Much of what we think of as the work of a president is made apparent through language. Press conferences, speeches, parliamentary debates: the exercise of politics and influencing people depends on effective communication.
So it is understandable that the aptitude of politicians is often judged by their speaking prowess. President Jacob Zuma’s English public speaking skills are not insignificant to his job as president; and yet they have traditionally not been the most flattering representation of him.
And so on Thursday, when President Zuma began to address the heads of mission conference at the OR Tambo building in Pretoria, few of their “excellencies” who had dutifully assembled for the conference would have expected to be dazzled. The president has earned a reputation for floundering at important public speaking events.
Yet, when he delivered the speech, generously weaving the prepared text with his own off-the-cuff comments, Zuma exuded an eloquence that defied his reputation as a bungling speaker. It’s not just that he spoke well; he sounded like he knew what he was talking about.
Essentially, Zuma told the South African diplomats their duty was to present the country in a positive light. South Africa’s public image has been significantly tarnished in recent months by the Marikana massacre; the rape and murder of Anene Booysens and the scrutiny it forced on the rate of gender violence in South Africa; the killing of Reeva Steenkamp by Oscar Pistorius, and the concerns that case raised about the aptitude of the South African police to do basic police work; incidents of police brutality; and then the public outcry at the loss of South African soldiers in the Central African Republic last month. All these gave rise to questions of what exactly South Africa’s leadership was doing.
And the failures have not gone unnoticed by the press. Writing in Business Day this week, for example, Allister Sparks said South Africa looked “like a clumsy stumblebum nation instead of the regional superpower we ought to be”.
Zuma told diplomats that their work included managing this public opinion of South Africa. “In this era of globalisation, since information flows like fire and can easily be misinterpreted, our diplomacy cannot afford to neglect public opinion,” he said.
He referred specifically to the public outcry following the soldiers’ death in CAR last month.
“We have witnessed this just recently following the tragic event in the CAR, and how information gets quickly distorted and rumours and lies easily flourish,” Zuma said.
He believes that more effective communication from government is key to managing such a fall-out.
“Prioritising communication and marketing is therefore a key strategic goal.”
He added: “As our heads of missions abroad, you will be able to tell the world in celebrations all over, that South Africa is a much better place than it was before 1994,” he said. “We are indeed a country that is better off since our democratic elections.
“We have made progress,” Zuma added, arguing that independent research attested to this progress.
“No country in the continent of Africa has delivered in 19 years what we have delivered. Not a single one. South Africa stands alone in that.”
According to Zuma, there are concrete positive changes which should be communicated more effectively to the outside world. “We can concretely, tangibly identify what we have done, beginning with the manner in which we transformed our Constitution, the emphasis on serving our people, the poor in particular. We have done this consistently.
“We are not talking [enough] about these successes,” he said.
Freedom of speech was another virtue he encouraged the ambassadors to highlight. “People here are very open. They exercise democracy. They talk. They say everything. They tell you where to get off because they are free – nobody is going to arrest them. Nobody is going to say you can’t talk like that. They can tell you a story [asking], ‘Who are you?’, ‘Who do you think you are?’, ‘We are South Africans, you know, we want services here now. What’s wrong with you?’
“Only in South Africa…” Zuma said.
Zuma believes these successes are key to understanding the enduring popularity of the ANC. “And that’s the reason why, by the way, the people of this country – despite the negative things that are said – each time we have an election, they vote ANC,” he said. “In South Africa people like this ruling party, I can tell you.”
He added: “The point I’m making is that you, as representatives of this country, have a good story to tell. Continue talking about the good story about South Africa, so that people will love us, and come [and] invest here.”
He also credited the National Development Plan for imbuing further goodness to the country. “We are in a better space than we have been in a long time,” he said.
“We have made progress,” Zuma stressed, reminding diplomats later on that their task was to “make South Africa look nicer and nicer”.
Most of all, he highlighted the potential role of South Africa in the development of the rest of the African continent – perhaps offering a subtly consoling perspective on the SANDF’s most recent military exploits. “We are a country in the continent of Africa, prepared to work with the Africans to make Africa a better continent,” he said.
“[We can] contribute as a continent to the world, to make the world a better one.” DM
PS And while we are most days harshly critical of the SA government, today we wish Happy Birthday to President Zuma.
Photo: Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa, speaks at the Opening Media Lunch ‘World Cup 2010 – before the kick-off’ during the Annual Meeting 2010 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2010 at the Central Sport Hotel. Copyright by World Economic Forum swiss-image.ch/Photo by Michael Wuertenberg
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