Media, Politics

Missing: The sublime art of speech-writing and oratory

Missing: The sublime art of speech-writing and oratory

A good speech is a wonderful thing. It has the capacity to inspire, to lift your spirits, to make your soul soar above the mundane everydayness that darkens existence. It can make no challenge impossible, it can shake your very existence. It can move a nation. It can be one person standing up and making the earth move through the sheer power of words. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

There are many examples of this. Churchill, of course, everyone quotes, Martin Luther King Jr, Barack Obama, all of them made millions of souls wake up, defy the odds and change the world. Then we felt our own home grown examples, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. All of them are remembered for what they said, and how they said it. Many are going to compare President Jacob Zuma to them and ask how he fares. The honest answer has to be not well, not well at all.

Watch: Martin Luter King’s “I have a dream”.

The fact is, words matter. The writing matters. As does the delivery. If you have nothing to say, it can still be written well, and then delivered beautifully. If you’re lucky, you can fool a lot of the people at that particular time. A few things need to come together though. You need good speechwriters, a situation where there is political space to actually say something. And you need someone who can deliver it well. And that person needs to understand why it is important for it to be delivered well. That seldom happens in our politics.

Something in this process is not working for Zuma. It’s easy to say it’s him, that he’s the person where the process is failing. But that would be wrong. Anyone who’s ever seen Zuma speak off the cuff knows he has what it takes. Then there was his inauguration speech. An address that showed, with a bit of time and preparation, he can do the set-piece stuff well. Quite frankly, it was proof that when his staff take a presidential speech seriously enough, it will be presidential.

All of this gives us the distinct feeling that Zuma’s staff aren’t writing his speeches properly. That they don’t get it. If you watch an Obama speech on race you realise what a huge investment of time and effort went into it.

First the ideas, what they want to say, then the actual writing, then the polishing. Then the tearing it up and starting again to make it better. It’s a huge amount of work. But when that work is productive, you get a speech that can explain the complicated situation of race in the US in a way everyone can understand. And the political impact of a speech like that is huge. It made a real difference to Obama’s campaign.

The TV series “The West Wing” gave real insights into how good speechwriters communicate, and the amount of sheer effort put into their writing.

It does help, of course, if you actually have something to say. All great speeches do have this in common. In Zuma’s case, where he has very little space to move, that advantage is taken from him. In the case of Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech, it was so moving because he was trying to define what we actually are. It’s a difficult job, a question we are still debating. What Mbeki did in that speech was to personalise it, the use of “I” was a huge part of that speech. Anyone listening to it felt that “I am an African”.

This was a speech where the writing made it. The presentation was excellent, but it was a speech made by the writing. It was pithy, sharp and meaningful. It was also an exhibition of the power of that immortal instruction to all writers at The Economist: “Short words, use them”.

Contrast that to Zuma’s offerings over the years. In almost every ANC speech until a year ago, he would use the word “ascertain”. Read it aloud to yourself. It’s almost impossible to not to say “as certain” when you see it. It’s a word that has no business in a political speech, never mind one where English is imposed on both the speaker and the listener. Lately, it has slowly begun to disappear from his lexicon.

In fact, his State of the Nation address was marked by much shorter sentences than usual. His team has realised that shorter is always better. Shorter words are better still. Sometimes it seems the speechwriters in the Zuma team, the people who get to play with the words, whose job it is to make it good, are overridden by political players. Last year’s SOTN speech is a good example, where leaden phrases were put across badly. This time around, you got the impression there had been some practice and what didn’t sound good was thrown out.

It is easy to suggest that if Zuma didn’t have to speak in English he would sound better. That is true, he is probably the best public speaker in isiZulu today (no matter what the IFP may say). But he isn’t speaking in English because of the media. He’s speaking in English because to speak in any other language would be politically difficult. Within the ANC English is used virtually as its official language, just because everyone is then at a similar disadvantage. It is a politically neutral language in the ANC. Bear in mind that Zuma speaks isiZulu, Mbeki speaks isiXhosa, Cyril Ramaphosa speaks Sepedi, Kgalema Motlanthe Setswana and so on. For Zuma to give a big ANC speech in isiZulu would be difficult. And no, he doesn’t speak isiXhosa. For Mbeki to have given one in isiXhosa would have been equally problematic.

The other factor is that in Zuma’s political world, the State of the Nation address is not actually hugely politically important. It’s a function of the way the ANC works, and its in-built majority that presidential speeches are not real tests for him. When Obama gives a State of the Union address, it’s an opportunity to speak not only to the both Houses, but directly to the people who vote for him. When Zuma gives his speech, that element doesn’t have to be taken too seriously. Obama, to win them over, has to speak directly to the hearts and minds of his people, which he does brilliantly. For Zuma, the first five minutes are taken up by protocol, where “My Fellow South Africans” comes last – in 17th place. That’s right, in SA version of democracy, we, the people, are 17th in order of importance for Zuma. That’s not necessarily his fault, it’s about protocol and some other issues. But the point is, you don’t get the feeling South Africans are top of the list. As a result, it’s not a speech that is directly pointed to you.

This is slowly beginning to change. This year, Zuma was certainly more presidential than last year. And there’s evidence he and his team are slowly beginning to get it. We hope his speechwriters get more power, get the ability to make it sound good. We think they need that. It will help him, and in the end, will help us.

A good speech can make a nation feel whole again. It can make us put everything else to one side and make us feel South African. Despite differences. Ken Livingstone was able to unite London after the tube attacks in 2005. The power of writing was able to heal the city’s wounds. Listen to it, you’ll see why we think this is important.

The nation that needs a great speech from its leader is not a spoiled nation. And when it is a nation that is at such a precarious point in its existence as South Africa is at the moment, the importance of it is even greater.  We need to feel there is a future, that it is a good one, the one we deserve and will make sure it happen. It may be through many tears and hardships, but as long as there is a future, a hope, then today can feel more meaningful. The speeches that are essentially laundry lists will not cut it. We’re entitled to world class speeches from our president too.

We leave you now with a speech that has it all. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photo: President Jacob Zuma delivers his closing address at the National General Council of his ruling African National Congress (ANC), in the coastal city of Durban, September 24, 2010. The nationalisation of South Africa’s mines is an issue that will be considered by the ruling African National Congress, Zuma said on Friday. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings.


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