Final Word

In Africa what’s on the cards is all in the bones


The discovery in a South African cave of more than 1 500 fragments of bones representing 15 individuals, caused international excitement and some startling reactions. (Read more)

No reaction was more startling than the one from one-time trade union boss and now aspiring political leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, who dismissed the discovery as a racist conspiracy. He was backed up in his claim by not only a former parliamentary chief whip of the ANC, Mathole Motshekga, but also by none other than the South African Council of Churches’ president, Bishop Ziphozihle Siwa.

But let’s make no bones about it, if you were surprised by this reaction, you frankly do not know how to read the lie of the bones in the South African sociopolitical environment. Such a reaction has always been on the cards.

The expressions it’s in/on the cards and it’s in the bones and their sister expressions of reading the cards or bones and throwing the bones, essentially all have the same meaning. But although not exclusively so, the bones expression is typically African and deeply ingrained in the culture of some South African tribes.

In the cards

The expression in/on the cards is mostly used in English as an indication that something is likely to happen, be it positive or negative. It is based on the use of tarot cards with pictures representing different elements of life (from material wellbeing to love or potential disaster).

A deck of tarot cards, whose origin can be traced back to at least ancient Egypt, is used by diviners or fortune tellers to predict future events or developments. Over time the metaphorical use of the expression in/on the cards has become common usage, without a second thought about the acceptance or not of the validity of tarot readings.

More often than not, someone would say or write that “the way I see things” this or that is likely or not likely to happen, as a way of saying it is how he or she interprets the facts, factors or trends at play in a given situation, implying a thorough knowledge and understanding of issues.

In the bones

In a number of cultures the throwing or casting of bones, and sometimes other items like shells and nuts, is used by psychics who claim inspired divinations to help find answers to life’s questions and guidance for the future.

This practice or tradition of divination takes on a wide variety of forms in different parts of the world, from Africa to Asia and North America, with the number and type of bones, the inclusion of other small objects, such as pebbles, shells and hard nuts, differing from culture to culture.

The tradition of casting or throwing the bones has deep traditional roots in some African cultures, especially surrounding the sangomas or divining healers of the Zulu, Swazi, Xhosa, and Ndebele peoples of southern Africa. They are usually also trained herbalists, spirit mediums, and diviners.

It is therefore not surprising that the metaphorical use of throwing and reading the bones has become a common expression in our part of the world – more so than one would find in other parts of the English-speaking world.

As is the case with the expression in/on the cards, using the bones expression implies a thorough knowledge and understanding of the facts and factors at play in a given situation.

Make no bones about

The expression to make no bones about something, however, has its origin in another part of the world and in a different cultural environment.

Meaning to ‘speak frankly and directly’ or ‘without difficulty’, this expression and versions of it date back to at least the mid-15th century. There are no absolute certainty about its roots, but the most widely accepted explanation is that the bones in this expression refer to the absence of them in a soup of stew.

Soup or stew without bones would offer no difficulty or danger in eating and thus no hesitation to swallow it.

Another explanation offered is that it comes from old gambling dice, which were made from bones, suggesting that the metaphorical meaning comes from not having to guess or have any doubt about something – there is no need for uncertainty.

The earliest citation of the phrase in print dates back to 1459 in the Paston Letters, recording the settlement of a legal dispute. It includes the line: “And fond that tyme no bonys in the matere.”

While race or racism remains one of the big ‘bones of contention’ in the South African sociopolitical environment, we make no bones about saying that those surprised by Vavi’s reaction to the Homo Naledi discovery failed to read the fall of the political bones in the country correctly.

Final word on bones

There is, however, one more American variant of the expression of throwing the bones that does not seem to tie up with the background of it elsewhere in the world.

More correctly, the American expression is throw dem bones, mainly linked to the ‘art’ of picking up or seducing women. The ‘game’ of flirting with women is, especially among African-American males, referred to as throwing bones at them.

Just maybe a sangoma some years ago saw in bones thrown for President Jacob Zuma that the future president would be such a thrower of bones himself that he would need a Nkandla estate to accommodate all his wives.

by Piet Coetzer

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