The problem with Jacob Zuma's speeches

I’m not sure which is worse: listening to our president deliver a speech, or listening to said speech when you have the written version in front of you.

I’ve had the ambiguous honour of both in just four days.

At the Department of Justice conference on access to justice this past weekend Jacob Zuma had to tread a delicate line as leader of one branch of government addressing a room full of people from another branch—the judiciary. He stuck to his speech carefully; painstakingly reading out every word, long after the journalists in the room had skimmed over it in the press hand-out.

At the Rivonia Trialist Gala Awards on Monday night however I saw a far more relaxed Zuma on stage. He was before his comrades and friends; those who, just a moment earlier, had chanted: “Long live ANC, long live!”

A comfortable Zuma is a relief for tired ears. He diverted from his speech regularly enough to keep us entertained with little asides and we only had to grapple boredom and fidgeting when he returned to reading out his long and rather staid speech.

A little bit sexy
He commented that the hall was too dark, saying, rather poetically, “You have made it like night”.

Then he went on to ask, to much laughter: “Can’t we make it—even if it’s a little bit sexy now—that it can be lighter?”

He has a very specific speaking style that is hugely popular, but it’s a no-brainer to say that Zuma is no great orator in the traditional, Western sense. It’s even more obvious given the verbal prowess of his predecessors—Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela—who have both made speeches that have gone down in the history books.

Zuma, instead, comes alive when he’s singing or dancing for crowds. And he gets his point across far better when he speaks informally.

A tribal explanation would point out that Xhosas, like Mbeki and Mandela, are known for being great orators. A borderline racist explanation would harp on about Zuma’s lack of formal schooling.

M&G website editor Chris Roper has already dissected the privileged idea of class and language implicit in most criticisms of Zuma’s speaking style, in his column: Speak English or die.

In fact, the oft-repeated fact that Zuma received no formal education obscures another: that he managed to educate himself despite no access to formal education.

Fighting to learn
A reporter from the UK’s Guardian managed to trace a man who grew up alongside Zuma. He now lives in a shack with no money and very little food—and is still illiterate.

“He was the person who was good-looking and spoke well,” the article quotes the man on Zuma. “He was very determined to be educated.”

In the same article Zuma’s brothers talk about how the then-herd boy tried to obtain some education. Michael Zuma told the Guardian through a isiZulu translator. “He insisted we should get further knowledge so, after we brought in the cows each day, we attended a kind of night school. He instigated it for everyone.”

Zuma has said in an interview previously: “My father died when I was young, my mother had to seek work as a domestic, and there was no chance of my getting educated. I wanted to be a teacher, a priest or a lawyer but all I could do was to try to get other children to show me what they learned at school. From that and with my stepmother’s help I learned to read and write Zulu.”

The attacks on the president’s speaking style, as noted in Roper’s column, ignore this history. Whatever Zuma’s faults, and we know they are significant, he is a far cry from the uneducated and ignorant caricature racist critics would paint him as.

But he has a very different style, not to mention very different challenges, when it comes to speaking in public. And the fact that he has done so poorly is not his fault: it’s that of his team.

Lessons from the Obamas
When Michelle Obama brought the house down at Regina Mundi church in Soweto with a gorgeously presented speech during her recent visit, there were two major lessons to be learned. Get someone with an incredible flair for inspirational language and a firm grasp of the situation to write your speech. And then use near-invisible teleprompters: one on either side of your podium, so you can turn your head from side to side as if you’re looking each member of your rapt audience in the eye.

It couldn’t be a further cry from our president, hunched over a piece of paper, trying to read out a language whose characters he only learned to decipher late in life.

I tweeted several times about my hope that Zuma would start using teleprompters after seeing Obama. When I saw the same ones she used set up at the Access to Justice conference, I held my breath. But Zuma merely took the podium and read from his notes. It was expecting too much: he needs a good communication team around him who can work with what he is comfortable with and use whatever tools are at hand to enhance that.

At major fault is whoever writes Zuma’s speeches. They should try to construct it with the president’s speaking style in mind, instead of the dull essays they currently churn out, which lead to the stilted stuff we end up hearing. Presidents like Barack Obama have hired young whiz-kids to innovate the art of speechwriting, to great effect. Zuma’s move to look backwards and hire Mandela-era Cabinet minister Mac Maharaj as his new spokesperson last week can’t bode well for the president’s already tired speeches—not to mention his deeply inadequate use of social media and new technologies.

In the meanwhile his inability to speak well in public will be used by those who are far more ignorant than he is to criticise Zuma in the one area he doesn’t deserve it.

  • You can read Verashni’s column every week here, and follow her on Twitter here.

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Laudium, Pretoria, learned her trade at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, spent a spell in Cape Town as an online journalist, and now loves living in Jozi. Her interests are broad but include a focus on politics and multi-platform storytelling. Read more from Verashni Pillay


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