Khaya Dlanga: Zuma’s high school oral about Mandela

"Good morning class!" shouts the teacher. The pupils stand up nervously and greet her in unison: "Good morrrrning, Miss!" She instructs them to sit down and get ready, because today is the day – the day of the oral about Nelson Mandela. 

Their chairs scratch the floor as they sit down, and papers rustle as pupils take a last-minute look at their notes before they have to stand up and talk about the revered South African icon.

Do you remember those days? The good old days, when you were in school and had to stand up and deliver an oratory in front of the whole class? Wasn't it just so much fun when you realised that you hadn't written your speech, let alone practiced it, in front of your mother's mirror. 

You didn't know what scared you more: the fact that you weren't ready, or just the very idea of speaking in front of the class (especially because there was that girl you had a massive crush on and the last thing you needed was to make a fool of yourself). 

Suddenly you wished you could spend a bit more time at the school library researching and writing your oral, instead of frantically pulling it out of thin air five minutes before the bell for class rang. 

It was doubly terrifying for students like me – those who had the misfortune of having their surname start with a D – because that meant you'd be one of the first ones to say your oral, and couldn't even scribble more notes down while pretending to listen to your classmates suffer through their own efforts.

That's what I was thinking about when I listened to President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday evening, as he delivered the Nelson Mandela lecture in Limpopo. The speech had that "I-just-wrote-this-a-few-hours-ago-because-no-one-would-let-me-crib-their-notes" thing about it.

We've all done it – tried to prepare for something at the last minute. Especially at school. On Tuesday, Zuma showed all the signs of someone who had spent the hour before school at the library copying the encyclopaedia pages on Nelson Mandela word for word. (For those of you who don't remember what that is anymore, an encyclopaedia is sort of like Wikipedia in book form, spread out over lots and lots and lots of books.)

But of course we know that couldn't possibly be true. I mean, he has people to write these speeches for him, doesn't he?

So I can't help but wonder whether the president's speechwriters have conspired to make him look bad. I think he should seriously consider "recalling" his speechwriters and replace them with high school students; they will achieve the same results. 

Unless his writers were acting on the instructions of the president himself.

The substance of the speech aside, however, I really wanted to slap people who were going on about the president's pronunciation. I get really irritated by people who laugh at black folk for whom, as I've previously written, "English is not easy. It is a difficult language with excellent public relations. If you speak English, and have the added bonus of speaking it well with a great accent, you are suddenly propelled into the class of the intelligent. You are not even required to have achieved anything. All you have to do is speak English well if you are not a natural-born English speaker." 

Some make the mistake of calling the president dumb because he doesn't pronounce certain words like they do. Personally, I think that's dumb.

Young black South Africans who laugh at Zuma because of the way he speaks should stop it. They forget that it is because of people like him that they are able to speak English as well as they do. 

Zuma's generation didn't have the luxury of going to the kind of schools that they have been able to go. People are not less intelligent simply because of the way they speak, or more intelligent.

A gentleman by the name of H Jackson Brown once said, "Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language."

Having said that, I want it to be known that I am criticising the content of what we should really call, "The President's Oral", not his delivery.

There were no insights; there was nothing new that we learned about Mandela. We got nothing about what he thinks of the man, instead we were given a laundry list of what we already know. I suspect that he would have had a far better speech had he thrown away the prepared remarks and spoken about the man he knew. At least then we would have known what he really feels and knows about Mandela.

Next time the president delivers a lecture about a person of esteem, may we please not hear a high school oral?

Khaya Dlanga is a writer, communications specialist for Coca-Cola, and a terror of the social networks. His new book in the Youngsters series, In My Arrogant Opinion, is available at leading bookstores. Follow Khaya on Twitter here: @KhayaDlanga.

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