Heritage Month | Celebrating amaZulu customs

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Words that are close to the inkosi’s name are not uttered; the words are hlonipha’d greatly. Photo: Supplied
Words that are close to the inkosi’s name are not uttered; the words are hlonipha’d greatly. Photo: Supplied



It is said that in kwaZulu people were afraid to peep into a river-pool, saying that a creature lived in the pool, which would pull them into it. Our practice in kwaZulu is not to permit any people to call the inkosi by his name, even those who are near to him in terms of blood.

Furthermore, other words that are close to the inkosi’s name are not uttered; the words are hlonipha’d greatly, and other syllables are sought by which the things being respected might be called.

In particular, women, even if they are members of the great house, hlonipha a lot.

Sometimes you cannot comprehend, in truth, what they are saying as they speak.

The inkosi of the Nwandwe was named Langa. The people of kwaNdwandwe did not call the sun above us “ilanga”, but instead “igala”, because they hlonipha’d the inkosi Langa.

While Mpande was still ruling kwaZulu, the roots of trees were not called “izimpande”; instead, they were called “izingxabo”

The Nxumalo people also used to hlonipha the word “kwalusa”. So, when they were talking about herding, they used to say “ukukhangeza” instead. This was on account of the fact that Malusi was an inkosi of the Nxumalo house.

While Mpande was still ruling kwaZulu, the roots of trees were not called “izimpande”; instead, they were called “izingxabo”. Thus did they hlonipha the inkosi Mpande.

Nkosi Cetshwayo was also hlonipha’d. One could not say the word ‘amacebo’ when people were fabricating lies; instead, one talked of “amakhwatha”.

For when they said “amacebo”, they were naming the inkosi, because the word contained the syllable ‘ce’.

Women particularly hlonipha’d the brothers and father of an inkosi and those who were close to him.

Here are other words by which one hloniphas:

  • Indlela: one hloniphas this word perhaps when the ruling inkosi is Ndlela, or perhaps a new wife hloniphas her father-in-law when his name is Ndlela, they would substitute the word ‘inyathuko’ for ‘indlela’.
  • Amanzi: the words used when one hloniphas this word are ‘amandambi’ or ‘amajiyimba’.
  • Inkukhu: When one hloniphas this word, one says ‘ikhwibi’.
  • Ukuhamba: Even the act of walking is a word that people hlonipha when it is part of someone’s name, and in that case one says “ukuhija”.
  • Amasonto: one says “amashaqa”
  • Ummese: one says “umbikado”
  • Inyama: some say “incosa”, others say “impeko”
  • Umfana: one says “umkhwaphewana”

Another writer in the Ancestral Voices collection, Claudia Ngobese, also looks at taboos and the practice of ukuhlonipha from the female perspective.

The next extract from Dhlomo’s writings relates to the veneration of Nomkhubulwana.


“Nomkhubulwana is also called iNkosazana. Each and every year, at the time when the hoes are taken in order to prepare the way [meaning that the cultivation is beginning], then all the people would go out and start by cultivating Nomkhubulwana’s field.

“And once they had returned from doing that, they would cultivate their own fields. When the mealies were just ripe, that night the girls would report to their mothers.

“Then all the women in all the homesteads would go out to phukula [meaning that they would beg for mealies and sorghum for making Nomkhubulwana’s beer]. The name of Nomkhubulwana’s beer is Nomdede.

“Then, once the Nomdede has started to lighten in colour, the girls would go out, naked, and take all the cattle in all the homesteads out to pasture. And when they returned in the morning they would then take children and bury them up to their necks, and then run away and leave them.

“They would eventually come back to unbury them. And at noon they would then return the cattle, dressed in their finery and wearing men’s loin-coverings. They would enter the cattle byre and dance like young men.

“They would then take the cattle back out to the pastures. Then maidens would carry the Nomdede beer and return it to the wilderness. They would then wash their bodies in order to remove the miasma.”

“The girls would then harvest the entire field of Nomkhubulwana, and it would be eaten up in a single day. Then the young men would come and drink that beer of Nomdede.

“During Nomkhubulwane’s time, Saturdays would be respected and nothing would be done on them. It might happen that if there was a woman who went out to go and gather new greens from the fields on a Saturday, she would meet Nomkhubulwane, who would grab her and tell her to go and tell the others. She would be seen only by women.

“It is said that Nomkhubulwana speaks with men only when she is hidden in mist or in a tree. Nomkhubulwana was also called princess Nomhoyi.”

RRR Dhlomo’s style complements his deep knowledge about his culture and customs. We honour his work.

RR Dhlomo is a name more widely known than the other writers’ in the Ancestral Voices collection. He was a journalist and novelist, known for writing historical novels about the amakhosi of the amaZulu. In 1929 he became the first published author of an isiZulu novel. His contribution to Ancestral Voices is extensive, containing some history (of the amaBhaca, the Sibiya and Ngcobo clans, and the Zulu civil war) but even more wonderful accounts of customs and traditions. RRR Dhlomo: Zulu Customs and Histories was written in isiZulu in 1939. The first of these extracts looks at the practice of ukuhlonipha: ‘respect, reverence, awe; the practice of avoiding in conversation the name of a person to whom respect is due’ 

Go to saheritagepublishers.co.za to read more


Delivering the 

news you need

+27 11 713 9001
69 Kingsway Rd, Auckland Park
We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24


Read the digital editions of City Press here.
Read now
Voting Booth
Stage 2 rolling blackouts will be implemented this evening with the possibility of it being escalated due to peak constraints. What is the solution to SA’s electricity crisis?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Subsidise solar
34% - 103 votes
Fire André de Ruyter
5% - 16 votes
Privatise Eskom
49% - 149 votes
Elon Musk ?????
13% - 39 votes