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(Mis)leading with words to corrupt democratic South Africa

Jameson Maluleke

One of the enemies which the South African democracy has to do battle with is none other than corruption, which permeates all government sectors. Many administrators from exile, detention and banishment have since developed parasitic behaviour. “You steal or be stolen from” has become their secretive mission statement. As their practice threatened to throttle progress, seasoned leaders have launched a campaign to eradicate these mistletoes and other weeds.

Since its inception in the 90s, the battle against corruption, which saw high-profile leaders relieved of their positions, has been intensified. Officials from mere clerks to general directors of national departments, mayors and diplomats have also been expelled on charges of corruption. Ascending the presidential throne in 1999, President Thabo Mbeki wore a mantle of a Mister Clean. He made it his policy to aspire for a stain-free administration. Last year Mbeki came out strongly against political opportunism in the African National Congress (ANC), saying ruling party members should remain vigilant against individuals seeking office for financial gain. Mbeki's rebuke - made in his weekly letter, titled: “A Titan that serves the People of South” - came as the country was gearing up for the 2006 local government elections.

"... some of the people who are competing to win nomination as our candidate local government councillors are obviously seeking support on the basis that, once they are elected to positions of power they will have access to material resources and possibility to dispense patronage*"

Mbeki's comment gives us a glimpse of just how prevalent corruption is in the public sector. While Mbeki and the anti-corruption campaign should be commended for courage and moral stature, their fight is unfortunately one-sided. No action has been taken against government officials who abuse words to corrupt our democracy. This unbecoming habit by politicians and their fellow public servants may be classified as one of South Africa's trivia, but is as heinous a crime as the plunder of public funds by people entrusted with authority.

Bamboozling words and political rhetoric as a way to save one's skin are as old as the art of governing itself. As a result of its lifespan this field of study boasts extensive research by hundreds of scholars. In the new South Africa, however, "creating a fog with bombastic words to divert attention from real issues” is a fairly new art, especially amongst the African masses who had not experienced the workings of politicians before. Apart from a limited but sterling job done by Beeton (1993), no study has been done on the abuse of words by a new crop of politicians in the new South Africa.

The purpose of this paper is, therefore, to work on the foundation built by Beeton and to highlight the seriousness of the crime committed by those in power as they mismanage the public sector while hiding behind a maze of difficult words.


Writing during the embryonic stage of our democracy, Beeton (1993:7-8) voiced concern about the language of diplomacy. He points out that the general verbal fog must be bewildering not only to the wider public that listen to electronic media but to the perpetrators themselves.

"‘Zero-based budgeting’ may well be transparent to experts in finance and economy – but what does it really mean to ordinary, intelligent readers, readers who should by now have become suspicious of any words that seem to hide or varnish the truth? What about ‘informal housing’ - is this a ‘nice’ term to put us at ease, so that somehow our mind is diverted from squatter camps, or slums, or the mental picture of a piece of corrugated iron leaning against a wall and giving a shelter to human being?"

What Beeton calls "the general verbal fog" brings home to us the truth about politically correct language,* a kind of a Pandora’s box decorated with figures of speech like euphemisms and people-friendly words to pacify people's emotions.

“Pushing away the frontiers of poverty”, “eradication of poverty”, “capacitate an organisation or an individual” and “prioritisation” are words and phrases which are beyond the grasp of ordinary members of the African communities, the more so because English is their third or fourth language. Yet African politicians delight themselves in tossing these big terms around to sound more educated or sophisticated than the general public.

A Limpopo villager, Freedom Ngobeni, who boasts an old Standard 6 education, recently attended a meeting where a government official was giving this community some feedback on the delivery of water to the area, which has a water shortage problem. After the meeting Ngobeni went home with two problems - the water shortage and confusion over phrases like "we are going to engage all stakeholders", "we have to follow protocol" and "minimisation of the problem".

"Why can't the government just solve the water shortage problem rather than use big words for ordinary people? We are not interested in their language, but in whether they can solve the water problem or not," he fumed after I had tried to explain some of the phrases on a list of words he had recorded from the meeting.

But there was one word which I found difficult to explain to him - Zanufication. For Ngobeni to understand this word, I had to tell him about a country Zimbabwe, about the ruling political party there, before I could tell him about the word itself. He found this confusing, so I told him not to bother about its meaning.

Let us for a moment take a look at the speech by Free State premier Beatrice Marshoff delivered at the Xhariep Water Summit in Trompsburg in September last year.

The speech is a mirror of a political leader struggling to make vacuous assertions, half-truths, ambiguities and contradictions sound credible. A cleverly crafted document without a title, the speech makes it clear that both the premier and government are unlikely to commit themselves to any undertaking concerning water provision. It is also too general in that it repeats the obvious and concentrates more on trivial matters than on the burning issue, which is the provision of clean water to the community. For instance, in a district like Xhariep, which is described in the speech as "one of the driest districts in the province”, people do not need a sermon about the importance of water. They want to know how and when the government is going to supply them with clean water and proper sanitation.

Through repetition, appeal for sympathy, diversions and technical jargon, the premier succeeds in escaping the responsibility of the provision of water and sanitation in Xhariep district. It is only at the end of her speech that she cunningly and indirectly points out that the government is not in a position to solve this problem. She appeals to the audience to "join forces, mind and ambitions and work together to achieve a better life for all our people in an effective and sustainable way". Marshoff sounds vague and contradictory here, because although the people are more than ready to work with the government to improve the quality of life, they do not have the resources, their hands are tied. The government, on the other hand, has all human and financial resources as well as capability, but it is dilly-dallying about providing water to the community.

The opening sentence is cleverly designed to evoke the audience’s emotional feelings by referring to the "50th anniversary” of the "Freedom Charter" (which is a historical document of the ANC) and that "there shall be houses, security and comfort!" By reminding the audience of the historical event - "50th Anniversary of the Freedom Charter", Marshoff seeks to cement the bonds of camaraderie between herself and the audience. It is a kind of feel-good, a pleasant distraction to pacify the audience’s emotions before she continues with her speech.

The phrase “Freedom charter” appears three times in the speech and evokes the feelings of nostalgia among the ANC members in the audience as it contains utopian promises. The use of an exclamation mark at the end of the sentence is designed to reinforce authenticity of the promises and the benefits that the audience and the Xhariep community at large will derive from the ANC government. The premier is at pains to reveal that no other party can provide for the country’s citizens than the ruling party.

The irony here is that Marshoff does not seem to be aware that the people are now fed-up with hearing empty promises such as the "better life for all" catch phrase which has been preached by the ruling party for more than a decade. Lack of delivery and empty promises tend to make people see politicians as outright liars and as a group of people who plunder public funds to increase people's poverty than decrease it.

Marshoff proves herself to be a master of repetition in that in her speech of about 60 lines the word “water” appears 26 times, that is, it appears in almost every second sentence of the speech. Yet none of the sentences in which the word “water” appears, implies the provision of clean water and sanitation. Below follow quotations of how the premier plays with people's emotions with her repetition.

. have safe water and sanitation supply
. without water there is no life
. without water services cannot be delivered
. priority is to deliver water
. availability of water role-players
. efficient use of water
. allocation of water rights.
Although the premier is aware of Xhariep as one of the driest district in the Free State, she does not give any indication as to how her administration will tackle the problem. Instead, she protects the government by appealing for sympathy from the audience, as the following excerpts indicate:
. We must realize that the government is faced with a complex number of challenges. . Water services delivery in Xhariep district is faced with challenges.
. We must, however, be aware of the challenges facing municipalities.
Repetition for sympathy serves to lessen the extent of people’s complaints about the lack of clean water in the district, and at the same time portray herself and the government as caring guardians.

Marshoff also succeeds in creating confusion by introducing long technical terms in the speech, the first being “the Free State Growth and Development Strategy (FSDS)” in the paragraph, and an undertaking called Project Consolidate. This project might have been established with all good intentions, but its words are intended to confuse the audience. It is unclear if one of the objectives is to provide clean water and sanitation, as that aim has never been mentioned in the speech. Again, the premier plunges her audiences into a pool of pandemonium when she introduces phrases such as “the intervention mechanism”, “national strategies” and “implement sound management systems” and acronyms such as DPLG.

In her closing remarks the premier emphasises the prominent role played by water “to establish the principles of equality, dignity and equity, the right to safe and healthy living, the right to food and jobs and an unqualified opportunity to develop our human and economic assets.” These are high ideals which the whole community longs for. The premier repeats them here, not because her government is able to realise them, but to impress her audience. She again appeals to the audience to “join forces” with her to continue the struggle for a “better life for all” and expresses the hope that the audience will assist the government to provide clean water and proper sanitation.

The premier’s speech and many other utterances by fellow politicians give credence to an (un)wise saying by the former Mpumalanga Ndaweni Mahalangu (1999) who once came under heavy media fire for saying politicians are inherently liars: "Politicians who are caught lying to the public should not be axed or otherwise disciplined because the practice is widespread and accepted political technique."

In the light of the scenario painted above, the question arises as to whether the solution is to abolish political language altogether or to make politicians accountable for what is perceived as their lies. This is a tall order in that to abolish one’s language is a violation of the freedom of speech. Again, nobody would be able to force politicians to be accountable for their lies.

People are indeed free to use everything at their disposal to make politicians sound credible, like advising them to include an element of truth in their speeches. However, research has shown that "for whatever reason, suggestions by the man in the street will not easily find acceptance from leaders and scholars” (Maluleke 2005:92).

Politicians being our leaders, our suggestions for them to stop lying might be understood as an insult to their integrity and profession. What then, should be done to right the wrongs perpetuated by politicians? Obviously, we can't rely on Mbeki's courageous fight against corruption to help us in that he too is a politician who delights himself in articulating his thoughts in political language.

Part of the solution, as I see it, lies in the upgrading of the political language education in tertiary institutions as well as the introduction of political language as a subject in secondary and high schools. This will enable our future generation schooled in this subject to discern, analyse and understand the mystery of political language.

List of references

Beeton, Ridley. 1993. The Language of Negotiation and other carping stories in Language Matters. Studies in the languages of Southern Africa. Vol.24.

Mbeki, TM. ANC weekly letter titled: “A titan that serves the people of South Africa” on the ANC website. Volume 5, No. 41. 14-20 October 2005.

Mahlangu, Ndaweni, 1999. Lying OK in politics says premier. In African Eye News Service.

Maluleke, MJ. 2005. Language as an Instrument of Power. MA dissertation. Pretoria. University of South Africa.

Ngobeni, Freedom. 2005. Mphambo village in Limpopo province.

Speech by the Premier of the Free State, Ms Beatrice Marshoff, on the occasion of the Xhariep Water Summit, Trompsburg

LitNet: 16 August 2006

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