"You can write and remember but we are simply izithunguthu'"

Presented by Cynthia Kros John Wright

Date: 
Monday, 22 May, 2017 - 15:00

The isiZulu word ‘isithunguthu’ (pl. izithunguthu) is today hardly known outside a small circle of scholars. It does not appear in modern isiZulu dictionaries, nor is it known to isiZulu-speaking academics whom we have consulted. There is no entry for it in A.T. Bryant’s major Zulu-English Dictionary of 1905. Researchers have to turn to the fourth edition of Bishop John Colenso’s Zulu-English dictionary, also published in 1905, to find it. Here isitungutu (in the orthography of the time) is given as ‘One flustered or put out, made to forget by being scolded or cross-questioned, though well-informed’. In effect the word was rediscovered in 2013, when John Wright was working through texts in the James Stuart Collection in the Killie Campbell Africana Library in Durban. He came across a scribbled marginal note that records one of Stuart’s interlocutors, Thununu kaNonjiya, as observing to him in 1903, ‘You can write and remember but tina [si] izitungutu nje’: for our part, we are simply izitungutu. It was an intriguing enough statement for Wright to make his own note of it. At his suggestion, the statement was taken up and launched into the academic world in the title and epigram of the programme of a conference on southern Africa’s past before the colonial era being organized in 2014 for 2015 by Carolyn Hamilton, holder of the NRF research chair in Archive and Public Culture at UCT. What did Thununu mean in this statement? Why did he describe himself to a colonial official as an isithunguthu? In using the plural form ‘izithunguthu’, to whom was he referring? What did Stuart’s writing down of oral accounts of the past imply to him? From his position as an elder deeply involved in shaping such accounts, it seems to us, he was commenting on how the writing of the past was ‘capturing’ (we use the word deliberately) oral histories made by people whom he categorized as izithunguthu. It was a statement that bore witness to an extraordinarily important moment in the historiography and the intellectual history of what is now the KwaZulu-Natal region. In this paper we will briefly discuss what little we can find on the biography of the word isithunguthu, and describe how it was rediscovered and taken up by academic historians. Drawing on perspectives on Stuart’s texts developed by Hamilton, we go on to discuss his notes of his conversations with Thununu, as recorded in volume 6 of the published James Stuart Archive, in a way that combines historical contextualizing with a close textual reading. Our aim is to try to hear both Stuart’s and Thununu’s voices more clearly, and hence to try to elucidate something of the wider significance of the word isithunguthu.

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