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Culture, Reality

On Point

by Carlos Amato / 05.09.2011

Until he opens his mouth, Julius Malema’s importance in South African politics makes no sense. How can it be that such an unimpressive man wields such impressive power over his constituency? He is treacherous, flabby, cynical, unprepossessing, vain and venal. Most South Africans recognise him as a bozo.

But this bozo can talk the hind leg off a liberation movement. The expert impromptu address he gave to pacify his supporters outside Luthuli House last week offered yet more evidence that his oratory skill is his chief weapon. As Moeletsi Mbeki has noted, nobody else in the party can speak compellingly, without notes, for a full hour. One Robert Mugabe has a similar ability.

Born demagogues are rare creatures, but competent speechmaking is a learnable political skill – and Malema’s toxic articulacy is an indictment of the ANC’s neglect of the craft of oratory since liberation.

The revolt at Luthuli House was a comeuppance for Jacob Zuma; he is reaping what he and his adjutants sowed so smugly in Polokwane. Thuggery and insult is now the party’s default medium of dissent. Nuance, respect and substantive debate are all in the rubbish bin.

But this debasement of speech in the ANC dates back to much earlier than Zuma’s rise to power. The party’s fabric has been weakened by a long-standing addiction to weak, evasive language.

Juju breaks that addiction. He has the appearance of truthfulness to many because he speaks boldly and plainly, in volleys of peppery soundbytes. His nationalisation platform is economic insanity, but Malema makes it sound perfectly sane to a jobless, semi-literate youth.

Every slogan, every wisecrack is percussive, tight and “on point”, to borrow a trusty Youth League catchphrase. His fans share his flair for punchy rhetoric, as can be seen in the placards brandished outside Luthuli House.

Many miss Thabo Mbeki these days, but in many ways he paved the way for Malema, and not least in the field of political language. His jargon-soaked presidency made Malema’s demagogy an exhilarating novelty. (Zuma’s oratory is so shoddy it’s not even worth discussing).

Mbeki bored the living shit out of ordinary South Africans. Yes, his much celebrated “I am an African” address had some elegant if kitschy flourishes – but he intoned it as though it was a shopping list.

In general, Mbeki’s speeches and essays were so pompous and obfuscatory that when he did make a perceptive point, few remained wakker enough to understand it. Mbeki inspired a dire fashion for soporific speeches among his ministers, who all mimicked his sing-song, meandering delivery. Everyone tried to sound like a village pastor digesting a boozy lunch.

It wasn’t just a question of style. Waffle became a mode of dissimulation. The Mbeki administration’s biggest crimes – AIDS denialism, the arms deal, quiet diplomacy on Zim – were thinly hidden in a rolling fog of technocratic and sociological jargon.

Political language became an anaesthetic, a buffer against the pain of the poor. It was also used as a buffer against the labour of delivery. Mountains of grandiose policy documents were written, but few knew what they meant. Urgent problems had to be “addressed” rather than solved; this cosy duvet of a verb is beloved of powerful South Africans, because it’s exquisitely open-ended. If you “address” an issue, you merely waft some words at it. You pay it lip service.

Here’s George Orwell in a 1946 essay called Politics and the English Language: “A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

Of course, plain language can be just as false, as evasive and overblown. But in expert hands, plain speech bags more votes, and it’s being deployed in populist causes all over this broke and pissed-off world. Malema loves to compare himself to the young Mandela, but he has much more in common with Michele Bachmann.

Needless to say, now would be a good time for the ANC to locate another Mandela. But if that’s asking too much, they could settle for a responsible leader who can work a crowd.

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