William Saunderson-Meyer searches for words to capture the spirit of the era
The public utterances of a country’s leaders both reflect and define their times. Whether in a formal speech or an off-the-cuff response, a sentence — or just a phrase — can become emblematic of an entire era.
When a politician’s words manage to capture pithily the national mood, they are seized upon by the media and the public, and endlessly repeated, sometimes ad nauseam. Think of Donald Trump’s “drain the swamp” drumbeat refrain.
At times, a leader’s words can inspire a nation at a dark historical moment. One such was Winston Churchill’s grim admission in the bleakest days of the Second World War that there was nothing left to counter the Nazi onslaught but “blood, sweat and tears”. It rallied a battered Britain and put it on the path to victory.
And there was John F Kennedy’s challenge in his 1961 inaugural speech. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country” became the motif of an idealistic young generation at another fraught moment, the height of the Cold War,
At other times, our leaders’ words unintentionally reveal the hole in their soul. Few statements captured the heartlessness of apartheid more tellingly than Justice Minister Jimmy Kruger’s response to Steve Biko’s death in custody: “It leaves me cold”. Four words that still bring a shudder of revulsion 45 years later.
It’s interesting to speculate what has been said by an African National Congress leader that is similarly memorable and defining of our times. What political soundbite most aptly defines South Africa’s post-1994 reality in the public mind? ___STEADY_PAYWALL___
It’s probably not from Nelson Mandela. While Madiba became an inspiration to almost an entire world, there’s nothing that comes to mind which, in a single sentence, captures the essence of his presidency.
The same with Thabo Mbeki. Admittedly, his “I am an African” speech at the 1996 legislative enactment of the new Constitution remains one of most moving paeans that exists to non-racial solidarity. However, it was subsequently rendered mute and meaningless by his inability to curb his own racist divisiveness.
It's also a challenging quest because the leaders of the tripartite alliance aren’t known for their brevity. This verbosity possibly stems from so many of them having been steeped in complex Marxist political theory at a too impressionable age.
As in any cult, this means having to memorise and regurgitate mystical codewords and jargon. These esoteric references are presumably intelligible to fellow believers but are meaningless to most of us.
Consequently, on the rare occasions when ANC leaders do come out with something succinct, it is usually unintentional. It’s also almost invariably unflattering to the speaker.
During Thabo Mbeki’s two terms, Smuts Ngonyama was Head of the Presidency and the ANC’s national spokesperson. Seemingly a nice enough fellow, it must be distressing to him that his enduring legacy is a single sentence, uttered in 2004.
Ngonyama was under the media whip when it came to light that he would score, without an ounce of effort or expertise on his part, from a so-called black empowerment deal that involved selling off some of a state asset, Telkom, into a consortium of former ANC officials. Defending his personal windfall of R160m, Ngonyama quipped gleefully, “I did not join the struggle to be poor.”
It was a spectacularly misjudged sentiment and Smuts is still quoted with disapproving relish to this day. That sentence — short, simple, and unambiguous — came to encapsulate the kind of ethically dubious but legal cadre enrichment that morphed into the criminal state looting of the Jacob Zuma era.
In the Zuma years, the competition hots up. We have a deep store of idiocy to draw upon. There’s the one about “a shower would minimise the risk of disease”, with which he justified his condom-free sex with a Struggle comrade’s daughter.
Others might plump for “the ANC is more important than the Constitution”. Or “the ANC will rule until Jesus comes back”. But since both statements are unfortunately probably true, they don’t truly capture the defining aspect of the Zuma years — defiant ignorance and rapacious greed.
Many of the Zuma era’s catchphrases came not from the thick-tongued president but from the quick-tongued Julius Sello Malema.
Malema has the populist’s unerring ability to discern South Africa’s heart of darkness. Indulged for a long time by an adoring media that gave him copious amounts of oxygen to air his noxious views, Malema is not only wonderfully quotable but dangerously influential.
Although no longer an ANC leader, having been expelled and set up the rival Economic Freedom Fighters, the divide is more theoretical than real. While the antipathy between the two parties was bitter — “We will kill for Zuma” swiftly became “Pay back the money!” — it was brief.
The EFF has become the stalking horse for the ANC’s Radical Economic Transformation faction, which is made up largely of Zuma-ites. The two men now sip tea together and it’s disquietingly feasible that Malema could in some dystopian future become the country’s president, if the two successfully make common cause.
Part of such common cause would be the growing phenomenon of militant black racism. If our future indeed turns out to be a nation in thrall to crude African nationalism, the signals will have been there, unheeded, in Malema's fiery aphorisms.
It’s sometimes grisly stuff: “We are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now.” “We will cut the throat of whiteness.” At other times the toxic bile directed at women, Chinese, Indians, and those his pal Zuma disparagingly called “clever Africans”, a euphemism that Malema renders brutally as, “the house niggers”.
After wallowing in the Malema mud bath, it’s a relief to turn to Cyril Ramaphosa’s New Dawn presidency. These are early days to define an administration that’s been marked, so far, by lots of promises, little action, and a stubborn inability on the part of the ANC to bring patently dishonest officials and ministers to account.
There are only two things that Ramaphosa has said that seem to have stuck in the public mind. The first, “My fellow South Africans…” comes from his numerous, wordy addresses to the nation. The second, “I am shocked!”, when yet another corruption scandal erupts.
Cyril, however, needn’t worry overly much. The catchphrase of the Ramaphosa years has already been irrevocably laid down by his party, operating as a collective. It’s not as eloquent as Churchill or Kennedy but at least it’s instantly more comprehensible than Marx.
It’s the maxim spilling from the lips of every one of the very many in the ANC who have been exposed as thieves, but are hanging onto high office at any cost: “Innocent until proven guilty”.