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Zuma’s legacy and African proverbs

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Jacob Zuma has become the proverbial scapegoat for much of the inherent fault lines of the ANC while himself delivering some new additions to Africa’s rich heritage in proverbs.

 Last week in this column we wrote about the Zuma’s legacy as leader of the African National Congress, and the country, and how that legacy can be associated with almost proverbial words or terms like jackpot. We will return to the subject of ‘almost proverbial words.’ However, doing research for this week’s planned column about African proverbs, we came under the impression of how much more positive Mr Zuma’s legacy would have been if he took heed of some of those African proverbs.

Definition of proverb

Let’s first look what the term proverb implies. According to the Collins Dictionary, a proverb “is a short sentence that people often quote, because it gives advice or tells you something about life.” It gives as an example the old Arab saying: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

As a noun it is used as a short, memorable, and mostly highly condensed saying representing, with mostly some imagery, a commonplace fact or experience; and a person or thing exemplary in respect of a characteristic, like ‘he is a real fox.’

The word, proverb, comes from Latin’s proverbium (literally meaning ‘words put forward) for a simple and concrete saying, popularly known, and repeated, that expresses a truth based on common sense or experience.

The term arrived in Middle English as proverbe, taken over from Middle French, where it was spelled the same.

Proverbs of Africa

Africa, and its languages, has a long proud tradition of producing proverbs. The first know mention of this in Europe, happened as far back as the 5th century BC, when the Greek historian Herodotus noted that the people, who inhabit Africa “are the wise people, which live a long life, has magnificent manners, and speech.”

He believed that gods preserve Africans and that the African wise men created eloquent expressions, which inspired people on feats. Since those times, some of these phrases travelled all over the world.

Some of the most wise and well-known African proverbs, include:

  • Only a fool tests the depth of a river with both feet (The person, who doesn't think about danger, is silly);
  • Don’t set sail using someone else’s star(Don't try to imitate someone. Be yourself. Be original);
  • Do not follow a person who is running away; and
  • A chattering bird builds no nest.

And, as some of the leaders in the ANC are advising Mr Zuma that the time has come for him to retire, we believe he will do well to heed the wisdom of the African proverb that holds that: “Ears that do not listen to advice, accompany the head when it is chopped off.”

Reading what his successor as ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa, had to say about the expropriation of land without compensation, we would advise him, in turn, to heed the wisdom of another African proverb: “If you run after two hares you will catch neither.

Words as “almost” proverbs

We kicked-off this column with the statement that Mr Zuma has become a scapegoat for much of the inherent fault lines of the ANC. It turns out that the term has a particularly interesting background – not only should we, by right, never have had such a word, and it is not really a proverb.

While scapegoat is not a phrase, it like other words, such as lackadaisical and whipping boy, carries so much figurative and implied content, that it is in reality a complete proverb.

From the website The Phrase Finder we learn that William Tyndale, when involved with the 1530 translation of the Bible to English made a mistake in Leviticus 16, where the Mosaic ritual of the Day of Atonement is described, where one of two goats was chosen by lot to be sent alive into the wilderness, symbolically carrying the sins of the people.

Tyndalemisread ʿăzāzel' in the original and translated it as 'ez ozel', literally 'the goat that departs' or ‘the goote on which the lotte fell to scape.’ In the Revised Version of 1884, which has ‘Azazel’ as a proper name in the text, the mistake was rectified.

However, according to The Phrase Finder “… by that time the word had already been established as a commonplace word. So, commonplace in fact that, in the way that 'gate' is now added to form the name for any scandal, the 18th century gave us 'scape-horses', 'scape-rats' and 'scape-geese'.”

As part of Mr Zuma’s legacy, words and names like Zuptas, Nkandla, state capture, and the like is heading the same way.

by Piet Coetzer

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