Few understood that language matters for politics and economics better than George Orwell. In his seminal 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, he said that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”.
These ideas were developed in his most famous novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (also published as 1984).
Newspeak is the official language of the totalitarian superstate depicted in the book. It is a controlled language of simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary designed to limit the individual’s ability to think critically or to articulate subversive concepts, such as personal identity, self-expression and free will.
The intellectual purpose of Newspeak is to make free-thinking “literally unthinkable”.
It is no coincidence that South Africa is awash with peculiar words and expressions. This has become most apparent on a daily basis with the power crisis. Load shedding is not only an ugly, obscure euphemism, it is a misnomer. What is happening across the country daily are rolling blackouts.
Load shedding implies some obscure, distracting process; a routine procedure, perhaps, or the standard consequence of a completely extraneous force majeure. It almost sounds blamelessly unavoidable.
This could not be less accurate. There is nothing predetermined about the state of South Africa’s electricity grid. Its near collapse is the consequence of completely avoidable failures, maladministration and corruption. Orwell would have applauded the ANC’s success in reframing these blackouts as load shedding. It is far harder to get furious and revolutionary when encumbered with arcane and diverting terminology.
Another example is the use of the term “inverter”, which implies some sophisticated and perhaps essential piece of technology. In reality, they are just massive battery packs which people have to buy, strap to their walls and charge by whatever trickle of electricity is still forthcoming from Eskom, in a desperate attempt to have some semi-functioning form of backup power.
Of course, these are just two examples in a long history of South African Newspeak. When, in the now famous television interview, former Eskom CEO André de Ruyter famously called the ANC out for using Marxist terminology that was “stuck in the past”, he missed an important point.
The ANC does not use this language coincidentally, or because they have not bothered to think up a new lexicon in the last 30 years. They use it because, burdened with such phraseology, it is impossible to disagree with or rebel against the party.
Take the use of the verb “to recall”, which was the fate that met both former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. To be “recalled” sounds like some tedious HR process. What happened to them was a palace coup – a night of the long knives.
Another is the undying use of the long-since zombified phrase, “National Democratic Revolution (NDR)”, as the kind of guiding principle behind which the ANC has attempted to govern South Africa since 1994.
This is a terrifying example of Newspeak, an empty catch-all used to coerce rank and file into subservience. Of course, there is nothing national, democratic or revolutionary about the NDR. It is thereby impossible to argue against anything the party does when it is framed within a concept which is literally and paradoxically non-existent.
Of course, nowhere on earth is so in thrall to these Orwellian concepts as Putin’s Russia. His entire regime can be encapsulated by the famous mission statement of the superstate Oceania in 1984: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.”
Putin’s objective with his propaganda machine is identical to that fictional regime; to make “thoughtcrimes” – any thought, belief or doubt which contradicts the state – literally unthinkable.
How can one protest against or even disagree with a war that is not a war, but merely a “special military operation”? How can one be worried about conscription when it is merely a “partial mobilisation”?
Not only did the ANC learn such techniques from Russia in the days of the Cold War, but as South Africa’s political and economic circumstances deteriorated, the country that is becoming ever more receptive to its embrace is Putin’s Russia.
As Winston Smith, the protagonist in Orwell’s novel, knows only too well, the first step of reclaiming freedom and breaking out of the oppressive grip of depravity is to salvage the unimpeded use of language.
It is impossible to fight against the root of the problems facing South Africa if we do not correctly describe the issues afflicting the country.
The first step to enacting change is to regain the use of words through which it is possible to attain truth.
It is time that South Africans – blessed with an unbowed media – reclaim the use of their language. Perhaps we should start with blackouts. DM