Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane. (Pic: Gallo)

Respect our language: A minister isn’t really going to defend President Zuma with her buttocks

Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane. (Pic: Gallo)
Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane. (Pic: Gallo)

Today, the South African media proudly told the world that a woman – a cabinet minister, at that – was so devoted to President Jacob Zuma that she would defend him with her buttocks.

I will give you a moment to reread that sentence, because if you are a learned speaker of any language it will quickly occur to you that such a statement is nonsensical. But if you are a speaker of a Sotho language, then you will not need to reread this statement, as it will be immediately clear to you that this is, in fact, a direct translation of the idiom Re tlo thiba ka dibono.

The saying directly translates to “we will block with our buttocks”. It simply means that the sayer pledges to (along with some group) defend an individual or ideal with every ounce of their being, even if that means the last resort will be to use a traditionally non-confrontational body part. There are hints by some that this saying comes from Sotho participation in the Anglo-Boer war where Sotho soldiers witnessed Scotsman die with their behinds revealed due to Scottish attire. I cannot say for sure if this is entirely true.

But apparently, this moment to reread this sentence was not afforded to the reporter who wrote this story and the editors who ran it – they neither had the time to research this idiom nor the interest in using this opportunity to provide the interesting history behind it. The original news report by the South African Press Association was republished on various websites including City PressSowetanLIVE and Independent Online.

No, kind reader, the reporter was far too busy being excited about shoveling out another click-bait headline to give themselves the time to think about the dangers of misrepresenting Minister Nomvula Mokonyane. But the poor soul of this reporter is not my business here.

I am in the business of speaking Setswana and what an interesting  business it is today. And by “interesting,” I mean “poorly advertised”, for had it been properly marketed, perhaps, the reporter would have heard about the over three million speakers of the language living in South Africa, and may have tried to contact at least one for clarification on the quote.

Perhaps it is poor marketing that prevented them from realising that an entire nation of Setswana speakers lies right above South Africa, and another nation of Sotho speakers actually lies in South Africa. Maybe if they knew this, they would have thought twice about their attempts to make the minister sound like a fool, by refusing to acknowledge the possibility that her language has any semblance of sophistication.

I want very much, as you can see, for this to be a matter of ignorance. And not what I fear it to be: a matter of pure disrespect. To refuse to investigate the meaning and context of this quote, is to refuse to consider that a language that has lived longer than South Africa can have the sophistication required for the phrase “fight with my buttocks” to make sense. To lazily slap on a headline with the barest seeking-out of clarification is to say to the speakers of that language that you will not even bother to think that it can have any kind of nuance, any kind of intellectual flexibility or in fact any kind of maturity.

The very idea that a woman would proudly proclaim that she will defend her leader with her buttocks should strike the listener as strange. But it appears this did not happen to the reporter of this story. For if it had, perhaps it may have occurred to him/her that there is a level of meaning that they are clearly missing. Perhaps, they would have wondered what they are missing.

But no, it is far more fashionable to undermine the intelligence of South African ministers, it is far more fashionable to undermine the complexity of African languages and it is obviously far more fashionable at the moment to insult African people as a whole.

And to that I say, le tla ipona! Or as the reporter might publish, “You will see yourselves!”

Siyanda Mohutsiwa is a 21-year-old mathematics major at the University of Botswana. She is currently slumming it in Finland. Follow her on Twitter: @SiyandaWrites


  1. Lebogang Moate says:

    I like Siyanda’s reasoning about Minister Mokonyane being misinterpreted. That’s something I personally wished would have been the case. However, for someone who is in the business of speaking Setswana, Siyanda seems to have lost the plot. It is not about what the minister said, not about which language she used, nor how it was translated. It is about what the whole statement stands for. It explains to which extend it will take for her (and whoever shares her sentiments) to stand by President Zuma. The context of her statement is really the crux of the matter. We’ve had the likes of Julius Malema who pledged to “kill” for Zuma, but if one studied the context of his statement, you would know that he didn’t mean it literally. The same applies to Mokonyane’s statement. Thank you for the lesson, but that’s not what the whole buttock issue was about. Those were headlines to create interest, but the contents of those stories gave a clearer picture if you read them properly, and there were no elements of disrespect to the minister. In fact she should be apologising for her statement.

    It is quiet sad to hear that Minister Nomvula Mokonyane would so proudly speak in support of a man who is surrounded by so much controversy. It goes to show that people like Minister Mokonyane have no interest on what is right for South Africa. They are willing to do anything to protect Zuma, who is not the right person for this country at the current moment, given the dramas surrounding him. By virtue of being president, Zuma is an interesting figure and people would want to write stories about him. But he cannot be so interesting that almost everyone is accusing him of wrong doing for no apparent reason, when the facts are there on plain sight. We cannot have or allow ministers to insult our intelligence. We cannot keep quiet while they are playing duck and dives, failing to answer questions as to when they will be paying the money they stole from the public. They should account, they shoud tell us why they steal from us. The people are suffering, yet they are living large. They protect each other so they can perpetuate corruption which leaves an ordinary citizen in hunger. She, like President Zuma, has her own share of scandals that were exposed by the media. If the idiom “Birds of the same feather flock together” means anything, then who the shoe fits, let them wear it, as long as it is not with the expense of the people of South Africa.

  2. philosoraptor says:

    Here’s where you’re going wrong: You think South Africans are worried about this part: “with our buttocks”. That’s not the problem part. Your knee-jerk reaction is suspect, and a diversion.
    The REAL problem is “We will defend Zuma”. THAT’S the problem.
    It implies “We will defend Zuma no matter what“.
    It implies “We will put the defence of Zuma above defence of our country”.
    It implies “We will defend Zuma ahead of defending our fellow citizens”.
    It implies “We will defend Zuma ahead of doing our jobs”.
    It implies “We will defend Zuma ahead of doing our duty”.
    It implies “We will defend Zuma even if innocent parties (eg. the Public Protector) have to be sacrificed in the effort”.
    It implies “We will defend Zuma even if he is guilty”.
    THAT’S the actual problem.

  3. Arno Visagie says:

    Dear me Mohutsiwa, I have empathy with your frustration. The reporter knew exactly what he/she was doing. I was about your age in the late 80’s when my culture was too intentionally misrepresented by reporters. One example, the Afrikaans saying of “Ja-Nee”. In Afrikaans it makes sense, but a direct translation “Yes-No” makes one sound like an idiot. The reason for this was the unfair, discriminatory, racist apartheid system primarily Afrikaners inflicted on others. Consequently people would use any proverbial “stick to hit the dog”. I for see an increase in such occurrences, unless the current government stops it’s current discriminatory practices against minorities. There is nothing worse, for a young person, than to walk down the street and be greeted by the open hatred painted on the faces of passers by.
    Arno Visagie (Engineer)

  4. Kwane says:

    Siyanda, whether or not the minister was entitled to use that phrase is neither here nor there; and for you to offer context without addressing the real import of her message is unfortunate in the extreme. The onus on you was to then tell non-Sotho speaking people what the minister intended to convey: that she and her ilk will do whatever it takes, by means fair or foul, to defend the indefensible, the corrupted president who rules our land.

    Perhaps whilst you were still on about the education, you could have attempted to give a balanced position for instance by stating that this is the same woman who brazenly told Bekkersdal residents that the anc does not need their ‘dirty votes’. The same mouth that spewed that hogwash is the same mind that uttered the figure of speech.

    Your thoughts whilst giving context are weakened by the fact that you do not address the aptness or otherwise of that statement. I will do it for you. That statement is wrong, that statement seeks to undermine our Constitution just so to defend one man, a man who has not only divided the party he leads but our country. Mokonyane is willing to defend a man who potentially has committed treason against all of us.

    And for all of that, including the figure of speech, the anc can thank those members of the electorate who gave their ‘clean votes’ to the anc, to zuma and his sycophants, which include the person you went out of your way to defend. The voters of Bekkersdal will laugh at you if they saw this attempt at being an apologist for the person who insulted them. Peace to you.

  5. Heinrich says:

    And Juju said he will die for Zuma.
    Perhaps he meant dye.Like now he’s gone red. Read that in the EFF’n news.
    And of course this lady will do anything for Zuma. Did he not rescue her from the dirty voters and put her in charge of the cleansing waters?

  6. majoro says:

    I am Sotho and i can tell you that i have never heard a statement or idiom that says “Re tla thiba ka libono” all i know is “Ntoa kea libono” whic is a fierce fight, but this one is new and what the minister meant here only she knows. that is not sesotho.

    • DA says:

      I think the real question is why does she feel the need to defend Zuma from anything? It seems to me that it is far more worrying that she will defend him at all costs, because IF he has nothing to hide then he should not need defending… Now we ALL know that he does have many things to hide and to answer for. What I take from her statement is that even if Zuma is guilty that the ANC loyalists will do everything in their power to prevent the law and the constitution from being applied fairly as it would to any other citizen of SA. That she feels so strongly about that is the most worrying thing – not that she’ll use her butt to do it…

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