A few years ago, okay more than two decades ago (I have a birthday on Monday and I am quite stunned by how old I have become without noticing), I was asked to give a talk to a group of fresh-faced students at what was South newspaper, or something.
A line from my talk that I remember most vividly is that particular attention should be paid to what politicians say, what they don’t say, the silences between statements, and the invidious manipulation of language through euphemism, “planting” of ideas in the minds of an audience, and thereby inciting them (the audience) to draw “the right” conclusions and act accordingly.
I think the example I gave the students was when someone says they went out for a few drinks with colleagues it may well be the truth, but an omission might be that one of the colleagues was a paramour. Politicians, much like the rest of us, often employ euphemism, sometimes aphorisms.
A scan through the statements and speeches of Julius Malema over four or five years is quite a marvellous lesson in the force of rhetoric, and when read intertextually (read what he says at any one time alongside what he has said elsewhere), his language and the reportage on his statements reflect a veritable lexical and grammatical decay in journalism and political discourse, in general.
One outcome of this is that the reading public, especially those of us who hang on to the words of political leaders, have become somewhat anaesthetised to the actual meaning of words, and we have become unable to understand the abundance of reality that surrounds us. That’s quite an intense set of claims, but it is not unique to Malema or any of our contemporary politicians.
On war and the language of war
Allow me to raise a few historical examples to demonstrate how slight word changes (euphemisms) have altered the way we think, speak and change attitudes — while quite cleverly concealing what we really mean. The one that comes to mind, as I write, is the way that Britain changed the name of its “War Office” (established in about 1857) to the “Ministry of Defence” in the mid-20th century. Same ethos (and telos, if you will), different name. The one example that I did find striking (I came across it in one of my favourite texts on war and its impact on social conscience, but Google provided me with a fresh link) was a passage attributed to Isaac Sternberg, an early Soviet revolutionary:
“I call out in exasperation. ‘Why do we bother with a Commisariat of Justice? Let’s call it frankly the Commissariat for Social Extermination and be done with it,’ to which Vladimir Lenin excitedly replied, ‘Well put… That’s exactly what it should be called — but we can’t say that’.” (My emphasis).
All the things he’s said, and things the rest of us can’t say.
“We can’t say that”… This can be applied to so much of the language of our politicians (across the spectrum), but Malema does not appear constrained by any of that. I am sure that there are things that all our politicians would love to say and do, but are careful not to say it out loud. And so, what sets Malema apart from, say, the ANC, is that he knows when to be euphemistic or make veiled threats, and because he is not in government (which tends to shape your language), he can talk about “taking back land that was stolen” or “expropriation without compensation” and say things like “we are prepared to shed blood for our land”.
As the governing party, the ANC will speak of “rolling back injustices of the past” of “land reform” and generally try to keep the peace by promoting ideas like “social cohesion”. Malema is not beholden to that modesty. If he were president of the country he would not tell fellow politicians that he would “kill” them as he did during a recent session of the Pan African Parliament. We should probably mention that (like the apparent firing of a rifle at a public meeting) Malema’s threats were a misunderstanding or taken out of context. Malema would also not repeat statements about shedding blood.
For the record, the Democratic Alliance is not averse to the use of euphemisms. When it speaks of meritocracy, or say it “doesn’t see race” — it simply clears a path for keeping the leadership and or key positions mainly white. Vertically segmented privilege over the years gives most white people a head start in many public endeavours — where “merit” is the deciding factor. One of the definitive studies on how privilege is reproduced by educational institutions is The Inheritors, by Pierre Bourdieu and Jean Claude Passeron.
Bourdieu and Passeron conclude that students rarely have a common situation of origin or experience because, for the most part, they come from different cultural backgrounds with different experiences that make them more comfortable and less “out of place”. In this sense, they (and here we can refer to black university students) have differential success according to “previously acquired intellectual tools [and] cultural habits”. They are better placed to disentangle “abstract language of ideas” — that is the product of a deeply embedded cultural capital which, in turn, is based on economic capital. For most black university students, their educational past is a serious handicap; so too would be the lack of adequate career advice. But “we can’t say that”.
Let me return to Malema. His rhetoric and language, in general, is important because he successfully taps into and manipulates the emotions (and senses of defeat, loss or humiliation and degradation) of the unemployed, the homeless, those people who live in informal settlements, students who have yet to know what it’s like to be able to afford to pay your own bills — and who have no memory of the violence that effectively forced the country into the political settlement of the early 1990s — people who, as Chinua Achebe has observed, had lost the ability to govern themselves, and suffer the results of generations of “miseducation”.
One of the key passages in Carter Woodson’s The Miseducation of the Negro, which may be applied to Malema’s oration, is “if you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do.”
Here you reach the point, then, where behind euphemisms and repeated references to bloodshed, genocide, killing — combined with senses of defeat, loss or humiliation and degradation, of being unemployed, homeless, or living in informal settlements without a supply of potable water or electricity, and restive students who have no memory of the violence that brought the country to the edge of a bloody civil war in the early 1990s — Malema’s followers and those who are easily misled will act in ways that may not be directed by him, but which stem from the control that he (Malema) has over what they think.
Although he was very young and uninfluential during the early 1990s, in Malema’s mind he wants his war, and imagines (as the poet Osbert Sitwell wrote in his poem, The Next War during Armistice) “the cause for which we [the liberation movement] fought, is again endangered/What more fitting memorial for the fallen, than that their children/Should fall for the same cause?”
When all of these are looked at together, Julius Malema may well be a lot more dangerous than we can imagine. DM