The emperor has no clothes

by The Editor

FEATURE: Recently it has been argued by a number of commentators that Preisdent Jacob Zuma’s dull and dreary speeches are not the product of ineptitude, but just, well, the way things are done in the ANC. This article responds to that argument by focusing on one of its advocates and a particular piece from the Daily Maverick.

The emperor has no clothes

By: Gareth van Onselen

13 January 2012

The generally enjoyable Stephen Grootes has constructed for the Daily Maverick a rather odd defence of Jacob Zuma and the regular criticism that his speech-making is dull and painstaking. His argument is both wrong and wrong-headed and, in its entirety, a justification of mediocrity.

Grootes argues speech-making in South Africa is not as it is in “Western” democracies – “carefully choreographed” events, made for television. ANC speeches are otherwise, he says – “we are not a television democracy”, “we are different”; before concluding with the following:

“It’s a choice by these leaders. They don’t need to spend the money and time rehearsing speeches, or on the right shade of base for their cheeks and the absolutely correct camera angle for the shot they will control. They do it differently. And perhaps more democratically.”

The word “we” is scattered throughout his piece. But it is, presumably, a euphemism for ‘ANC supporters’ because, as Grootes himself admits, in contrast to the ANC, the speeches of Helen Zille or Tony Leon represent a different attitude to speech-making. The DA has some three million supporters and its growing, so it’s fair to assume its approach resonates with a significant number of South Africans. In turn, one must infer it’s not just the leaders who make this “choice” (who, by the way, would choose to boring?) but supporters too.

So “we” are not, in fact, “different”. As with all things South African, “we” is a complex beast. And the “we” Grootes refers to is revealed as a nonsense – helpful to support a generalised statement but, on closer inspection, a contradiction. And so it fails.

If one buys into what’s left of his argument, which I do not, one might paraphrase it as follows: “Western” style speech-making is neither necessary nor desired by ANC supporters and leaders alike. That is a more accurate summation of his case, and not necessarily a more politically difficult statement to make. But why risk it? Far more politically palatable to employ that universal safe-haven – “we”.

Inflect the sentiment above and things get more interesting: ANC supporters do not have the stomach – nor its leaders the desire or appetite – for speeches which are passionate, rousing, inspiring, enthusiastic, captivating or moving. The raw “democratic” authenticity of a bland, lifeless inanity is more than sufficient.

That is a harder pill to swallow.

But what of it? Well, for one, who knows? If, as Grootes argues, the ANC’s internal political culture requires nothing more than the dreary, mundane grind of a Zuma speech, why should it ever change? Why even bother exploring the possibility something more inspiring might have a different effect?

Further, if his argument holds true, what will the ANC do if by some miracle it gives birth to a leader who can actually deliver a speech, rather than read a list of empty platitudes from a sheet of paper? (That is, when they can do even that – Zuma got the pages muddled in a State of the Nation address a few years ago.) Presumably that would work against them? And looking back, have all ANC leaders be passionless black holes, sucking the very life from the air? No. Although any exception is indeed a rarity.

What too of the ANC and government’s desire to broadcast these mental pile-drivers on national television? Every year – and certainly every election – the SABC is abused to give inordinate live coverage to ANC speeches. If it doesn’t matter and if they are directed only at ANC supporters anyway (cause, remember, the DA works differently) why bother? Why fill up a stadium, why have Mandela on stage, why put on a show? After all, messages and signals are sent to ANC supporters “through provinces and regions [and] through party structures”, Grootes argues.

Well, it might not be blush, a far cruder message perhaps, but a message none the less.

Perhaps Grootes is just being contrary?

On the other hand, perhaps he should tell the ANC NEC not to bother to get the public broadcaster to televise live for two hours the ANC’s final election rally in 2014? See how that goes down. Or suggest government reverse its decision to have the State of the Nation Address delivered at 7 pm, so that more people might see it?

No, the ANC and President Zuma care just as much about a good show as the DA does. And why do they care? Because any piece of political communication is designed to swing doubtfuls, just as much as it is designed to reassure and inform existing support.

The unfortunate truth – for our public debate is less for it – is that in Jacob Zuma the ANC has a man no more able to deliver a compelling speech than the talking clock is able to perform Shakespeare. And existing ANC supporters might tolerate that, but it’s not going to convince anyone else in significant numbers. No doubt often it fails even to convince the most hardened ANC stalwart.

The speeches themselves are also to blame. It’s not as if they are alive on paper, only to have their inspirational flames doused by a tedious delivery. The written text is just as mundane and monotonous as the tone in which it is eventually drowned. Obama himself would be hard-pressed to breathe life into them. It’s deliberate of course. I have yet to read an ANC-inspired document that doesn’t have a Mogadon-like effect on my disposition. It’s born of some warped sense that people are interested only in facts, not analysis. Like a novel written without any adjectives.

And such speeches are dishonest too (see here).

They are devoid of analysis, they ignore or dance around profound problems with obfuscation and double talk and they deliberately avoid specificity and frames of reference – statistics provided are never comparative over a significant period of time, at the most year-on-year. Why? Because that would give the game away. At best they are mechanical dreariness; at worst, akin to having your brain slowly frozen.

With regards to the media, well, it’s hardly an end in and of itself. It is a gateway to the public at large, and one takes it as seriously as one does the people to whom you are speaking. And one would presume the President, ANC or South African, is speaking to all the people, when his words are broadcast to the nation.

So why the excuses? Why the defence of such extreme tedium? Hard to say. Some politically correct impulse to justify ‘African democracy’ perhaps, whatever that is. (And on that subject, Mbeki’s ‘I am an African’ speech was an exercise in nationalistic posturing – the idea that we all share some sort of single, uniform identity, an innate ‘Africanness’ that flows through us all, makes for good poetry I am sure, political philosophy, on the other hand, is a harsher critic. But that is the subject for another debate.)

The argument he presents is also a logical circle. Even if wrongheaded, self contained it holds some muster, but open it up to the rest of the world and it turns in on itself. What of the youth, of that critical new generation, looking to our leaders for a reason to vote, to care? If they are born into a pro-ANC environment, is Grootes suggesting they will automatically be drawn to the insipid? That is deterministic thinking. Like everyone, they must be convinced, made to believe, before they will follow. And many will look to the President first.

Speech making is a critical tool in the arsenal of any politician, indeed, for anyone able to talk to people en masse using a public platform. It is no use having all the other attributes of good leadership – vision, principle, charisma – if one of your primary means of communicating is denuded of its worth because you are incapable of generating an ounce of enthusiasm.

But even that is to give Zuma too much credit. There is a fundamental and profound competence problem here. Even taking into account English is his second language, a fair consideration, we are talking about someone who simply cannot rise above his own limitations. No doubt that shouldn’t be held against the man and, by all means, those who voted for him are entitled to defend his dire ability, but lets not explain it away as some magical trait, particular to South African politics – a world where banality is the order of the day. And let’s certainly not pretend it has some sort of unique, magical ANC-like quality (more “democratic” as Grootes suggests). To do so is to make excuses for mediocrity and with that, to lower expectations and standards alike. Least of all, for the ANC itself.

Mediocrity has South Africa firmly in its warm embrace. We wallow in its comforting glow. We make excuses for it. We defend it. Political correctness constantly requires us to lower the bar, to celebrate that which at best is only just about good enough, and we revel in it. Why? The Emperor has no clothes. Why pretend he’s dressed in some sort of special robe. He is not.


Public speaking in South Africa is dire. In its totality, it is alienating. Particularly in politics, particularly in parliament, and particularly when it comes to the ANC. Delivering a speech is not merely about the drama of it. Nor is it solely about the content. It is an opportunity to convince people you care about what you are saying in order that they might invest there faith in you and your words. And so it must be authentic (something that is hard to achieve when your speech is written by a less-than-united, amorphous political body). Trust in our nation’s public representatives and their intent is hardly at its zenith. A little passion goes a long way. Indeed, it is a necessity – the lifeblood of public debate. We can except that fact and expect more, or continue to indulge the dreariness.

Gareth van Onselen writes in his personal capacity. He is employed by the DA as a Director of Political Analysis and Development.