This week’s standoff in Nkandla will tell us a lot about who we are as a country. It will speak volumes on where we stand on the rule of law and equal treatment of all citizens, and how even-handed the state and its agencies will be in applying the adage that no-one is above the law or beyond its reach.
The exquisite deference and patience of the courts for the serial filibusters, inept lawyering and wanton destructiveness of Jacob Zuma have finally been exhausted. It took a long time, decades, for this path to Nkandla to be reached. But at this crucial moment, Yogi Berra’s famous advice, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it”, must be rejected if we have a fighting chance to consecrate our 1996 promise that our new democracy would be subject to the rule of law, not to the rule of men — strong, delinquent or otherwise.
While the events surrounding Nkandla have brought out the very worst in the usual suspects, criminal and otherwise, and the ragtag remnants of the JZ faction and his bilious spokespeople, they have certainly provided us with a fresh reminder of the one area in which SA plays in the very top league. The use and abuse of euphemisms. And this is not just an exercise in philology or the study of language, but provides a useful explanation for the state of the nation right now.
Readers are doubtless aware of just how far downward SA has plunged on the global tables that matter: in 2020 the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) revealed that of the 64 countries surveyed, our Grade 9 science proficiency was the lowest in the world, beaten by Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. It will be little surprise for crime-ravaged citizens to learn they live in “one of the most violent and dangerous places on Earth”. That was the finding of the 2019 Global Peace Index, which placed us in the lowest quartile of peaceful countries, 125th out of 163 nations surveyed. Then there is our competitiveness or lack of it: in the June 2020 World Competitiveness Yearbook, published by the Institute of Management Development in Switzerland, SA ranked at 59 out of 63 countries on the list, it’s sharpest downward blip since the survey first began. The slump in our competitiveness, which encompasses such measurables as government efficiency, the quality of infrastructure, and business efficiency, began in 2007. According to Dr Leroi Raputsoane, chief economist at Productivity SA, “South Africa’s performance has been on a downward trend since 2007”.
That year was, of course, the one in which the ANC chose one JG Zuma as its president. And our downward decline is cause and consequence of that. Only a party with little or no regard for its country and standing at home and abroad could have chosen so manifestly unfit a candidate, and he did not disappoint his many detractors. His nine-year rule of error, ruin and rampant “corruption” was the consequence of the Faustian pact the ANC made with him.
Now, the use and misuse of euphemisms has no global tracker, but in any survey, SA today ranks as a top contender.
Marina Lambrou, associate professor in English language and linguistics at Kingston University in the UK, wrote in 2018 that euphemisms, or the use of an innocuous word or expression in place of one that may be found to be offensive or unpleasant, can be linguistically enriching. “But in the hands of politicians they can be strategically used to mislead and disguise brutal practices and ideas. Euphemisms — or what are known as ‘weasel words’ — are used to conceal the truth of unpalatable situations or practices so that they are easier for the public to accept.”
“Collateral damage” or the death of unintended non-combatant victims, a weasel word of note, sounds far more innocuous than the bombing and killing of civilians in wartime, for example. “Pacification” or the destruction of rural villages by US forces in the Vietnam War was an even more egregious example of this trend.
The Nkandla homestead this weekend provided an abundance of weaselly and pious utterances of untruths, a veritable torrent of misleading and mendacious pronouncements.
Appropriately, “accused number one”, Jacob Zuma, led from the front in the war against plain meaning. He suggested he had “never refused to testify “at the Zondo commission (notwithstanding he had been found in contempt of it by that very act). He said he “had been sentenced without a trial” (though no contempt proceedings have ever required “a trial” as the act of defiance itself results in the sentence). Then in his all time show-stopper, the man who attempted to abuse and bludgeon every arm of the state to his nefarious purpose proclaimed that we should all “cherish freedom and the rule of law”.
Leaving aside the league of scoundrels and rogues who made their way to Nkandla, a sort of latter-day Lourdes for delinquents and miscreants, the runner-up in the loose language and euphemism stakes was minister Lindiwe Sisulu. Her great feat was not toppling over her impossibly high heels, but on the plain language test she was in Zumaesque form.
She announced after praising the “toy soldiers” who flocked there in camouflage that her presence was to “make sure everything is in order”. Satisfied with her inspection, she seemed to euphemistically ignore the direct defiance the events at Nkandla, with the maskless, undistanced, gun-toting hundreds, posed.
This was, of course, defiance of Sisulu’s current boss, President Cyril Ramaphosa, not her previous one. It was Ramaphosa who advised the nation in his “family meeting” on June 27 that “all gatherings, whether indoors or outdoors, are prohibited. These include religious, political, cultural and social gatherings … I want to emphasise that it remains mandatory for every person to wear a face mask … when in public spaces. It is a criminal offence not to do so.”
So aside from the euphemistic misuse of the weasel phrase “family meeting” — instead of calling it a contentious monologue of evasive half-truths — Ramaphosa’s writ does not run at all, at least not in Nkandla, and not to the clutch of ministers, including Sisulu, who blessed the illegalities there with their presence and passivity.
But then Ramaphosa, who was silent for six days after the Constitutional Court judgment, is no slouch at misspeaking and obscuring plain meaning by hiding behind a cloud of verbal piffle and euphemisms.
On Sunday the vaccinations delivered to one of the most under-vaccinated populaces was a niggardly 6,909, as no funds exist for weekend jabs as the country stares down one of the worst Covid-19 surges in the world. Yet during his June 27 “family meeting” Ramaphosa used such weasel phrases as “we are forging ahead with our rapidly expanding national vaccination programme” and “we have picked up significant momentum”.
But the biggest untruth of the speech was at its commencement when Ramaphosa stated (in fact, misstated): “We have overcome these [Covid-19 infections] by responding swiftly and decisively.”
Tell that to the marines or, more precisely, Prof Shabir Madhi. He, of course, is one of our country’s leading vaccine and infectious disease specialists. In his address, Ramaphosa congratulated himself and his hopeless and hapless administration for its reliance on “international best practice and scientific data from studies across the world”.
But as the Sunday Times noted, such reliance is absent of any input from Prof Madhi, since he “was dumped from the ministerial advisory committee in a purge of those whose advice was unpalatable to the government”. Madhi did not credit Ramaphosa with “swiftness” or “decisiveness”. Rather, he found government preferences “dogma over science”. And in the midst of this devastating and deadly third wave, he lashed government for “creating obstacles rather than an enabling environment”.
But his most searing indictment of the Ramaphosa response was government’s fateful decision to sell one million doses of AstraZeneca. This could have staved off the current disaster, he contends, saying: “The government has blood on its hands. Hundreds of lives could have been saved.”
Nothing euphemistic in the language of the medical scientist.
In 1946 George Orwell penned a famous article, “Politics and the English Language”. He noted that much political speech and writing is “largely the defence of the indefensible”. And he wrote that the absence of clear and direct language, and its replacement with euphemisms and covering up details and so on, is due to insincerity.
“When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
Orwell cited examples form Soviet Russia, British rule in India and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. Yet were he alive today, he would find in the language and speeches of past and present leaders here much to tack onto his famous polemic. Words such as “load-shedding”, “follow the science” and “transformation”, for example. Alas.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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