Final Word

Is President Zuma taking ‘havoc’ to its roots?


All the controversies surrounding President Jacob Zuma and the avalanche of bad publicity, political battles, court cases and civil protests associated with them, are playing havoc with the African National Congress and with the government he leads.

While the governing party is finding it tough going to contain the fallout of the controversies, ranging from the irregular upgrades to Mr Zuma’s private Nkandla residence to alleged state capture by his Gupta friends, much of the ‘havoc’ is caused by the fact that opposing anti- and pro-Zuma factions are running ‘amok’ – battling it out in public.

Interestingly, in this context of doing battle, ‘havoc’ has its origin in an ancient military order to troops engaged in battle. But more about that later as we first have a look at the origins of the word ‘amok’.

The term arrived in Europe in the 17th century courtesy of the global exploring pioneers, the Portuguese, as amouco from, ironically, the Malayan word mengamuk.

It described an “episode of sudden mass assault against people or objects – usually by an individual following a period of brooding.”

Originally it has been regarded as something peculiar to Malay culture, but it has since been recognised as psychopathological behaviour occurring worldwide in numerous countries and cultures. 

In Malay/Indonesian culture, ‘amok’ was rooted in a deep spiritual belief that ‘amok’ was caused by the hantu belian, an evil tiger spirit that entered one’s body and caused the heinous acts.

Entering Western culture

One of the first descriptions of ‘amok’ in the West appears in the journals of the British explorer Captain James Cook, who encountered ‘amok’ first-hand in 1770 during a voyage around the world. He wrote about individuals behaving in a reckless, violent manner, without cause and “indiscriminately killing and maiming villagers and animals in a frenzied attack”.

However, South African society took note of the phenomenon somewhat earlier and it was recorded in the Cape in 1739 when the slave Alexander van Macassar ran amok because he was not allowed to serve at the dinner table and sent back to the kitchen.

In 1849, ‘amok’ was officially classified as a psychiatric condition based on numerous reports and case studies that showed the majority of individuals who committed ‘amok’ were, in some sense, mentally ill.

In modern English, however, the physical violence associate with ‘amok’ has just about disappeared and the term has become associated with situations where events get out of control – be it a crowd at a soccer match or when the discipline in a political party becomes non-existent.

When ‘amok’ and ‘havoc’ meet

One can probably argue that some of the allegations against Mr Zuma and his state capture collaborators have, politically speaking, run ‘amok’, causing ‘havoc’ to ANC as an organisation and with its reputation.

Considering the nature of the accusations against Mr Zuma and those collaborators, ‘havoc’ might be quite an appropriate term to use. 

The term ‘havoc’ arrived in English during the early 15th century from the expression ‘cry havoc’. It soon made it into one of Shakespeare best known dramas, Julius Caesar, as “’ Cry 'Havoc!', and let slip the dogs of war.”   

Its precise lineage is unsure. Some guess it is of Germanic origin, but it might also be Latin’s habere, meaning ‘to have or possess’.

It came to English from the Old French havot, which means ‘pillaging or looting’ and is related to haver, meaning ‘to seize or grasp’. The original “cry havoc” was a signal or order to soldiers on attack to proceed to seize or plunder.

The modern sense of the word, ‘to cause devastation’, was first recorded in the late 15th century.

Final word

Considering the accusation that there was state capture by Zuma and friends, it is interesting what the Online Etymology Dictionary states about the word ‘pillage’, so closely associated with ‘havoc’: “… pillage, ‘act of plundering’ (especially in war), from Old French pilage (14c.) ‘plunder’, from pillier ‘to plunder, loot, ill-treat’, possibly from Vulgar Latin piliare ‘to plunder’, probably from a figurative use of Latin pilare ‘to strip of hair’, perhaps also meaning ‘to skin’.”

by Piet Coetzer

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