PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma received a standing ovation yesterday — a rare accolade for a leader who is often criticised for delivering uninspiring and boring speeches.
Fresh from being criticised for a lacklustre speech at the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) centenary celebrations two weeks ago, Mr Zuma experienced a positive turn of events yesterday when a theatre hall in Sasolburg, packed with academics, professionals and business people, rose up in recognition of the lecture he gave. The occasion was to honour the ANC’s first president, John Dube, and Mr Zuma gave a lecture on his life as part of the ANC’s centenary celebrations. Compared to his long-winded, backward-looking January 8 speech, Mr Zuma had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand, as he dished out history, wisdom and humour. Mr Zuma has become synonymous with bland speeches. His slow reading pace and mispronunciation of words often leave his audience wondering what he is actually saying. And those lucky enough to have a copy to read as he delivers his speech are often disappointed with its lack of content.
In yesterday’s speech, Mr Zuma gave a history-intense tribute to Mr Dube. The relevance of the history in today’s times, although it was subtle, was not lost to the audience, judging by the occasional applause, the “ums” and “ahs”. His best performance was reserved for the question and answer session after his formal address. He was comfortable taking questions on the economy and SA’s skewed trade relations with China, a relationship which many claim is killing local business. Most important, he gave a glimpse of an ideal society in which education would be a central pillar in creating better human beings, and propping up economic development. He blamed parents for outsourcing the grooming of their children to teachers. “We, in our own homes, we no longer educate our kids … parents are not doing it. Parents are leaving it all to the teachers. That’s wrong.” Preachers should also educate children during their sermons. “Education should be a societal matter. Everybody must participate,” he said.
These may be simple lines, but they can form the basis of a strong political text. But Mr Zuma’s speech writers were in their offices at the Union Buildings and missed the chance to watch him in action so they could learn and improve his speeches. With the state of the nation address in mind, it is in the interest of the speech writers to find ways of improving the text they give to the country’s first citizen. He gets compared with his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki , who on a good day blew away his audience with poetic and intellectual content that Mr Zuma can only dream of. Mr Zuma has also given good performances, ones in which he has been brutally honest about the state of the government and the party he leads. But those are rare. One of them was his opening address at the ANC’s national general council in Durban in October 2010, at a time his presidency of the party was under serious scrutiny. Like a man fighting for his career, he delivered what one observer said was his best speech as president of the ANC. On that day, he cut through the ANC and alliance politics, wielding a whip to put his detractors in their place.
However, subsequent appearances have been nothing to write home about. Mr Zuma’s speeches are produced by a close-knit unit in the Union Buildings, with Luthuli House’s communications team providing “political content” that gets woven into his texts, usually averaging 20 pages, printed in a 24-point font for easier reading. But what stops the speech writers from studying the man they write for, how he speaks and how he delivers? A simple recording of yesterday’s off-the-cuff comments would help them prepare a text he can deliver in the future. That would help them tailor a speech that is in tune with Mr Zuma’s everyday language and in line with his views on policy and politics. Former speech writer Aubrey Matshiqi, now a political analyst, says most of Mr Zuma’s public appearances are uninspiring because the speeches lack content and are not well written. He says Mr Mbeki was not a great orator, but the content “made them beautiful. When the content is beautiful, people can overlook the bad delivery.”
There is no shortage of people “who can write beautiful speeches” in the ANC, he says. The uninspiring speeches were an indication of the broader politics in the ANC, where capable leaders were not roped in to help because they were not close to the political principals. The battles in the ANC could affect the performance of the Presidency, as skilled people could easily be sidelined because they belonged to “the wrong faction”. Mr Zuma’s speeches are not the only thing hobbling his presidency. The quality of the legal advice he received was questioned last year when his decisions were reviewed in public debates and in court, leading to questions about the competence of some components of the Presidency. Eventually, he appointed his personal attorney, Michael Hulley, as his special legal adviser to beef up his legal-advice team.