Final Word

Hollywood helped, but Malema’s Zupta Zombies are out of Africa


When Julius Malema referred to the Zuma-led African National Congress as zombies he was not referring to a Hollywood horror movie, but rather to an age-old African culture.

“Our leaders have been converted into zombies by Mennells, Ruperts, Oppenheimers and now Guptas”; and “The ANC has been zombified. These are zombies. They are all Mgijimis,” he said.

While the reference to “zombies” immediately brought some Hollywood horror movies to mind, I was initially at a loss as to what the implications could be of him calling them “Mgijimis”. It only came to light after a search to discover the origin of the word ‘zombie’ (sometimes also spelled without the ‘e’ at the end) and its root meaning.

It turns out that the roots of the word go back to ancient Africa and its religious belief system and mythologies.

Various sources tell the story of ‘zombie’ slightly differently, but it is clear that it originated in ancient West Africa and/or the forests of the Congo with some links to a mythological snake-god.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘zombie’ was first recorded in English in 1819 and derives from the Kikongo language words zumbi (meaning ‘fetish’) and nzambi (meaning ‘a god’ or ‘spirit of a dead person’). Kikongo is in Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and surrounding areas.

On the blog of the Oxford Dictionaries we are, however, also informed that the exact etymology of the word is unclear. ‘Zombie’ eventually landed in the Caribbean from where it spread across the globe.

Spreading on the wings of colonialism

The history of how the word spread across the world, was best summarised in a 2015 BBC documentary which informed us that it spread from the areas to where European slavers forcibly transported vast numbers of the population across the Atlantic to work in the sugar cane plantations of the West Indies.

The Africans took their religion with them. However, French law required slaves to convert to Catholicism.

A series of elaborate synthetic religions, creatively mixing elements of different traditions: Vodou or Voodoo in Haiti, Obeah in Jamaica, Santeria in Cuba, emerged.

Not everywhere ‘zombie’ had the same meaning: In Martinique and Haiti it could be a general term for spirit or ghost, and elsewhere any disturbing presence at night that could take myriad forms.

Gradually it coalesced around the belief that bokors or witch doctors could render their victims seemingly dead – either through magic, powerful hypnotic suggestion, or perhaps a secret potion. When then revived, they were personal slaves whose souls or wills had been captured.

The zombie, in effect, is the logical outcome of being a slave: without will, without name, and trapped in a living death of unending labour.

Europe became obsessed with Voodoo, a religious cult that developed from combining elements of Roman Catholic rituals with traditional African magical and religious rites, characterised by sorcery and spirit possession. The name of the cult comes from the West African language, Fon, spoken in what is today known as Benin. In Fon the word voodoo means ‘spirit’.

Conditions in the French colony of Haiti were so dreadful and the death rate among slaves so high, it led to the slave rebellion of 1791.

In 1804 Haiti, after a protracted revolutionary war, became the world’s first independent black republic.

From the word go, because its very existence affronted European colonisers’ world view, Haiti was demonised by them as a place of violence, superstition and death. Throughout 19th century, constant reports of cannibalism, human sacrifice and dangerous mystical rites dominated stories about Haiti.

In 1915 America occupied Haiti and these stories coalesced around the ‘zombie’.

American forces attempted a systematic destruction of the native religion of Voodoo, but only succeeded to reinforce its power.

In 1932, as American occupation was coming to an end, with the last troops leaving in 1934, the myth of a ‘White Zombie’ made an appearance.

As the BBC put it: “America went in to ‘modernise’ a country they considered backward – but instead returned home carrying this ‘primitive’ superstition.”

American pulp magazines of the 1920s and ’30s were increasingly full of tales of the vengeful undead.

Two key writers, William Seabrook and Zora Neale Hurston, at the end of the ’20s not only travelled to Haiti but also – sensationally – claimed to have encountered actual zombies.

Hollywood, to this day, builds on this tradition that started in Africa.

Final word

And why does Malema call the ANC leadership under Jacob Zuma with his intimate links to the Gupta family “Mgijimis”? When a man with the name Mpiyakhe in African folklore was turned into a zombie, he was renamed “Mgijimi”, which means ‘runner’, and was commanded to run errands for his master.

by Piet Coetzer

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