Mr President, you write a column and we’ll publish it. You will have everyone reading it. Of course you run the risk of being called out for factual problems or misrepresentations of others’ opinions, but that already happens to you anyway, right?
I hope you will forgive this informality in my salutation. Having often seen you in large crowds or on television, I feel as if I have known you for decades, even though we have actually only met once or twice – face to face, that is. (In fact, when we were both living in Swaziland back in the 1980s, we probably passed each other at the Swazi Plaza, even if we didn’t know it at the time.)
Nevertheless, I was intrigued by your comment the other day that you wished that you too could be a journalist or columnist so that you could have the chance to help explain democracy to the people of South Africa. In actual fact, there is nothing stopping you from doing precisely that – and it might be a very good thing for both the readers and the writer.
As you undoubtedly well understand, pretty much whenever a president chooses to do so, a nation’s leader can easily command a nation’s news cycle. Just look at what Donald Trump or Theresa May do whenever they appear in public, or whenever they hold a news conference. And, depending on what that leader says or does, it can also become the lead story internationally.
In the case of South Africa, whenever you have delivered one of your “State of the Nation” speeches, all of the country’s television networks, radio channels and print outlets (and, now, internet-based media, as well) drop what they have originally planned and focus intently on your speech. Given the nature of this society, they also go for reactions to the speech by well-informed experts, your supporters, and some of your critics. That, of course, is just as it should be in a democratic state.
This close attention to you and an interest in covering your appearances also extends to whenever you address your political party’s gatherings or if you give speeches at important non-governmental events such as international conferences at home or abroad. The media takes seriously its role of informing the public about affairs of state as a key reason for their very existence.
That, too, is as it should be. Importantly, an astute national leader uses all such occasions to communicate directly with a country’s citizenry, explaining the challenges the government faces, the problems both globally and domestically that must be addressed, and the choices the government must make in doing any of this. Such a leader also uses such channels to connect with a nation’s people to let them know their leader understands their fears and concerns – and that he is doing what he must do to deal with these problems the best way he knows how.
Every moment in front of the television cameras, before reporters, on a podium, is an opportunity to advance understanding and engender sympathy – and that can lead to greater support, of course. Taking the media into your confidence almost certainly ensures they become more sympathetic towards your feelings, ideas and values when they understand you better. Even that “unfriendly” media is more likely to reach across the divide to you when their representatives feel embraced and appreciated by you. That is simply human nature, something you understand very, very well.
Of course, the communications channels available to you now are virtually endless. As you have no doubt observed, American President Donald Trump (and an increasing number of other leaders around the world) have taken to Twitter and other social media in order to explain their views, to clarify things when they think something they have said or done is not being treated fairly in the press, as well as to vent their feelings about things, or perhaps even to get back at their opponents. Some of this is simply part of the rough and tumble of politics, but some of it is generating worries that the political space is being cheapened as discussion and debate on complex issues is being brought down to the level of a newspaper street poster.
Still, there are limits on the impact of such communications channels in South Africa. Such tools obviously depend on how willing people are to sign up to receive comments – although many more controversial ones from politicians are quickly repeated by radio and television nowadays. But in a country where electronic data time still remains too expensive for many, electronic messages probably reach far fewer people (beyond the elites) than might be the case in many other places around the world.
And so, here’s a proposition for you. You decide you really do want to write a column for popular consumption. Every day would almost certainly be far too much work, and even once a week might be a bit too much time; but maybe once every second week would be about right. You could use this to take the larger view on issues of central importance to the nation, especially ones where there is much disagreement, unease, or confusion. But you could set out your views directly in the kind of plain, simple language you have often said you like to hear in face-to-face communication.
But please understand that the discipline of a column means you can only use about 1,500 words or so for any one column and keep your readers. (This is a very tough limit, as you can see from this very letter.). There will simply be no space for the stodgy, bureaucratic-style wordage that sometimes creeps into your speeches, especially when their contents have included long lists of every Cabinet member’s pet projects and initiatives in exhaustive detail, or with the rhetorical devices that were last in vogue back when your party was in hiding or in exile.
Of course, no one expects you will write every single word by yourself, but you will want to make sure the content and the style accurately reflect how you feel, and what you believe. Back in my speechwriting days, I found the best “trick” was to sit down with the person who was going to give the speech and tape-record their thoughts on the topic that was going to be the content of the speech I was assigned to write. That way, even before I began to write those remarks, I “got” the person’s oral rhythm, the way they used figures of speech, the kinds of examples they liked to use when speaking, and even the personal anecdotes they enjoyed retelling to make their points.
With that knowledge, I could work confidently to develop a speech that met the needs of the event – and the person who was to deliver it. Whoever would be drawn in to help you craft your bi-weekly column would need to have that kind of relationship with you to ensure he or she could bring the real you to your readers.
Of course, such a column runs the risk people will disagree with you in public and in print. But, as you say, South Africa is a democratic nation and it is their sovereign right to do so. The point of such columns is to make sure your views are aired fairly and fully, and that you never need to complain you were reported unfairly, or that your words were taken out of context. Moreover, such a column could help drive the national discussion about the country’s challenges, successes and circumstances.
There are many successful examples of such columns throughout history. Since I am most familiar with American political history, let me just point to a few for you and your team to ponder. Back at the beginning of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine’s words helped generate a new national sensibility and growing support for the American Revolution. He used simple words and straightforward arguments that anyone who read them (or even heard them read aloud) had a clear understanding of what was at stake in the American colonialists’ fight against the British. A decade later, Alexander Hamilton and several other writers authored essay after essay, all dedicated to explaining the need for a new national constitution – how it would lead to a more effective government, now that the war for independence had been won but while the new nation’s institutions were weak and ineffectual.
And then there is Eleanor Roosevelt. Despite a very busy life, she penned an almost daily column from 1935 to 1962, on all the issues of the day, and her own views about them. For much of that time she was the First Lady, then she even spent some time as one of her nation’s special delegates to the UN. Nevertheless, she kept up this active authorship without let-up. For many people, it was the first piece of opinion and commentary they read in their local newspaper every day, all across the nation. At her peak, she had a readership of over 4-million people. They included people who loved what she wrote as well as those who disagreed with her every word.
And so, here’s our offer from the Daily Maverick: You write a column and we’ll publish it. We won’t edit it, except to fix any minor grammatical glitches or accidental spelling miscues. You will have free rein to write what you like, and your office can retain the rights to reprint it, to publish it online from the Presidency, or to offer it to other spaces in vernacular languages if your office
translates it (and gives us credit for having first published it). You will have everyone reading it. Of course you run the risk of being called out for factual problems or misrepresentations of others’ opinions, but that already happens to you anyway, right? We’ll even agree to let you title your column however you want, unless someone else has already used the words (so, “I write what I like” is out).
But how about calling it: “This Is My Space; These Are My Views”? Do
we have a deal? DM
Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a famous Johannesburg theatre and remains on its board, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Post-retirement, Spector has also been a Bradlow Fellow of the SA Institute of International Affairs and a Writing Fellow of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. Only half humourously, he says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's increasingly cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music, and a dish of soto ayam (one of Indonesia's great culinary discoveries) will bring him close to tears.
All tortoises are actually turtles. Some turtles however are not tortoises.