OPINION: Umqombothi nempepho: A fitting ambience that bolstered the UCT land debate

Nkosikhulule Xhawulengweni Nyembezi

It was intuitive for the organisers and partakers in the debate held at UCT on Friday, 09 March, on the meaning of the ANC’s recent conference resolution to expropriate land without compensation, to include the burning of impepho incense, the drinking of umqombothi, and the eating of meat as part of the activities.

What was expressed in words of the speakers Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, Luleka Flatela and Mzi ‘Matigari’ Sibeko and the audience was fittingly complemented in action by the inclusion of the grass mat, impepho, umqombothi, and sheep tripe. This careful combination expanded participation through the senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. It also facilitated interaction between the body and the spirit, the living and the dead, the natural and cosmic world.

What are we to make of these things in a modern space at UCT and in democratic South Africa?

In large measure the analysis of the ambience accompanying the debate on land should also focus on the use of extemporaneous oratory to construct frameworks of meaning within which the experience and effects of colonial land dispossession and present day land restoration must be reinterpreted and implemented. The organisers of the debate not only contextualized the rituals and nuances at hand but also strengthened the call for further interrogation of the narrative that must inform land restoration to the rightful owners in a manner that restores dignity and Ubuntu value system.

In brief, the situation is this: over the past century or so, land expropriation, rural underdevelopment, and population pressure have forced the majority of Africans to shift from enjoying use and enjoyment of the land to virtually permanent participation in the dehumanizing system of “oscillating migration” to the mines and factories of South Africa. It also forces Africans to migrate from their homes in search of education opportunities in places such as UCT. The deliberate debate and programme on land restoration should also, amongst other things, encourage Africans to connect with their culture in whatever form, thus ensuring that the as migrants they continue to upholds African values and conserve their intellectual resources in the alien environment of a colonial university, return to the broad society at the completion of their studies, and reinvests their skills and knowledge the African family system.

Indeed, the ambience accompanying the debate on land should remind us that the taxonomic classification of animals amongst the Nguni, Sotho, Tsonga, and other Southern Africa indigenous people singles out three significant categories: (a) flesh-eating animals and wild beasts (isiXhosa: amaramncwa; isiZulu: iisilwanyane); (b) game including antelopes (isiXhosa: iinyamakazi; isiZulu: iinyamazane); and (c) domestic animals (isiXhosa: imifuyo; isiZulu: isilwane sasekhaya). These are homologous with the tripartite spatial categories of (a) forest (isiXhosa, isiZulu: ihlati), (b) grassland (isiXhosa: ithafa; isiZulu: izwe elinotshani), and (c) homestead (isiXhosa: umzi; isiZulu: umuzi). The forest (which may include true forests and dense savanna) is a place of awe and danger and yet an integral part of the land that must be restored to indigenous people.


    In the forests fearsome spirits gather and it is where much of the medicinal plants are obtained as well as timber and other products of economic value. In contrast, the homestead provides the model for human society, as it is here where the social life of an individual takes place. The social and ritual center is represented by the cattle byre, where slaughtering of animals occurs. Forest and homestead represent the opposition nature/culture, and this polarity is also reflected by the associated animals.

    The grassland, from where impepho is harvested, and its antelope fauna mediate between these two extremes of the forest and the homestead. Rivers tend to take their rise in the forest patches of the mountains, and flow through the grassland and past homesteads to drain into the sea, thus mediating between the two areas. Among Southern Africa indigenous people, the River People (Xhosa: abantubomlambo) are believed to live under water, being powerful and benevolevolent, and often an integral part of the ancestry. The two poles, nature and culture, are mediated by the ambiguous and yet tangible image of the above mentioned classifications.

    The grass mat is made out of reeds harvested from a river. Indeed, it is for that reason that the Zulu king is addressed to as uHlangalomhlabathi, as a direct reference to the linkage between the reeds, the rivers, as part of the land that belongs to the indigenous people. Also, the ten rands note has a Nguni inscription, “Libhangesilulu Leningizumu Afrika” in reference to the Reserve Bank of South Africa. More specifically to in reference to isilulu in African culture. There are two items of economic value that use the word isilulu. The first one is a canoe made out of reeds which was and still is an important mode of transportation to navigate the rivers. The second one is a treasure box that stores items of economic value used for trade. All these have direct links to the land, and were symbolically represented at the debate in the form of the grass mat.

    Traditional beer is regarded as honouring the users. At social gatherings it passes from person to person and from group to group, cementing old social ties and creating new ones. The interrelatedness of material culture and social practice becomes apparent when we look more closely at the rich beer traditions of the Lobedu people, who typify the cross-cutting traditions of the indigenous people in South Africa.

    Unlike the economies of Nguni societies, which revolve around cattle, traditional Lobedu economy is based on grain. Beer rather than blood is the main sacrificial substance, and beer drinking has greater social significance. Beer brewed from maize and sorghum is an integral part of almost every aspect of traditional Lobedu social life also because, as a food, its nutrients are important to the diet. Beer also has economic value as a medium of exchange, and without land there would be no crops to provide ingredients for traditional beer.

    Ando so, many of those who graduate from university should never willingly or unwillingly return home having either squandered their African values in the towns or disposed of them independently in favour of exploitative capitalist ideas that seek to equate land ownership by Africans as being synonymous with owning an RDP house. In such cases the graduates would have failed to “build the African family system rooted in land ownership” and thus would have evaded the authority of their elders; impoverished their families; disappointed their lineal relatives; and displeases their ancestors who paid a heavy price resisting colonial land dispossessions; endangered their moral, spiritual, and physical health.

    Nkosikhulule Xhawulengweni Nyembezi is a human rights activist and a member of UCT community.


      Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of Vernac News

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