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. Vaaltuin says:

    I think its time for us as BASOTHO to publish our dictionary so that those who want to learn our language in large can do so,Without miss interprete our language..

  2. nitram says:

    Regardless of the language used, nuance or inflection, language and image reflect our thoughts and beliefs. The use of any image relating to a person’s arse or buttocks is almost universally derogatory. The incongruity of the explanation is fatuous. In today’s complex multilingual world, political leaders must surely choose their words wisely, words that will have the widest possible meaning, conveying the thrust of their intention

  3. Wreford White says:

    Seems to me that most of the poplace that would normally understand that phrase would be so remote in their mud huts in the “outback” to care.

  4. Heinrich says:

    This is supposed to be “Voices of Africa”. Only comments in agreement are published. Other “voices” are just deleted. Is this the Africa we want?

  5. one should commend Siyanda for her boldness and a powerful article. The South African media houses are doing these things purposefully so they sell papers without looking at repercussions their articles might have. The minister is a very dignified person let alone our president, she will never use any part of her body to defend the president. The journalist knew exactly the meaning of the idiom but chose to use to discomfit the minister and our beloved president.
    This kind of uncalled for behavior has been happening in various media houses where they purposefully alter the truth so it suits their continued hatred towards the president. The dignity of the office he holds is dragged into shambles, his family and children, the world at large is laughing at us for such negative publicity upon our leadership.
    Let all South Africans see these journalist for who they are and ignore their lame articles. I wish Mokonyane success in her new responsibility and take our country forward in such a key and strategic department (DWSA)

    • m.mofokeng says:

      It is very interesting that Siyanda’s knowledge of idiomatic expressions and socio-linguistics surpasses that of South African sesotho speakers. Idiomatic expressions are interpreted in their context, the same way she has gone to observe that as far as she’s concerned the headlines sought to ‘portray the minister as a fool etc’. Interpretation of an objective situation is invariably subjective. Those who live with utterances that despise the electorate of South Africa, including the same minister’s previous utterance about ‘rotten votes’ have the same freedom of analysis as Siyabonga does, with exactly the same background knowledge of idiomatic expression – for some of us Sesotho is our mother tongue and hurried defensive tutorials are unnecessary as we interpret the contextual sense of a statement. Its presumptuous to believe that in all those newspaper press rooms there is no Mosotho who has a teaspoonful of knowledge of Sesotho idioms.

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