Kgalema vs Thabo: Workmanship in wordsmithing

Two strikingly different speeches — one saying goodbye, and the other saying hello. Two moods and two different styles.

Perhaps, also two different teams of speechwriters and/or coteries of advisers.

Thabo Mbeki’s televised farewell last week was generally welcomed in the media. Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya, never a fan, even felt moved to write: ”He called us his compatriots and it felt like he meant it.”

A week later, it was the turn of new appointee Kgalema Motlanthe to take to the TV to address the nation. He won a few accolades, but opposition parties branded it as ”vintage ANC” and ”rhetoric garbage”.

But in many ways, the new president’s speech, at least at the level of language, was far better communication than that of his predecessor.

In his approximately 1 700 words, Motlanthe five times used the phrase ”fellow south Africans”, and he hailed his audience as ”South Africans” another six times.

In contrast, Mbeki’s swansong made much less of an appeal to a common national identity. Though using about 200 more words than Motlanthe, his remarks only referred on three occasions to ”fellow South Africans” and two to ”South Africans.” Comparative score between new and old: 11 to 5.

And while the departing leader used the word ”we” a full 45 times, this was almost always in the narrow, even defensive, sense of ”we” as being either ANC members or the government. Examples are: ”we have never done this” (interfere with the National Prosecuting Authority) and ”the work we have done”.

Likewise, when using the term ”our”, Mbeki also meant a sense that was much more circumscribed than as something belonging to all South Africans.

Significantly, he used the personal pronoun ”I” a full 26 times, and acknowledged his audience as ”you” on only six occasions. This gave special resonance to his repeating a Comrades Marathon metaphor from an earlier speech that includes a reference to ”loneliness impossible to bear”. The word ”together” appeared only once in his remarks, reflecting a mindset of siege and self-referencing.

But ”together” featured 12 times in Motlanthe’s speech. The new president also used the pronoun ”we” on nine more occasions than Mbeki did — and, in stark contrast, almost entirely in an all-encompassing national sense.

When Motlanthe also used the pronoun ”our”, as he did in 30 instances, it was also almost always in a broad inclusive sense. An example: ”Our country is emerging from one of the most difficult weeks in the history of our young democracy.”

The new president only used ”I” on 11 occasions (less than half that of his predecessor). And he made 13 direct addresses to his audience in the form of ”you” or ”your” (i.e. double that of Mbeki).

Courtesy of a website run by IBM called Many eyes, I analysed the speeches visually, producing three distinct images.


The one rendition is what’s called a ”tag cloud” — an image that shows the frequencies of the most common words in terms of relative typographic sizes.

The past-tense word ”made” stands out slightly larger than average within Mbeki’s cloud — he used it eight times. Likewise ”years”, which was used five times.

Motlanthe’s cloud pattern shows the word ”people” as bigger than the average, reflecting its use in his speech a full 17 times, exceeding Mbeki’s score of 12.

Conversely, the difference between the two leaders and their two occasions is also visible in the way that, while Mbeki referred to the ANC ten times, Motlanthe did so only once.

The words ”work” and ”working” are also in bigger text in Motlanthe’s picture — reflecting how they show up 13 times in the speech.


A visualisation called ”wordle” produces a more dramatic ”tag cloud”. For example, it shows the future-oriented term will as featuring prominently in Motlanthe’s speech. While the man leaving the stage used the same word just nine times, the text of the incoming leader notched up 23 instances.

That difference befits a speech that emphasised retrospective, and another that highlights what’s needed for tomorrow — and the different outlook of its exponent.

Word tree

This visualisation shows the phrases in which a word appears. One for Mbeki shows him saying ”I would like to …” on no less than eight occasions. The triplet is more than an expression — it also signals someone expressing a personal hope.

Overall, the goodbye words chosen by Mbeki reveal an individual who, even at the end, found it hard to bridge to the broad mass of South Africans. It’s a good sign that, on the other hand, the speech by his successor was strikingly free of that handicap.

Click here to compare the speeches yourself (note each word is clickable).

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