Celebrating Our Heritage – The African cultural milieu and our common humanity

(This article was first published on ANC Today, the online journal of the ANC, Volume 7, No. 40 • 12—18 October 2007)

DESPITE THE EFFORTS of successive colonial and apartheid regimes to obliterate the African cultural milieu, orature and literature have served both as a shield and weapon of struggle.

This brief review examines the role of some Lu/Tshivenda language proverbs and names as constituting an antithesis to what seems to prevail as the dominant view about human relations. To the extent that this review projects such an antithesis, it provides us with an opportunity to realise a different kind of human relations, this time based on values of Ubuntu.

From the onset, we have to contend that the value that the Tshivenda cultural and philosophical milieu portends is equally true of all African languages as illustrated in the contributions of orators, poets and writers in various African languages.


The binding thread of African humanism is expressed in some of our languages in the adage: “Muthu ndi muthu nga vhanwe” (Tshivenda) “Motho ke motho ka batho” (Se-Tswana and Se-Sotho), Umuntu umuntu nga bantu (Isi-Zulu), Munhu i munhu hi vanwani vanhu (Xi-Tsonga), Umntu ngumntu ngabantu (Isi-Xhosa) – A person is a person in virtue of other people.

The way in which human beings are realised as human, recognise their humanity in others, is illuminated in most of our proverbs and sayings. For example, many Tshivenda proverbs invite both young and old to interrogate their responsibility and value as members of society. They reflect people’s attempt to master themselves and their environment, trying to come to terms with associated challenges and opportunities. The following proverbs illustrate the point.

  • Nwana mula malofha mavhisi, thumbuni u onya hawe: One who feeds on raw blood invites constipation.
  • Funguvhu le thilaiwi la fhira mudi lo kovhela: The crow did not heed advice against moving about at night, and as a result, flew past its home after dark.
  • Muhulwane u kanda mupfa a tshi u vhona: A mature person steps on a thorn when they see that they are stepping on one.
  • U kona gumba ndi u mila. Wa tafuna li a tshitshita: The best way to swallow a raw egg is without chewing.
  • A dzimana ula malombe. Mukosi a a phalalana: Feuding parties do not invite each other to feast, but close ranks in times of need.
  • Tshiliwa ndi tshika ya mano: Food is dirt for the teeth.
  • Mulilo wa mbava a u orwi: Do not warm yourself at the fireplace of a thief.
  • Thonga a ipfi ndo doba, ipfi ndo vhada: One does not pick up a walking stick, one makes it.
  • Kholomo ya ndila a i fhedzi pfulo: A passing cow does not finish our own cow feed.
  • Naho wa i viela phakhoni, mafunguvhu a do rura: Whatever you do in secret is bound to come out one day.

As part of a value system, proverbs, sayings, songs and stories mould people’s consciousness around their provocative content. They provide as important a reference point as books do in people’s daily struggle to master their environment and come to terms with their needs in the world.

The proverbs cited above project value systems which invoke fairness and justice, listening to other people’s advice, the patience that comes with maturity and adulthood, solidarity with others regardless of how we feel towards them, self-reliance, sharing, and caution against folly.

Such sayings promote the adage expressed in the argument that “A person is a person in virtue of other people.” Recollecting our proverbs certainly does not suggest, let alone imply, that African societies were without any trials and tribulations before the advent of colonialism and apartheid. Nor does our recollection amount to a nostalgic preoccupation with times gone by. Rather it re-asserts the humanity which ought to characterise our society.

The extent to which we learn from our own proverbs, depends, we should contend, on what we make of this one: “Udivha makhulu ndi u vhudzwa” – you know your grandparent because someone (usually your parents) has informed you.


In addition to being some means of identification, names may be seen to reflect people’s consciousness of themselves and society, their place in history, and the values a family and community would like to produce and see reproduced in society through the person so named.

The following 10 Tshivenda names and their praises are evocative of the social value in naming.

  • Nya-Dzawela: Vhanwe na sea matshelo zwi do ni welavho (Nya-Dzawela: Do not celebrate the misfortunes of others, for they may befall you as well)
  • Nyawasedza: phungo mulanda na iwe mukoma i do u yela vho (Nyawasedza: Defaming one’s subjects, defames oneself)
  • Ranwedzi: muswa mutshenela vhakule vha haya vha tshi sala maswiswini (Ranwedzi: The new moon glows for those far off whilst darkness greets us here)
  • Tshakule: Tshakule tshi wanwa nga muhovhi (Also a proverb) (Tshakule: the one who harvests from afar)
  • Nyasivhavhone: Mano u seya mbilu dzavho dzi panda mahe (Nyasivhavhone: do not be comforted by the teeth that grin for you, for you do not know what’s hidden away in the heart)
  • Nyatshinovhea: Tshi no vhea mudi ndi khana mapfufha a fhaladza mudi (Nyatshinovhela: The glue that holds a family together is the chest, talking with outsiders only breeds incoherence)

As with the proverbs cited previously, names illustrate the state of a community’s outlook. Names may indicate memory of a family feud, a noteworthy event, a celebration or an incident. Many traditional riddles and songs go further to reflect the mode of production in which people lived their lives.

Names such as those cited above are today less popular than ‘Christian’, English and Afrikaans names. This is unsurprising for, as noted above, names are reflective of a society’s place in history. One of the fundamental objectives of colonialism and apartheid was to fashion Africans in the image of Europe, albeit within a hierarchy at the top of which was white people.

The question arises as to whether the current discourse on name changes will reflect our deeper concerns about our humanity, its past, present and future. Or shall we continue to accept the deception (which even its proponents do not follow in practice) that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?


The riddle below sought to promote vigilance amongst herd boys in tending livestock. To this end, it could be seen as emphasising the need for one to be conscious of one’s surroundings and to be vigilant about factors that may be injurious to one’s interests.

A connection can also be made between this discussion and the argument of the Black Consciousness Movement which sought to inspire consciousness about one’s context and the need to reclaim one’s rightful place in society.


Lead Person: Iwe Nkuku wee!
Chorus: Tshinoni tsha Nkuku!
Lead Person: Kholomo dzi a tuwa
Chorus: Tshinoni tsha Nkuku!

Lead Person: Dzi tuwa na vhafhiyo
Chorus: Tshinoni tsha Nkuku!

Lead Person: Dzi tuwa na Malema,
Chorus: Tshinoni tsha Nkuku!
Lead Person: Malema madya vhathu
Chorus: Tshinoni tsha Nkuku!

Lead Person: Tserere nda lima ndila
Chorus: Tshinoni tsha Nkuku!
Lead Person: Tserere nda lima ndila
Chorus: Tshinoni tsha Nkuku!

(Attention Nkuku!
The cows are going
Who is stealing them?
Malema is stealing them
Malema the man-eater)


The metaphor invoked by the call to ‘know one’s grandparents’ illustrates a collective striving against what might be referred to as a ‘de-contextualised consciousness’ which would have one moving about various perspectives without a socio-cultural home.

Knowledge of one’s socio-cultural space enables one to engage meaningfully engage with other world views and provides for a healthy cross pollination of cultural perspectives.

This raises the question, are adults in our society, informing younger people who exactly are their grandparents? Are schools and universities in our society informing students of their heritage – intellectual, cultural and moral?

** Mukoni Ratshitanga is the spokesperson of the President of South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity. This is the first in a series of articles from readers on the subject of African languages and literature. 
More articles from readers will be published in future editions.


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