, 1994) focused on the use of izibongo for political effect amongst the Ndebele in the izibongo of Prince James Senzangakhona Mahlangu. These analysts, namely Gunner and Gwala, and Groenewald, reveal how the form of Nguni izibongo has been manipulated by performers and politicians to criticise political ideologies of the day. The izibongo of national figures contain within them criticism of unpopular actions that they may have taken as well as the opinions of the people about unpopular situations. In his capacity as representative of not only the community but also of the ancestors, the imbongi (the bard) presents these opinions to figures of authority. Gunner (1991:31) argues:

The extent to which South African traditional art forms have been stereotyped and under-estimated in their capacity as agents both mirroring and engaging with social and political life, is only now beginning to be explored.

Kromberg (1994), who documents examples of worker izibongo, continues the work done by Gunner and Groenewald and others and describes the transformation of izibongo from a medium for praising chiefs to a medium for worker mobilisation. In trade union/worker izibongo, criticism and conflict expression appear to be suppressed in the interests of the larger aim of solidarity and unity. Kraemmer (1975:112), in his work amongst rural folk in northern Zimbabwe, makes the point that work songs also provide an occasion when persons would not be called to task for voicing criticism, which frequently took the form of obscene reference in song.

All the above authors touch on conflict concerning figures of importance in the political sphere, or people in the work arena. My research aims to fill the gap where as yet there is little documented work on the expression of conflict amongst the Zulu in the social arena – specifically concerning the sanctioned oral forms of names and izibongo/izihasho.

The Form and Function in Expressing Social Conflict

Oral forms of combative speech in the form of insult, ridicule and witty and derisive commentary are recognised in African societies and many other parts of the world, and here particularly amongst the Zulu, as effective forms of social sanction. In a non-literate culture in which the word is the equivalent of the act, talking invites artistry and verbal virtuosity in the form of repetition, and circumlocution is meant to extend rather than to contract the discourse and therewith also the pleasure of actual and vicarious participation for those present. Conflict is treated as an essential part of social life and this conflict can only be understood within a context of extended social processes dependent largely upon the beliefs that are held and the values subscribed to within a given community.

Coser (1956) supports this view in his analysis of the functions of social conflict. He quotes the central thesis of the work of Simmel – revolving around conflict being a form of socialisation. He maintains that conflict is an essential element in group formation and the persistence of group life. Conflict is thus seen as performing group-maintaining functions insofar as it regulates systems of relationships, i.e. it ‘clears the air’ and helps to create a situation where hostile feelings are allowed free behavioural expression. Simmel’s view constitutes what Coser terms a ‘safety-valve theory’, where the conflict serves as an outlet for the release of hostilities which, if no other outlet were provided, would adversely affect the relationship between the antagonists. Coser notes that conflict is not, therefore, always dysfunctional. Without channels for venting hostility and expressing dissent, members of a social group might feel completely crushed – and may react by withdrawal.

The practice of conflict expression in the forms of derisive names and expressed in the extended form of naming (izibongo, izihasho, izigiyo) that occurs in oral compositions as well as in the oral song texts, is not unique amongst the Zulu, but is common in much of Africa and elsewhere as has been extensively documented by Okpewho and Finnegan among others.

Finnegan (1970:470) summarises the concept of ‘naming’ in Africa when she states that:

Names often play an indispensable part in oral literature in Africa…they have…many different interpretations… from the psychological functions of names in providing assurance or ‘working out’ tension, to their connection with the structure of society, their social function in minimizing friction, or their usefulness either in expressing the self-image of their owner or in providing a means of indirect comment when a direct one is not feasible.

By allowing the expression of pent-up feelings of hostility, frustration and dissatisfaction, conflict serves to maintain inter-individual and group relationships.

In the realm of collective existence, minor divergences serve to confirm and consolidate the underlying cohesion of the group, as a society obviously relies on a certain common consent. Thus social conflict may have a positive and integrative function to play in maintaining the balance in society. In the words of Coser (1956:80):

Conflict may serve to remove dissociating elements in a relationship and to re-establish unity. Insofar as conflict is the resolution of tension between antagonists it has stabilizing functions and becomes an integrating component of the relationship. However, not all conflicts are positively functional, only those which concern goals, values or interests that do not contradict the basic assumptions upon which the social relations are founded.

Witchcraft is a practice where hostile feelings are allowed socially sanctioned expression against the adversary. In accusing particular members of the community of practising witchcraft, the accuser often singles out the perpetrator as a means for the release of hostility which could not be expressed safely against that person in any other sanctioned way. Reference to witchcraft in various forms of Zulu oral expression is common.

Wit is another vehicle of indirect expression commonly used. Freud comments that wit permits one to make one’s adversary ridiculous in a way which direct speech could not because of social hindrances. Wit may not necessarily bring about a change in the relations between one person and another, particularly if the intended target of the witticism is unaware of the source and intention of the witticism. It may, however, afford an outlet of expression to the person articulating the source of the conflict, without necessarily changing the terms of the relationship. The expression in these terms, then, merely functions as a form of tension release. This practice, which is not unique to the Zulu people, is commonly employed in izihasho and particularly in nicknaming practices.

Roberts (1979:40) quotes research which shows that people in communal African societies are extremely sensitive not only to ridicule but even to the mildest criticism. This influences them strongly to adhere to approved patterns of behaviour. Shame and rejection represent an extremely powerful means through which deviant behaviour can be controlled, and this is particularly prevalent in close-knit rural Zulu communities. Roberts (1979:42) maintains that:

In any small closely knit community where people find themselves in continuing face-to-face relations, the threat of exposure to ridicule and disgust, provoking feelings of shame and remorse, must represent an important mechanism of control… Almost all these means of maintaining order, particularly those which derive their force from the actor’s perception of how other people may react, operate through human communication in the course of everyday life. Through talk, values and norms may be expressly stated, and consequences of departure from them spelled out.

These oral expressions of conflict still occur (not as commonly however) in urban township situations as well, where community living has not yet been superseded by the more literate individualistic nuclear style of life. Community-orientated societies are normally closely knit, and one’s actions and one’s reputation in that community are, most often, common knowledge. In such situations, a member in that community knows that the attitude of others depends on his/her reputation, and, more often than not, the threat of gossip and a disreputable standing in society serves to encourage the individual to adjust his/her behaviour accordingly.

In this way, conflict can be constructive. But it can also be destructive. It is this potential for destructive conflict that Zulus seek to minimize in their oral practices. The articulation of the source of conflict may or may not result in actual solutions being arrived at. In some instances the expression in itself may be sufficient to release frustration and pent up emotion.

Conflict Expression in Onomastics (Naming Techniques)

The practice of derisive naming can provide an allusive way of astutely airing a conflict or source of dissatisfaction or discontent in such a way that it is repeatedly exposed to the community at large, and furthermore serves as a constant reminder to all of the underlying message contained therein. This may be done repeatedly in certain situations where one wishes to make one’s neighbours/spouse/in-laws aware of a situation which is causing a problem. The encoded message is passed in an acceptable, non-confrontational manner, by calling a child or animal’s name out loud, and if the occasion merits it, repeatedly!

Molefe (1992), in his research amongst the Zulu on the praises of domestic animals, cites examples of animal names woven into extended oral compositions, usually by the owner of the animal, or someone connected with them on a daily basis. These names make passing mention of disciplinary messages which are contained in the names of certain animals. Molefe (1992:78) gives the example of a man who, while cultivating his fields, would call out to his team of two oxen:

Iyaphi ngale Thakathani,
Iyaphi uNquluzomjendevu?

Where are you going Thakathani (Bewitcher),
Where are you going, Nquluzomjendevu! (Bony buttocks of a spinster!)

He explains that two messages are conveyed in these two names given to the oxen which are directed towards certain people in his local community. Generally these types of names are directed at unnamed persons, but particular persons in the community will accordingly identify the message encoded in them. Firstly, in the name ‘Thakatani’, meaning, loosely, ‘Carry on bewitching’, the owner of the ox aims his message at those who are suspected of bewitching him, informing them that he is aware of it, but it will make no difference to him. By calling out the name of the second ox, the namer is telling the neighbours that their daughter should have got married a long time ago, as she is getting past the acceptable marriageable age. To the Zulu people, thin, shapeless buttocks are scorned, as is the woman who remains unmarried. By naming the ox in such a way, the neighbour avoids causing embarrassment and pain that would be inevitable if the girl was addressed directly on the issue. Furthermore, the pressure from the community is clearly made known with regard to women remaining spinsters. Often the dislike of spinsters is derived from other women in the community fearing that spinsters engage in infidelity amongst married men, as the expression in Zulu records, ‘Imijendevu idla emhlambini’ (Spinsters eat from the herd, or in other words, they dabble where they please). Although satirical naming is done mostly by women, it is not exclusively their domain as shown in the above example where the names were composed by the owner of the oxen, a man.

The mention of conflict in the research of Molefe is restricted to a few examples. This theme of conflict and naming practices was expanded by me in a series of published articles on the composition and performance of cryptic social messages in personal names as well as animal names, as well as in work and social situations. In these articles I deal with various reasons for cryptic names being given to Zulu children and to livestock to express situations of conflict and feelings of frustration (Turner 1992, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001). If a person is guilty of wrongdoing in his/her community, not only is dishonour brought upon the individual’s name, but also upon the name of the family, and in certain circumstances, even the immediate community at large. This is because, amongst the Zulu, people are not only identified by their names, but always, simultaneously, by where they come from. Thus, through naming practices pressure is exerted in a subtle form by the members of the community to conform to modes of acceptable behaviour. For instance, a person given the name of Muziwenduku (home of the stick) will be clearly understood to have come from a home where punishment was commonplace. Just as personal names may be given to children in Zulu society, in which a cryptic social message is embedded, the practice of naming domestic animals functions in the same way. A dog is named Uvila (lazy one) because of the daughter-in-law’s laziness in performing household chores. The skilled use of allusion is a powerful weapon in the hands of the sharp and observant name-giver, and affords one the opportunity of voicing an opinion in a socially acceptable way, given the impropriety of direct confrontation. The name Umphikwa (the denied one) was given to the second born child of a migrant labourer. This name was given by the child’s grandmother to indicate her suspicion of an illicit affair the mother had had in the father’s absence, culminating in the birth of this boy who did not have any features resembling the family. Variants of this situation of births outside of marriage are found in the names: Thangithini (what do you expect me to say?), Bonakele (suddenly appeared/I was obvious), Mfaniseni (show me the resemblance), Phumaphi (where do you come from?), Mtholephi (where did you get him from?) Mthathephi (where did you take him from?). The same name may be given by different owners to their different animals to reflect totally different situations of conflict. Gumede (2000) cites several such examples of names given in his home area of Emaqwabeni, which are used to deflect tension and act as ‘conflict-reducing agents’. He draws the conclusion that names function as:

accurate barometers of the equilibrium within a social group, and provide sensitive access to understanding relationships and status hierarchies operating within the group (Gumede 2000:51).

Names reflecting conflict are not restricted to categories of animals and people. They are also commonly given to inanimate objects such as homesteads. In his research on Zulu homestead names, Ntuli (1992) mentions the fact that although a homestead may be named by its occupants, an alternate name popularised by the community may also be given. This name may reflect criticism of the behaviour of some of the occupants. Ntuli (1992:18) notes that, ‘This implies that when the community gets involved, name giving may serve as a form of social control’. Shabalala (1999), in her research on homestead names as a reflection of social dynamics amongst the Zulu, states that although the primary function of Zulu homestead names is to distinctly identify each homestead from another (since people of the same clan with the same surnames usually settle close to one another in rural areas), ‘these names are also used as a way of communicating the inner feelings, thoughts and attitudes of the name-giver’. She categorises the names she collected into seven categories. The largest mof those categories comprises names reflecting friction (32%). She records that,

…in Mabengela naming still reflects family tension or unpleasant occurrences such as conflict within the family or witchcraft within the family or among the community (Shabalala 1999).

She cites the example KwaPhumuzumlomo (Give the mouth a rest) where the owner of this homestead named her homestead in this way because of endless gossip amongst the in-laws and family members where she was staying. As a result she moved out of her husband’s homestead and built her own. She gave it this name because she was tired of complaining.

In terms of the types of names considered here, reference is made in particular to the Zulu personal name (igama lasekhaya) and the ‘nickname’ (isifekethiso) which forms part of the common man’s izihasho, an extended form of naming. Often one of the lines of a person’s izihasho will become a ‘nickname’ by which that person becomes known among his peers. This practice is particularly popular in work environments where nicknames are used to label ‘out group’ members. Interestingly, in her research in the Scottish Highlands Dorian encountered a similar practice. She states that:

the actual use of such names, however, demands social competence in order to evaluate the offensiveness of such names – a knowledge of social structure which is available only to ‘insiders’ (Dorian 1990:258).

Out group members may be ignorant of the very existence of these names in most cases; moreover, even when the ‘out group’ members do know of their alternate names, they are most often totally unaware of any emotive or figurative underpinning that may be connected with these names.

In the context of the work environment, those in power constitute the ‘out group’. These nicknames are often used to label an individual or express dislike toward another person’s attitude or behaviour, or they may simply be used to express a form of ridicule and repressed antagonism. This view is supported by scholars such as Holland (1990:258) who states that the use of nicknames, especially offensive ones, takes on social significance in that their covert usage can occur only in the company of like-minded people.

Dorian (1990:258) reinforces this viewpoint and adds the point that the one way in which a circle of friends can express social solidarity is by using, among themselves, certain offensive nicknames for others.

One way in which a group of friends express social solidarity is in freely using certain offensive by-names among themselves.

The concept of allusion is central to the metonymical practice of this form of personal alias. Leslie and Skipper (1990:276) make the valid point that meanings of nicknames are not to be found in dictionary definitions or even necessarily in their origins, but in their uses in everyday life.

This is in line with research conducted by Skipper (1986:137) which reveals that nicknames are used by specific groups as a symbol of solidarity as well as for venting frustration which may be caused by the person in question to whom the nickname is given. Similarly Cohen (1990:260), in his study of nicknames of inhabitants of an Italian village, observes that nicknames operate as boundary-defining and boundary-maintaining mechanisms for groups to whom separateness, difference, and distinctiveness are of particular value and importance. Suzman (1994:270) reinforces this point in her research into Zulu personal naming practices. She states:

Name-giving provides an outlet for the regulation of social relations in the intense social interaction of small communities. It allows people to communicate their feelings indirectly, without overt confrontation and possible conflict.

The situation in the South African work environment is one which is often marked by polarisation of the workforce. This, together with the collective consciousness of Black people, makes it easy to understand why this form of naming as an expression of social discontent, is so popular. It serves not only to reinforce the social bonds between those who use these names, but also to set social parameters. In most cases but not all, the ‘out group’ comprises a group of people who are male, Afrikaans or English speaking, with very little or no knowledge of Zulu. The people in senior positions appear not to bother to devise names for those subordinate to them; it seems always to be the reverse situation, where those in subordinate positions find power and freedom in this form of naming expression. McDowell (1990:15) refers to the use of nicknames given in this situation as a ‘membership badge’, a sign of belonging to a particular subculture, where the use of such nicknames allows one the freedom of linguistic ‘muscle flexing’ (De Klerk 2002:150).

I have recorded a number of examples of nicknames given in the work-place over the past fourteen years either from people who actually have given these nicknames, or people who work with or personally know those who have them. Some recipients of nicknames are aware of the nickname but have no idea of the meaning behind it. Workers accurately assess the behaviour and appearance of their co-workers and seniors, and this observation results in the imaginative and descriptive quality of the izifekethiso (nicknames) which they conceive. Imagery plays an important role in the conception of appropriate names for the target, and tied in with this imagery are aspects of symbolism and folklore as is evidenced in the nickname uThekwane (Hamerkop). This name was given to a certain engineer, thus named by his site staff because of his arrogant behaviour towards them. The link between the bird and the man derives from Zulu culture where the Hamerkop bird is described as an extremely vain and arrogant bird. This is due to the bird’s habit of peering motionless into the water for long periods of time, waiting for the opportunity to avail itself of unsuspecting fish. Zulu folklore regards this behaviour as vanity, where the bird is not seen to be fishing, but rather as constantly admiring its reflection in the water. Its arrogance is regarded as comical as the bird is not able to see its short-coming in the form of the unsightly crest which protrudes from the back of its head. Other more obvious types of nicknames describe physical appearance or idiosyncratic behaviour patterns such as uMakhalembuzi (Nostrils of the goat), uPelepele (Hot Tempered). Such names may be used to challenge people who are, by virtue of their position of authority, not open to criticism via other channels of censure.1

Conflict Expression in Izihasho/Izibongo

The most basic type of izibongo is simply a collection of extended names. This type of oral expression is the one accorded to the common man who, although his izibongo may contain references to events and efforts of endeavour, has not yet been elevated to a position of political importance. This type I prefer to refer to as izihasho. Being known by one’s izibongo/izihasho provides the person with a distinct identity, a sort of recognition and support which is important to his/her ego and psyche and for this very reason izibongo remain a popular and often necessary form of public expression. Barber offers great insight into the essence of this parallel form of oral expression with the Yoruba oriki. She states:

Oriki encapsulate, in a name, your essential being, your most cherished identity: but they also describe the parameters of the space into which you must expand – ‘living up to’ or reaching out into the horizons the name assigns (Barber 1999:39).

Here I would like to add that in addition to ‘living up to’, one can also witness in the izihasho researched in this thesis, that one may be exhorted to be wary of ‘living up to’ the more negative aspects expressed in censorious tones.

In view of the difficulty encountered when using these terms in the English translation, I have chosen rather to use them in their Zulu forms and trust that the explanations given to describe these terms give a better sense of what they represent in their totality.

The data captured in this study were originally composed orally, and the majority of the recorded data appeared for the first time as written text. In the Zulu oral texts which I have collected, the subjects are all taken to task for social conflict that has arisen because of, amongst other things, dishonesty, gossip mongering, excessive drinking, irresponsible squandering of income, laziness, and sexual promiscuity.

If one is not a member of the specific community, the only way to record texts that deal with very sensitive and private matters and which have never previously been captured in writing, is to get them from those who are very intimate with the people involved in the conflict situation, either because they are members of that person’s family or of their communities. In other words, the informants are ‘insiders’ in their respective communities, which validates the authenticity of the material as it comes in the majority of cases from the performers themselves, i.e. those who have recited or have been intimately connected with the performance of these izihasho.

The izibongo of men are indeed far more commonplace than those of women. If anything, women’s oral compositions are the exception rather than the rule. This appears to be the case throughout Africa. Mack who writes on Hausa Women’s oral ‘poetry’, states that although Hausa women of northern Nigeria do create oral and written literature that reflects their situations, attitudes, aspirations and perspectives on their community, they ‘are indeed exceptions in Hausa society’ (1986:181). Kolawole (1997:74) draws attention to the ‘immeasurable creative force of women’ throughout Africa, citing satirical songs among the Yoruba, maiden songs in Ghana, Galla lampoons, Kamba grinding songs, Igbo birth songs and folktales in all parts of Africa, but she makes the point that ‘their roles in cultural creativity have been undermined in the usual male/positive, female/negative attitude’. She goes on to say that there are countless examples in Africa where women excel in creatively adapting existing or new texts to contemporary situations. This is evident in the onomastic practices and izihasho of contemporary urban and rural Zulu women. However, in the many areas she points out in which women excel in their ‘immeasurable creativity’, there are no clear parallels to izihasho, which, amongst the Nguni, still tend to be a predominantly male domain.

Women’s izihasho are not performed at large and important public gatherings, but rather in more intimate settings, sometimes with men present from their community, but more often amongst other women in more informal settings such as in the fields, while working or while resting, or in certain homesteads when a celebration is taking place. When men are absent from such performances, women are at liberty to challenge and expose emotions and sentiments and to use vulgar language that is normally inexpressible in more formal, public domains. Gunner (1979:241) has documented some oral compositions of rural women in this genre, covering topics such as jealousy, love, sexual power relations, gossip and desertion.

Apart from the function of ‘poetic identity’ which Gunner cites, she also lists complaints and accusations as important functions of these izihasho. Tension and rivalries that exist in the close-knit structure of the Zulu polygamous unit find their legitimate outlet in izihasho through allusive diction. Gunner (1979:239) argues that:

The statement of complaint or accusation in a praise poem is an effective and socially acceptable way of publicly announcing one’s anger or grief.

In most polygamous societies, particularly in Zulu traditional rural societies where women live together in close proximity in a homestead situation, tensions tend to arise. Magwaza (2001:25) makes the point that in addition to this, women in such a patriarchal setting are given ‘minimal or marginal opportunity to air their views’. In line with this, Jafta (1978) and Ntshinga (1993) state that the very nature of Nguni tradition forbids a woman from talking openly about her marriage situation and its inherent problems. Magwaza (2001:27) supports this view:

Zulu women are viewed as custodians of culture who have a duty to transmit ethnic identity to the young. ‘Guarding the culture’ is held as an important responsibility. In instances where the very culture that is guarded is to the detriment of women’s dignity, respect and rights, she is not allowed by tradition ‘to answer a man back’.

Generally, the lines of a woman’s izihasho are known by people close to the recipient in her community setting. In analysing the content of these oral texts, one must take context into consideration. In these examples, the oral texts seem to be used as a form of reprimand but the severity of the chastisement depends largely on the context, and may vary from mild and playful teasing, to deprecation or derogation. The performance is not complete in itself – it exists within a recognised tradition. The impact that the recitation of these izihasho has, not only on the person at whom they are directed, but also on the people present, is totally reliant on the environment in which they are recited and also on who is responsible for reciting them. This will often also determine the purpose which the articulation of a person’s izihasho is intended to serve. In some cases, the izihasho may be recited by a woman in the community who wishes to admonish the mother of the target, in an attempt to comment on the lax control the mother has exercised over her child, as well as the moral looseness of the daughter, or to accuse another community member of having an illicit affair. In the vast majority of examples recorded, one must once again bear in mind that they are atypical examples of izihasho; it is more usual to find the good and the bad balanced and blended together to give an overall picture of the person. As this research focuses on aspects of conflict and criticism in the oral genre, it has resulted in the presentation of these specific examples of izihasho which clearly reflected social conflict and criticism.2

Izihasho zikaNomsa

Uvovo liyavuza,
Kadlulwa zindaba,
Kadlulwa bhulukwe.
Umathanga awahlangani
Ayazivulekela uma ebona ibhulukwe!

The strainer is leaking!
No news passes her by,
No man passes her by.
She whose thighs do not meet,
They open voluntarily when seeing trousers! (Turner 1995:60)

In these formulaic lines, this talkative woman who is well known amongst her associates in KwaMashu, is exposed for her immoral behaviour. The first line contains a reference to the image of uvovo (a woven beer strainer), a particularly striking metaphor, in which her gossip-mongering habits are likened to that of a strainer used to strain traditional beer. The metaphor Umathanga awahlangani is a well known Zulu expression referring to a ‘loose’ woman.

A man’s personality and identity are so tied in with his izihasho that they are not only confined to the performing situations of dance, song and izihasho, i.e. izigiyo,3 but are also composed and performed by non-professional composers (peers, friends and family members). Men’s izihasho are commonly recited at non-formal occasions such as on the playing fields – before, during or after a soccer match – by a player’s supporters; or when men come together to talk and drink, a newcomer perhaps being introduced by the recitation of his izithakazelo4 or izihasho; or they may be recited as a form of encouragement in whatever field of endeavour an individual may be engaged in, be it sport or some other type of activity. Despite the fact that the assumed underlying intention of this type of oral composition composed in contemporary times about ordinary people is usually a balanced type of oral ID, there exists a sub-genre which balances far more on the critical side than is typical of ‘normal’ izihasho. The style of composition of izibongo and izihasho is the same as far as form and mnemonic techniques used are concerned, but differs in function and content. These critical izihasho are aimed at particular individuals and perform a social function as the people who transgress these values are seen, perhaps, as threatening the stability which is regarded as desirable in their own particular social environment and are, as a result, socially censured by means of their oral records.

The most prevalent of the complaint motifs/criticisms registered in these compositions are drunkenness, dishonesty, failure to provide adequately for the family, gossiping and sexual promiscuity.

Izibongo zikaNtabazosizi Nxumalo

Wiliwili belungu!
Niyayithokh’ Ingilishi.
Yadl’ amahewu, yahewuleka!
Ushaya ngaphansi
Ushaya ngaphezulu.
Mfana unjengengane!
Uyababa, bhiya!
Uyababa, sitawoti!

Wiliwili, you white people!
You talk English.
You drank amahewu
And became drunk.
You are vomiting severely.
Boy you are like a baby!
You are bitter, beer!
You are bitter, stout!

This composition refers mainly to an incident involving Ntaba Nxumalo, an employee of the old South African Railways. He had a habit of talking English, which is why he is mocked in the first two lines, the word ‘wiliwili’ deriving from the verb ‘wiliza’ – to speak incoherently. The following six lines refer to an occasion when Nxumalo was suspected of stealing amahewu (a drink made from maize) from his fellow workers. One of his colleagues ‘doctored’ his ‘amahewu’ by dosing it severely with a laxative used for horses. The result after drinking the stolen amahewu was that Nxumalo was rushed to hospital after excessive vomiting. The last two lines are a satirical reference to the fact that the amahewu was reputedly bitter with the laxative added to it. These izihasho serve not only as a warning to others in the community about Nxumalo’s past indiscretion, but in their expression shortly after the event, were used as a means of diffusing a very unpleasant incident at Nxumalo’s work place.


One of the primary aims in conducting this research was to document the many previously unrecorded forms of naming strategies and izibongo/izihasho, which are sanctioned channels through which Zulu people manage issues of conflict and articulate criticism. At the same time I have shown how these oral forms reflect the value systems of the group. One must, however, bear in mind that value systems for the group are determined by dominant social values of the time.

The forms through which this conflict is expressed vary from culture to culture. In Zulu culture, since these forms are orally expressed, this type of communicative evidence or oral articulation of criticism and conflict has not been formally captured before in any depth, possibly due to the sensitive nature of the content. Through this research, material that would not normally be available to other researchers has been saved for posterity. Jandt (1973:4) makes the point that one desirable attribute of conflict is that through conflict man is creative, and it is this creativity in conflict communication captured in this study in the form of ingenious names and izihasho amongst the Zulu that is the focus of this research.

The most significant issue, however, which I feel needs attention as a result of this research, is the impact of urbanisation and industrialisation on the channels of normal articulation of censure and criticism amongst Zulu speaking people. The increasing shift of people from rural areas into urban areas affects the way people express themselves and deal with conflict, particularly amongst those no longer living in the situation of the extended family. Channels of communication previously open and available to those in extended family situations and communal societies are diminishing greatly or no longer exist in certain urban settings. The environment in which one may pass on a veiled message through naming, songs or izihasho and where one is familiar with the social background to such messages is not the norm in urban areas where one increasingly encounters the nuclear family living in isolation from the traditional extended family group. Without the acceptable channels of communication of discontent available to modern urban Zulu people, the question arises as to how these people now express their pent up frustrations and social conflict in our modern ever changing urban society. This is a topic that is relatively unexplored and merits the attention of future social and linguistic scholars in South Africa.


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  59. Turner, N.S. 1997. Onomastic Caricatures: Names given to Employers and Co-workers by Black Employees. Nomina Africana 11(1), 50-66.
  60. Turner, N.S. 1998. The Composition and Performance of Cryptic Social Messages in Zulu Onomastics. Voices, Journal for Oral Studies. Durban: University of Natal.
  61. Turner, N.S. 2000. Zulu Names and Indirect Expression. Names 48(2), 127-137.
  62. Turner, N.S. 2001. Humorous Names: Verbal Weapons. S.A. Journal of African Languages 21(4).
  63. Turner, N.S. 2003. Oral Strategies for Expression and Articulation of Social Conflict in Zulu Discourse. Unpublished PhD Thesis. Durban: University of KwaZulu-Natal.
  64. Vail, L. & White, L. 1991. Power and the Praise Poem. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.


  1. For further discussion and examples see Turner 2003 Chapter 4.
  2. For further discussion and examples see Turner 2003 Chapters 5 and 6.
  3. Specified personified solo dance songs performed by men and women.
  4. Oral poetic history of a clan.


This Issue


  • Jannie Malan

Civil Wars and Lootings in the Congo

How the poor pay the bill

  • Guillaume Iyenda

Amnesty and International Law

The case of the Lord's Resistance Army insurgents in Northern Uganda

  • Kasaija Phillip Apuuli

Eradicating African Wars

From political ambitions to military leadership and constructive military forces

  • Francois Vreÿ

Book Review

Problematising Resistance

  • Karanja Mbugua