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Op-Ed: The politics of navigating the English language

In the difficult, distracted, discombobulating discussion that is our society, how you speak is sometimes overlooked. In an age where the media focuses on sound bite, on the headline grabbers rather than the speech itself, often it seems the idea is all that matters. If only that were so. As Kalim Rajab reminded us last week, how you say it matters too. Here, we have a variety of leaders, chasing different constituencies, that offer us a wide palette of speaking patterns to examine. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

As someone working in radio, spending much of my time listening to political speakers, and editing their sound, I have a certain appreciation for the way in which people speak. As Rajab points out, English is still the dominant form of communication in this country. Which means that for various reasons, most political speeches that matter are given in English.

Even the ANC, which would surely have good reason and a strong political motive to deliver its set-piece speeches in other languages, has had to give in, mainly because English is a language in which most of its members are proficient. It’s hard to think of a more potent symbol of the hegemony English has over our political thought than that.

Even more interestingly, despite this, it’s quite hard to find a leader of a political party whose mother tongue is actually English. Number One spoke Zulu first, Bantu Holomisa Xhosa, Julius Malema Pedi. And the DA’s intrepid leader? Ah, maybe English, but possibly German first.

Giving speeches in English is an area in which President Jacob Zuma is at a disadvantage. It is one of the reasons why his speeches are often so boring. It’s not just that they seem devoid of content (or claim, as he did again this weekend, to “fight corruption” while everyone laughs behind their hands), it’s that he delivers them badly. An ease of delivery in English is lacking. The longer and more complicated the speech, the more obvious this becomes.

A further issue lies in the actual speech-writing. Looking at Zuma’s second inauguration, just last year, there was a brief, clearly rehearsed exchange between him and Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, as he took the oath of office. It’s an oath that is well-written, and obeys the injunction of speech-writers everywhere to use small words. That oath flowed. His speeches do not.

This is because they are written badly, with a clumsy, stilted use of English. For example, no first-language English speaker I know freely uses the word “ascertain”. And yet this little word litters Zuma’s speeches – and comes out as “as-certain”. Furthermore, there seems to be a lack of know-how in making his speeches easier for him to read. For example, the incredibly embarrassing video of Zuma trying to read out a large number would have been avoided if, as everyone in radio does, the writer had written out the exact amount in words.

All of that said, when Zuma does speak off the cuff in English, it’s much better, although it still leaves something to be desired. It could be claimed here that this is one of the key reasons Zuma does not do well in urban environments. People there are rated widely by how they sound in English. It’s completely unfair, and yet most probably true.

However, there is a corollary to this: Zuma does deliver political speeches in other languages too. And everyone who hears him speak Zulu tells me he speaks a very high, very suiwer form of the language. Which would surely be a huge advantage on the campaign trail in Kwa-Zulu/Natal. Where, incidentally, the ANC has dramatically increased its majority since he took over. If Zuma were to, just once, deliver all of, or just a large portion of, his State of the Nation Speech in Zulu (and perhaps another part in Xhosa) the urban grumparati who like to rate his speeches would have to sit down. Which would probably do them some good. And would surely be to the benefit of Zuma himself, and would make his speech that much more powerful.

Someone who doesn’t have this problem is Cyril Ramaphosa. One of the reasons he’s a media darling is that he speaks so well. His sound bites don’t need editing, and help produce a good radio or television product. It also means that there is a certain power behind the words, because of his confidence with the language. To hear him answer a question in English compared to Zuma answering in English is to hear almost different worlds. This obviously works massively to his advantage in the English media.

However, he pales in comparison with perhaps the best, most powerful speaker of the language in our political sphere. Which – and you knew this already – is Julius Malema. What he has, which very few other people have, is the ability to short-circuit difficult, complicated issues, into a ten-second English sound bite. He is in a class of his own, and would rank up there with many people who have far more experience than him in the language in the UK or the US. It is, frankly, a gift.

The power with which he speaks helps to give him political power, he gives the impression that he sincerely and utterly believes what he is saying, and that there can be no argument against him. It is a mistake here to confuse volume with power. Malema does speak loudly, yes, but he also speaks with a resonance that most preachers would envy. It is a natural talent (unless you believe the conspiracy theory that he is controlled by Zuma and was sent for voice lessons at the Wits Drama Department), and when he speaks, all of his resonators work. It’s about lung capacity, the ability to make your voice use your entire body, and not just your throat.

In political speech terms, it is the difference between Pavarotti and Right Said Fred.

All of this adds up to give him a power in the media beyond that which he actually holds in political fact. This also explains why he is given so much airtime. It’s not just about the radical ideas, it’s also about the fact that he simply delivers a good product that people will listen to. And yes, that is a critique of the media from a member of the media, and from someone who has interviewed Malema many times, perhaps partly for this reason.

Speaking of preachers, Mmusi Maimane has a speaking style that Martin Luther King would enjoy: powerful, energetic, righteous indignation when necessary, and of course, the ability to speak in a way that resonates with urban constituencies. Sometimes I think the real power of Maimane is not that he speaks like the people in Meadowlands do (he doesn’t really); it’s that he sparks aspiration.

And then there’s Helen Zille, the leader of the DA and Western Cape Premier. It is common, and sexist, to immediately make comparisons to Margaret Thatcher. Certainly she has a relatively deep voice, with strong resonance. That helps make her sound more powerful. The sound bites flow easily, but give the impression of having been thought through, which is perhaps more powerful in her constituency.

As a matter of interest, possibly one of the reasons that Mamphela Ramphele got so much media attention before crumbling into a humiliated heap at the elections may well have been because of the way she sounds. The media latched on to her rather than, say, the African Independent Congress (which won more votes than she did) partly because of this. She had a clarity of speech that made her attractive to the people who make these editorial decisions.

It is absolutely true that how you speak English matters in our society. Indeed, Zuma may actually be the last president we have for generations who is not a hundred percent proficient in political speech-giving English. We should probably try to disregard this aspect of his make-up when judging him, as we do so often. And we should consider mourning the other political talent that is out there, that will never see the light of day, because of this one disadvantage. That said, English is likely to continue to dominate our communication channels for some time, and thus our political thought as well. It may not be fair, but it is as well that our politicians know how to navigate it. DM

Photo: South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) President Jacob Zuma in a quiet moment during a news conference after appearing in the Durban High Court, after the National Prosecuting Authority dropped all charges against him, April 7, 2009. REUTERS/Rogan Ward.


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