How SAE words for meetings of people have gained new meanings in the 21st century: imbizo, indaba, lekgotla


Residents attending the Digital Terrestrial Television Imbizo in Makuleke village in Limpopo. 13 May 2016. (Photo: GCIS) *

South African English (SAE) contains a number of words for various forms of meetings between people that have been taken from local southern African languages. The most widely known of these terms are bosberaad, imbizo, indaba, and lekgotla. (Linked instances of these terms in the text below go to the entry for the word in the online version of the 1996 A Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles.)

While bosberaad – “bush summit” or literally, “bush consultation” (from Afrikaans) – has gone largely unchanged over the last two decades and is perhaps not as common as it was previously, the other terms listed above have gained significant accretions of meaning in post-apartheid South Africa. They retain their original meanings, but one could say that these have taken on a historical or “anthropological” significance, and are no longer the primary senses in which the words are used.

Both imbizo and indaba (from isiZulu and isiXhosa) have gained a more general sense of referring to a conference or convention over and above their narrower “traditional” meanings. In this sense, we can talk about an imbizo as “a meeting between political, social or economic actors and a community, social group, or people working in an industry or sector” (DSAE 2011).

Thus, one might have a fashion imbizo, a music imbizo, or an education imbizo:

2007 At a session of the Fashion Imbizo today, with fashion models and designers showing off their latest creations, union head Mr Ebrahim Patel presented evidence of early success with government’s quota on Chinese products. (17 Apr. Source)

2010 The KZN Music Imbizo is the province’s premier music business exhibition/expo with a range of live events. … [T]he Imbizo is an attempt to collect all industry stakeholders under one roof to breathe life into the KwaZulu-Natal music Industry. (10 Aug. Source)

2016 Most institutions of higher learning have been closed for two weeks now and a national Education Imbizo that was held this past Monday could not reach an amicable solution. (9 Oct. Source)

In the first decade of the twenty-first century another, slightly different sense of imbizo had also came to the fore. These imbizos were “meeting[s] between politicians and the community they govern instituted by the South African government as a political/governance strategy” (DSAE 2011):

2003 Government started [the] Imbizo programme more than two years ago as a way of bringing government closer to the people, and people closer together to build a partnership for reconstruction and development. (19 Oct. Source)

This form of imbizo involved various levels of government, so that there were presidential imbizos, ministerial imbizos, mayoral imbizos, municipal imbizos and the like. These imbizos were replaced by other public participation programmes at the end of the decade.

Indaba has undergone a similar kind of broadening of meaning over this period. However, while imbizo implies some form of consultation, an indaba has more of an element of a think-tank about it. (We might thus think about an imbizo as being more outward-looking, and an indaba more inward-looking, though in their contemporary senses the two can be used interchangeably.) As with an imbizo, an indaba may address any number of topics:

2011 Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe will open the eagerly awaited Sports Indaba at Gallagher Convention Centre in Midrand. (21 Nov. Source)

2013 The Mining Indaba which starts Monday is supposed to be the vehicle that addresses all these issues, opens up debates with the communities and find real avenues for all kinds of transformation. (4 Feb. Source)

2016 Former Springbok coaches and players will be part of a long-awaited gathering to plot the way forward for the under-fire Bok team and South African rugby in general at next week’s indaba in Cape Town. (11 Oct. Source)

(This a month before the Springboks lost to Italy!)

While indaba is, in terms of its original meanings, the most “democratic” of these terms, with basic senses that do not go much further than “a meeting or discussion” or “news, affairs” (see indaba in DSAE), imbizo implies some degree of hierarchy as it is originally specifically a “meeting … called by a traditional leader” (see imbizo in DSAE). Lekgotla – usually kgotla – (from Sesotho and Setswana) is the most formal of the three terms as it often implies the operation of a traditional court of law or a council in traditional society (see kgotla in DSAE). There is a legal aspect to it.

In its new, contemporary SAE sense, lekgotla refers to a meeting of government officials. In this sense, it is a closed meeting – here the participants are talking to each other rather than to outside parties:

2013 Zuma said the ANC would discuss the implementation of the NDP at its forthcoming lekgotla. (25 Jun. Source)

2016 Sisulu said he was encouraged to hear comments by ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu this week that the ANC caucus had emerged from a weekend lekgotla with a renewed commitment to beef up the oversight role of MPs. (13 Oct. Source)

These terms provide a widening of the notion of “meeting” as it exists in standard English, incorporating as they do a number of indigenous meanings that serve to show how the English language includes local nuances, how these change (and how they may be used for political purposes!), enriching the local variety of the language by providing insight in southern African customs, and lending South Africans a degree of specificity of sense that otherwise would not have been available.


Dictionary Unit for South African English (DSAE) 2011. Unpublished research notes.

* Image used unmodified from GovernmentZA on flickr. Some rights reserved by the creator of the image. Use of this photo does not imply endorsement of this blog by the creator of the image.

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