South Africa’s culture of umrabulo

Meaning and etymology

Umrabulo is a term that has been in use in South Africa at least since the 1980s – or possibly the 1970s – to denote political discussion or debate, and thus political education. These are the primary senses in which it is employed, though its most prominent contemporary use is as the title of the African National Congress (ANC) journal founded in the mid-1990s.

Umrabulo has also been glossed as “consciousness raising” (Mangcu 2009: 50) or “ideological training” (Nehawu 2016: 11). In addition, less frequently it may refer to the political classes in which such debate and subsequent education occur, the political analysis undertaken in such an environment, or the political literature studied there.

In these primary senses as we know it today, umrabulo was apparently first a practice among prisoners on Robben Island (see quote [2] by Nelson Mandela below), then as well among anti-apartheid prisoners and activists elsewhere in the country. That is, it originated as part of South Africa’s anti-apartheid liberation discourse.

Etymologically, the word harks back to customs among the Xhosa people of the Eastern Cape. At a traditional beerdrink, one would take a sip of the drink (“-rhabula”) and then hand the container to someone else to drink (“-rhabulisa”)1. It is from this complex of verbs that the noun “umrabulo” arose2 – and it is as a result of this relation that one can also interpret umrabulo to mean “sipping from the cup of knowledge” and “knowledge sharing.”

It is not clear whether its application as a noun, meaning discussion or debate, was a feature of these events, or whether it was later coined by prisoners of apartheid to mean political discussions. Yet its import is fairly clear: the conversations that take place among people gathered to drink beer or to impart political education – along the lines of the symposia of classical Greece.

Umrabulo in English in South Africa

Umrabulo is not an especially frequent term in South African English. Yet my research shows that it has been in use for at least the last 20 years3. The earliest instances in the dataset of 40 quotations I have found so far are as follows:

[1] 1997 Umrabulo ruled in the street committee, / Debate raged through SRCs, and church halls, / Even the burial ground became / Lekgotla. (Cronin: 21)

[2] 1997 I will … have more time to continue the debates … which the 20 years of umrabulo on the Island could not resolve. (20 Dec. Source)

[3] 1998 In a society like our own … there are powerful traditions of oral culture (speech-making, funeral orations, song, poetry, and just plain umrabulo). (Source)

Each of these examples gives us further insight into the history of umrabulo. First, in Jeremy Cronin’s poem “The miracle of fishes” in [1] there is the assertion that the practice of umrabulo was a popular one in the anti-apartheid struggle of the 1980s. Second, in Mandela’s closing address at the ANC’s 50th national conference in (then) Mafikeng in [2], there is the implication that the practice of umrabulo “on the Island” dates from at least the early 1970s. (However, what is not given in either of these examples is explicit confirmation that the term umrabulo was used for these practices.) Third, in the article from The African Communist in [3], the use of “plain” suggests that the practice of umrabulo was familiar and commonplace. In the same vein, 10% of the examples of umrabulo in the dataset refer to a “culture of” umrabulo or debate.

Apart from the fact that umrabulo is not (on average over the last two decades) an especially frequent word in English in South Africa, two other characteristics of its use would be borne in mind by lexicographers when considering whether it is in fact a South African English (SAE) word. The first of these is that the occurrence of umrabulo is often glossed in the text in which it occurs; that is, a meaning, translation or other description of the term is often given alongside its use. This is the case in 40% of the examples in the dataset. (The glosses to the more recent occurrences of umrabulo suggest that the concept is something that has had to be retrieved for a contemporary, perhaps younger, audience after a period of non-use. I deal with matters of this kind below.) Secondly, in nearly a quarter of the quotations, the word evidences some kind of typographical marking – either it is placed in quotation marks or it is italicised.

Both these factors can suggest that it is not fully assimilated into SAE: the first in that it needs to be explained, and the second in that it is made to stand out from the rest of the text as foreign. My own feeling is that a history of 20 years of use – probably longer – in English in SA trumps glosses and typography. This is especially the case given that 60% of the instances in the dataset date from 2009-2016, and 42.5% from 2012-2016. These are, respectively, 50% and 70% higher than the average frequency for those periods (i.e. of 40 occurrences over 20 years).

Development of a concept

In looking at the examples in the dataset, it is fairly evident that applications of umrabulo have undergone some changes over the last 20 years. Just over 30% of the instances refer to the past, in the main to the historical practice of umrabulo by political prisoners and activists during the apartheid era (only one of these reports an umrabulo session having happened in the recent past). More than three quarters of these occur during the 1997-2009 period.

Nearly 30% of the instances refer to the future, usually in an abstract manner – umrabulo as something that is necessary and needs to happen, as something that is not presently practised but should be revived. Nearly three quarters of these occur during the 2010-2016 period.

Another 12.5% refer to umrabulo as something that will be happening in the near future. This kind of reference is concrete, now pointing to an organised event rather than to an abstract need. All of these instances occur in the 2012-2016 period and indicate events organised by the ANC and allied organisations (and thus a component of a politically authorised discourse).

While this could use some further research, there thus seem to be delineable changes in how the concept of umrabulo has been applied in the last two decades: first as a recalling of an historical practice; then as a noting of the contemporary absence of that practice and the expressed desire for its restoration; and finally as the official reinstitution of the practice, although now in a somewhat different form. (For example, one wonders whether dialogue and debate are still an intrinsic part of umrabulo in this recent form, or whether it is now merely a matter of government and party officials telling an audience how things are.)


Umrabulo is a term that has been used in English in South Africa for at least 20 years. It is probable that it was also used in English during the apartheid era, though further research is needed to confirm this. As it is employed most frequently it refers to political debate and the conscientisation that this may bring.

Though it is not a frequent item in SA English, it has become more frequent in the last decade. At the same time, the way that is being used has changed, and it is possible that its (re)insertion into popular discourse in English may bring with it the baggage that comes with being a component of official discourse.

Further examples of use:

As a noun:

[4] 2000 The “postapartheid narrative” … is in significant part the story of the emergence of a culture of debate, “umrabulo,” issuing in a series of protocols, white papers, parliamentary bills, and in 1996 a Constitution. (Attwell & Harlow: 1)

[5] 2002 Last year, the SACP celebrated its 80th anniversary …. 80 years of worker education pioneered in night schools …. 80 years of political umrabulo.

[6] 2003 The culture of umrabulo remains of central importance in the work I do … It built consciousness that I must prepare myself, and it gave me hope. (Source)

[7] 2003 The vibrant ‘workers coach’ in the trains where programmes of revolutionary songs, political analysis and announcements on events were spear-headed by COSATU – mobile Umrabulo. (Matshikiza: 92)

[8] 2005 Each part of the prison [sc. Robben Island] had its own Umrabulo (i.e. political discussions) and formal courses of study of ANC history as well as Marxism. (Suttner: 278)

[9] 2009 The commissar’s role is above all political. It is about introducing political discussion, democratic debate, umrabulo, learning from each other in the midst of every situation (Cronin: 104)

[10] 2010 The spring school …. consisted of xenophobia workshop, umrabulo, knowledge hunt, electives, Heritage Day celebrations and an open day. (1 Oct. Source)

[11] 2012 It is critical to remember the real ANC that we know created a platform on which dialogue, quality debates and umrabulo are the cornerstones of the party’s survival (25 May. Source)

[12] c2013 He started reading literature popular [sic] known as “UMRABULO,” also attending secret political meetings and discussions. (Source)

[13] 2015 He was enrolled at the local Badirile High School and immediately set about spreading the message of liberation politics. He also convened night meetings at which umrabulo (political discussions) took place. (11 Dec. Source)

[14] 2016 Dr Somadoda Fikeni will be giving Umrabulo (a Knowledge Sharing). (4 Dec. Source)

As an attributive noun:

[15] 2003 There are white poets who don’t conform … Jeremy Cronin and his concept of umrabulo poetics, the experiments of Ari Sitas, and so on. (Sole in Lewis: 6)

[16] 2012 Inside prison, Madiba together with … other leaders of the ANC, … virtually turned vice into virtue, a prison into a political school which through uMrabulo political education produced many graduates. (25 Jul. Source)

[17] 2015 People focus … To revive and strengthen advocacy in institutions through, among others, “Umrabulo” campaigns that would also target Managers. (Source)

[18] 2016 The SACP Linda Jabane District will host a night vigil Umrabulo session … aimed at … defending our revolutionary gains and advancing our revolution. (13 Dec. Source)


1. McAllister 1986: 366; Pahl 1989: 112 & 113. The infinitive forms of these verbs are “ukurhabula” and “ukurhabulisa.” Interestingly, Pahl also has entries for “ukuxambula” and “ ukuxambulisana,” to “be engaged in a difficult, serious or heated debate, argument or cross-examination” and to “engage in, be engaged in a heated debate,” respectively. Though the similarity to the first two verbs may be incidental (or the misperception of a non-speaker of isiXhosa), they have a semantic resonance with the topic at hand.

2. I have not come across the noun “umrabulo” in the Xhosa-English dictionaries I looked at: Kropf 1899 & 1915, and Pahl 1989. This suggests that it is not an part of the historical isiXhosa lexicon, but is more likely a later coinage in political discourse.

3. These 40 instances of umrabulo used in English were retrieved via a Google search of the web and Google Books. There are likely more to be found by other means, including from the pre-democratic period. This dataset of 40 examples forms the basis of the analysis that follows and is, I think, large enough to draw some conclusions about the use of the word in English in South Africa. I have specifically excluded from the dataset references to the title of the ANC journal and other cases where it is used as a name or title.


Attwell, D. & Barbara Harlow (2000) “Introduction: South African Fiction After Apartheid” in Modern Fiction Studies 46(1)

Cronin, J. (1997) “The miracle of the fishes” in Even the dead. Cape Town: David Philip Publishers & Mayibuye Books

Cronin, J. (2009) “The role of revolutionary intellectuals: the life of Comrade Mzala” in The poverty of ideas: South African democracy and the retreat of intellectuals. Eds William Gumede & Leslie Dikeni. Johannesburg: Jacana Media

Kropf, A. (1899) A Kaffir-English Dictionary. South Africa: Lovedale Mission Press (Available here)

Kropf, A. (1915) A Kafir-English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Ed. Robert Godfrey. South Africa: Lovedale Mission Press (Available here)

Lewis, S. (2003) “Interview with Kelwyn Sole” in Wasafiri 18(38), Spring (Available here)

Mangcu, X. (2009) The democratic moment: South Africa’s prospects under Jacob Zuma. Johannesburg: Jacana Media

Matshikiza, S. (2003) in The Shopsteward, vol. 12-14. Umanyano Publications for the Congress of South African Trade Unions

McAllister, P. A. (1986) “Xhosa beer drinks and their oratory.” Unpublished PhD thesis, Rhodes University

Nehawu (2016) “SACP Linda Jabane Free Ideological Training” in Nehawu Weekly International Monitor, vol. 4, no. 10, 13 December (Available here)

Pahl, H. W. (ed.) (1989) The Greater Dictionary of Xhosa, vol. 3: Q-Z. Alice: University of Fort Hare

Suttner, R. S. (2005) “Rendering Visible: The underground organisational experience of the ANC-led Alliance until 1976”, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of the Witwatersrand

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© GQOM 2017