The origin of “Mzansi” – a detective story

Mandela Bridge, Johannesburg, Gauteng (Photo: South African Tourism) *

Mzansi is a colloquial name for South Africa. It is also used to refer to aspects of South African arts, culture and leisure, etc. – so that one reads of “Mzansi house” (music) and “Mzansi hip hop,” as well as “Mzansi people” and the like. As we will see later, it describes a youthful, “with-it” country, the inhabitants and their activities.

The word exists in at least three different forms – Mzansi, Mzantsi and Mzanzi – though the first is by far the most common, and the last is very infrequent. We may call the first two of these the Z-form (Zulu) and the X-form (Xhosa) respectively. Mzansi looks like a Zulu word, but in fact it is not at all. Rather, it has been “Zulufied”.

The word “(u)mzansi” does not mean south in Zulu. Rather, the root “-zansi” may refer to a coastal region or low country, a person from there – or the south-east wind, among other things (Doke & Vilakazi 1972: 887-888). The actual source of Mzansi is Xhosa. To see how this might be the case, let’s start by having a look at this South African R5 coin.

img_20161121_104701Here we see the official Zulu and Xhosa names for South Africa. It is “uMzantsi Afrika” in Xhosa down the right, and “iNingizimu Afrika” in Zulu up the left. “South” in Zulu is “(i)ningizimu”, and in Xhosa it is “(u)mzantsi”. “um-Zantsi” has been attested as such in Xhosa for more than a century, at least since the 1915 second edition of Rev. Albert Kropf’s Xhosa-English dictionary: “The lower part or bottom of a thing: … land towards the South; the South” (p. 486).

So it is a fairly straightforward matter to add Mzantsi to Afrika to generate the official Xhosa name of the country. However, as the official name it is not particularly interesting. What is more interesting is how and why the stand-alone Mzansi has come to refer to South Africa in popular discourse.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, in the course of this construction of South Africa as Mzansi between the late 1990s and the early years of this century, the word “umzantsi” became more popular than “iningizimu”. This may have something to do with the fact that “-ningizimu” literally means “place of many cannibals”. It came to mean south as the winds, storms and fogs associated with cannibals come from the south (Doke & Vilakazi 1972: 571).

What happened with the official Xhosa name for South Africa was that once it had been conversationally reduced to one word, Mzantsi, it was Zulufied by dropping the “t”, so that it now looks like an Zulu word. This kind of difference between the two languages is also evident in, for example, the Xhosa “phantsi” and “tshisa nyama” versus the Zulu “phansi” and “shisa nyama”.

Recent research for the period from the late 1990s to 2010 on the stand-alone Z- and X-forms to describe South Africa (DSAE 2011) made exhaustive use of Google searches of web pages, online digitised books (Google Books) and online academic papers (Google Scholar) in an attempt to find the earliest recorded instances of the terms and to analyse these and subsequent cases. That process – and subsequent offline sleuthing – led to the archives of the National English Literary Museum (NELM), and has so far shown that the X-form, Mzantsi, occurs the earliest:

1997 Rampolokeng clearly has problems with the (re?)conciliation ethos, for he still feels the manic intensities of living in Mzantsi, as shown by the poem “Wet pain … tread with care”. (Raditlhalo: 5)

Raditlhalo uses the term again the following year:

1998 Some of his lines remind one powerfully of poets such as Mazisi Kunene, for it is on the multiple factor of mzantsi, however imperfect, that he keeps his gaze (p. 84).

Notice that here Mzantsi already means something somewhat more indeterminate than “South Africa”.

These are the first written records I have found of Mzantsi to describe South Africa. This is a matter of discoveries made so far and it is possible that further research may turn up earlier uses. The earliest Zulu form of the word found thus far dates from 1999 (DSAE 2011), though by the middle of the last decade it was outpacing the X-form on all fronts.

What is interesting here is that, as far as I am aware, neither Xhosa nor Zulu are Raditlhalo’s mother-tongue. And, if anything (not wanting to essentialise either ethnicity or language use) he would likely have had more exposure to Zulu in Gauteng (a matter to which I will return) and the northern parts of South Africa. Yet, in 1997 he was using the Xhosa form of the word.

Now, it’s unlikely that an academic would have coined the term as it is used here. It’s not often that a coinage can be unambiguously tied to a specific use by a particular person at a certain time. New lexical formation doesn’t really work like that. And it is not very likely that an academic’s deployment of the term was the spark that led to massive popularisation of the word in the first decade of this century. What is far more likely is that “Mzantsi” (or “Mzansi”) was already current at the time Raditlhalo made use of it. It is possible there is an older oral history of Mzan(t)si that is not recoverable (though, of course, attempts should be made).

While the initial uptake of the X-form over the Z-form is yet to be explained, one can suggest a number of reasons why the Zulufied version came to the fore thereafter. In the first place, Zulu is the dominant language in Gauteng, where almost a quarter of South Africa’s population lives. According to data from the 2011 South African census, almost 20% of Gautengers have Zulu as a first language, far more than those who speak Xhosa. Quite simply, Zulu is the dominant language in South Africa’s largest conurbation.

Second, two things happened near the turn of the century that could have promoted Mzansi over Mzantsi. South Africa’s big banks collectively introduced the low-income Mzansi banking account; and the SABC1 TV channel introduced the pay-off line “Mzansi fo sho.” I have no hard, direct evidence to be able claim that these factors caused the ascendance of Mzansi over Mzantsi by the middle of the last decade, but there is certainly a strong correlation of these factors with that ascendancy. In fact, use of Mzansi has become so dominant that these days one hardly sees Mzantsi outside regions where Xhosa is spoken by a large portion of people (and little to no Zulu is spoken), such as the Eastern Cape and Western Cape.

Be this as it may, unsettled questions and all, by the beginning of the twenty-first century there is a popularisation of Mzansi to refer to South Africa, South Africans, and South African passtimes. One gets the sense that there is a certain amount of pride invested in the term as the expression of identity.

So, let’s close with some examples. Here is Mzantsi/Mzansi used to mean South Africa:

2002 Kwaito stars, their fans and the journalists who write about them refer to South Africa as Mzantsi, just to distinguish themselves from the rest of the population, who use the ordinary appellation. (Thamm: 58)

2007 I realised that I could not allow my temper to rise, but if I were back home in Mzansi I would have slapped at least one of them. (Khumalo: 83)

2010 Mzansi has Odysseus Huron, the multi-platinum selling producer behind No. 1 sellers Lily Nobomvu, Detective Wolf and Moro. (Beukes: 139)

2016 The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce has always called for the decriminalisation of sex work in Mzansi. (28 Sep. Source)

And here are some attributive uses that evidence the beginnings of a wider set of meanings:

2003 It was a syrupy gig to play bass for a big-time mzansi jazz outfit. (oa Magogodi: 14)

2008 The infusion of South African contemporary dance with such consciousness is one of its defining qualities, along with an indefinable, fluid, but unmistakable mzansi “Africanness” (Coplan: 416)

2008 I’m already on the backfoot when skyward* walks out of the corrugated door, his avatar grinning idiotically wide and extending her arms with a little twirl, like a Miss Mzansi contestant. (Beukes: 92)

2016 It’s that time of the year again, the first phase of the 2017 Mzansi’s Sexiest campaign is here and we want you to be part of it. (29 Sep. Source)

In conclusion, the term Mzansi or Mzantsi as a stand-alone lexical item has been around for about two decades in these Z- and X-forms. During that time it has undergone expansions of sense so that it not only refers to South Africa as a country but is also used in an adjectival manner to refer to entities and activities originating in South Africa. In fact, while some aspects of its popularity have yet to be explained, it has caught on to such a degree that it is used positively by a broad range of people (rather than being confined to a specific group), to become part of the way in which South Africans refer to themselves.


Beukes, L. (2008) Moxyland. Johannesburg: Jacana (Amazon)

Beukes, L. (2010) Zoo City. Johannesburg: Jacana (Amazon)

Coplan, D. B. (2008) In Township Tonight! South Africa’s Black City Music and Theatre. 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (Amazon)

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

Doke, C. M. & Vilakazi, B. W. (1972) Zulu-English Dictionary. 2nd edition. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press

Khumalo, S. (2007) Dark Continent, My Black Arse. Cape Town: Umuzi (Amazon)

Kropf, A. (1915) A Kafir-English Dictionary. 2nd edition, edited by Robert Godfrey. Alice: Lovedale Mission Press

oa Magogodi, K. (2003) “tâ sol in beership major” in Laugh it Off Annual: South African Youth Culture. Edited by Justin Nurse. Cape Town: Double Storey

Raditlhalo, S. (1997) “The Anaesthetic of Aesthetics: Poetic Expression in Mzantsi Afrika”. Unpublished conference paper: Languages of poetry, University of the Witerwatersrand, 20-23 August. (In the NELM archives as Document No. 2239)

Raditlhalo, S. (1998) “The seeds of a storm” (review of Seitlhamo Motsapi’s earthstepper: the ocean is very shallow) in Scrutiny2 3(1), pp. 82-84

Thamm, M. (2002) The how-to-be a South African handbook. Cape Town: Double Storey (Amazon)

* Image used unmodified from South African Tourism 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.

© GQOM 2017


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