His Excellency: A rose by any other name would smell as rancid

William Saunderson-Meyer says President Zuma’s acolytes are going to have to up their game


Following the State of the Nation address, there appeared an African National Congress invitation that billed “His Excellency” President Jacob Zuma’s presence at a Dialogue With the President on radical economic transformation. 

That the launch site for the war against so-called “white monopoly capital” was Durban’s Oyster Box Hotel, which markets itself as “the ultimate in colonial comfort and style”, is the first clue who the “radicalism” is intended to benefit. 

Attendance at the shindig was limited to 250 “dignitaries”, with seating packages costing between R250,000 and R750,000 a table. Afterwards “a handful” of His Excellency’s “most valuable personal belongings” were auctioned off to the assembled class warriors as precious keepsakes.

This was also, to the best of my knowledge, the first time that the ANC has in its official publicity material accorded Zuma the title of His Excellency. For this is an honorific that does not exist in the Constitution, nor in traditional parliamentary usage.

Until now, a simple “Sir” sufficed when addressing SA’s head of state. Occasionally one hears “Mr President”, an American and European usage that subtly makes the important point that however exalted the office, the man who occupies it is still an ordinary citizen.

The issue of nomenclature is not as trite as it may seem. The words we use shape the reality of our existence, in that they set its parameters. Words can also be mental shackles.

A few years after America had ditched British rule, there were heated debates in Congress as to how the new president of the United States would be addressed. The proponents of an exalted title – among those mooted were  “Excellency”, “Highness”, “Protector of the Liberties” and “Majesty” – were met with derision.

“Mr President” it would be and, had Hillary Clinton prevailed in last year’s election, she would have been addressed as “Madam President”. 

And in India in 2012, soon after taking office, President Pranab Mukherjee approved new protocols of address. “Colonial era” forms were dropped and Mukherjee became India’s first “Hon’ble President”, with “Excellency” in future only used with a foreign head of state, “as is customary international practice”, read the directive.

There can, then, be rank without pomposity. 

But such good sense is relatively rare. Megalomaniacal titles are, for instance, much loved by the despots north of the Limpopo.

Zimbabwe’s tyrant in-chief always signs off on his pronouncements as “His Excellency Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe”. This is relatively staid stuff – although the contrast between the aristocratic “Excellency” and the humble “Comrade” is gratingly incongruous – in a country where not being sufficiently respectful of Mad Mugs can get you jailed.

The use of “Comrade” is, of course, unremarkable in pseudo-socialist states. It is de rigeur for every leader with any pretence of Marxist egalitarianism. Interestingly, our own president seems to have gone off it a bit – in the most recent SONA Zuma replaced it throughout with “compatriots”. 

Some African leaders have been far more inventive. Despite his relatively lowly military rank of Colonel, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi collected a suitcase full of titles. Aside from “Leader”, he was proclaimed to be “Imam of Muslims”, “Dean of Arab Rulers”, “Keeper of Arab Nationalism” and “King of Kings”. 

In Uganda, “His Excellency” also found favour with Idi Amin. The man who, in passing, claimed to be the uncrowned King of Scotland had as title: “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”.

With this kind of competition, President Zuma’s acolytes are going to have to up their game. Their choice of “His Excellency” is not going to cut it. It is not only redolent of the privileged world that our president, with his newly discovered populist credentials, claims to reject, but it is just so old fashioned.

The first step is perhaps to insist, in the Mugabe style, that Zuma’s full given names always be used. Mugabe’s middle name, Gabriel, is so fey and Western, but Zuma has as middle name Gedleyihlekisa, which is sonorously, authentically African. 

On the other hand, this is perhaps not such a good idea. Gabriel is from the Biblical archangel who serves as God’s messenger. Gedleyihlekisa translates to “the one who laughs while he endangers you”.

Back to drawing board. Maybe we could have a national competition to find a title fitting of a president? Or perhaps we should lift an authentic title from the paean of praise to Zuma by the leopard-skin imbongi who ushers him into Parliament for SONA. 

There must be some vernacular nugget in there more suitable than the “His Excellency” of his sycophants and the “constitutional delinquent”, “tsotsi” and “thief”, of his parliamentary detractors.

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