I wonder, have any of the leaders or spokespeople in Cosatu and its affiliates read George Orwell’s seminal essay “Politics and the English Language”? From how they speak and what they write, only good can come from their heeding its message.
Take this extract from an incendiary statement issued by Numsa and other unions after the debacle at Cosatu House on Tuesday: “Therefore the neoliberal or reactionary posture of the National Treasury must be undermined and be in line with the pro-working class policies adopted during the watershed ANC National Conference held in Polokwane in 2007.
“The current spectre of popular youth militancy haunting both the developed and underdeveloped world, the Bosses and their lackeys given the crisis of neoliberal reforms and its failure to respond to the youth interests and aspirations. These popular revolts or actions have confirmed that neoliberal reforms are not the solution as there is (sic) being rejected by the working class and the youth. This confirms the scientific analysis by the greatest thinker of the working class struggles, Karl Marx, that capitalism is its own grave-digger.”
Who speaks like this? Who understands this? This is modern writing near its worst. I say near because it is a mild example of some of the wholly incomprehensible statements that come across my desk daily.
The first sentence you might understand if you are versed in trade union lingo. But words like “neoliberal” and “reactionary” have specific meanings to the writer. If you are, say, an apolitical secondary school student in Mmukubyane in the North West, you might eke out some meaning from breaking down the words into: “neo”, “liberal” and “reaction”. But you are not likely to understand what the writer was trying to say about national treasury’s posture or why it should be undermined.
Undermined? Does the writer mean sabotaged or opposed, or any of the many other meanings the word might have?
If you were that student, after reading the sentence, you’d still be left wondering why the unions oppose a plan that might see you employed when you graduate from school.
The problem isn’t that the apolitical student needs further education or to be “conscientised”, another ugly word with a specific meaning to those who use it (and no one else). Here, the writer has thoughtlessly relied on tried and tested words and phrases that he or she has heard repeated at meetings and in unionist literature.
Tried and tested. Did you catch that one?
Orwell wrote: “Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”
What are “the current spectre of popular youth militancy”, “developed and underdeveloped world” and “the Bosses and their lackeys” but gummed-together strips of words? I understand the intended meaning because it’s my job to keep up with current affairs, but the writer is asking (and risking) too much in leaving it to a journalist to untangle the statement for it to be readily understood by a broader audience.
Even the intended recipients would be confused or misunderstand what is being said if presented with the statement intact. Rest assured, only the tiniest fraction of what must have taken time and effort to write made it into newspaper pages, and that was only the part the under-pressure yet diligent journalist or subeditor could untangle quickly. As an exercise in communication, the statement was a failure.
Unfortunately, trade unions are not alone in committing some of these offences, nor are theirs the most egregious. The modern English that Orwell decried is pervasive in politics, public relations, business and even academia.
I single out unions because I believe them to be badly misunderstood, owing mostly to how they communicate. That might be an unpopular opinion considering events of late, but for me it’s true.
There are those who wilfully warp words for no other purpose than to deceive. That’s not what I’m suggesting or promoting. My dear comrades communicate the way they do out of habit, which is why their own bluster drowned out the defensible reasons for opposing the youth wage subsidy.
I am also aware that it’s considered unseemly for a black person to criticise another black person for their use of a language that belongs to neither of them. So before I am accused of “coconutism”, let me say this: my gripe is not with the use of the English language. In fact, it’s not even directly about language.
Communicating effectively, in whatever language, comes from thinking clearly and being mindful of the words you choose. That’s all I’m encouraging, lest miscommunication end in thrown stones and broken bones.
The other fear, of course, in writing something like this, is that someone will go over what I’ve written, here and elsewhere, and find instances where I have not practised what I’ve preached. To that I present two points in my defence:
In this piece, I’ve intentionally snuck in bits of jargon, foreign phrases and clichés as a challenge to those who might want to fault me in this way. Think of it like a crossword puzzle for pedants. Well, that’s my story anyway. I will buy a beer, or other appropriate beverage, for the person who picks up the most infringements.
Lastly, the struggle against bad English, as Orwell calls it, is just that. A struggle. That should be familiar territory to unionists. It should also be familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to change an ingrained way of being. Sometimes you get it right. Other times, old habits die hard. DM
- George Orwell, Politics and the English Language.