We’ve become masters at the art of doublespeak

ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule
ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule
Image: Esa Alexander

South Africans are like Pentecostals. We repeat a word, a phrase, an acronym over and over again until it has lost all meaning and simply becomes part of our belief system.

In the process, we fall into the trap of thinking that the word itself speaks reality into existence.

Will Ace “step aside?” My dictionary says that phrase means “to withdraw or resign from an important position or office”.

It should be clear by now that the secretary-general of the ANC  has absolutely no intention of stepping aside.

By giving him 30 days to make what should have been an instant decision — or face suspension — his party’s executive committee gave Ace Magashule more than enough time to do what the cartoonist Zapiro sketched the other day — to “sidestep” this halfhearted attempt to bring a big man to book.

What do we learn from this once great liberation movement?

A contempt for organisational discipline and a finger in the face of the justice system.

We should not at all be surprised that children and young people are learning directly from this disdain for public institutions and disregard for public accountability.

In 2020 alone, the wanton damage to university property at one Durban university was estimated at more than R27m — and close to R1bn in the 2015-16 student protests.

When your leaders disregard the rules of decency and any respect for the law, then expect such wanton destruction of sites of higher learning.

Will  former president Jacob Zuma “appear” for his long-awaited reckoning at the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into State Capture?

That was the phrase of choice parroted by one news outlet after another.

It took the brilliant young legal mind, advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, to straighten out the relevant words for the record: “We do not ask for his appearance; we ask for his punishment.”

Words matter — why should high-ups make the pilgrimage to the Nkandla homestead to beg the big man to “appear” before a commission he himself had instituted as president in 2018?

We do not learn. Not too long ago we discovered that the often-repeated slogan “radical economic transformation” was none of those three words, as it came to be associated with a faction of ruling party politics.

Like other terms, RET was conjured up by a public relations firm in London as, one economist put it, “an ideological smokescreen to mask the rent-seeking practices of the Zuma-centred power elite”.

We fall for these word games every single time.

One of my studied deceptions is the word “decolonisation”. It was carried with so much fervour among students and for the most part, given considerable support by university leaders.

What promised a radical and necessary revisioning of the university curriculum turned out to be a dud word.

Our five-year research project on the take-up of this vital word within  10 universities showed how institutions defang radical initiatives while appearing to embrace them (the book is called The decolonization of knowledge, Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

When a key word like decolonisation is wielded without any specific content, we found that academics filled the void with meanings of their own ranging from simply good teaching to academic development (overcoming knowledge deficits among black students from a dysfunctional school system) to an African example in the curriculum here and there.

In an instant, a word that signalled radical intent is normalised within university speak.

Why do academic teachers do this? Because the radical meaning of the word decolonisation is intimidating and so they give it meanings that fit within their own ideological and professional comfort zones.

This, week we learnt about yet another “stray bullet” that took the life of a young boy inside a shack.

Think about it. The two media words are meant to convey the idea that a bullet intended for another purpose wandered off track and strayed into the head of a child.

There are no such things as stray bullets. Shots fired are intentional and they kill, whether it is a gangster in gang wars or children in the same area or a shot from a police revolver.

One more thing: what exactly is Ace expected to “step aside” from? Inside his own party are any number of corrupt people, from mayors to municipal managers to provincial cabinet ministers, many accused of serious crimes.

They are defended by party seniors, accompanied to courts by ululating crowds, and given flight cover by one of the most ridiculously named bodies of our times, the Integrity Commission.

Integrity, says my trusted online dictionary, means, “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles”.

Sidestep that.


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