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jeremy thorpe
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Learn to speak a little bit of English...

12 July 2013, 16:51

This morning on 702, John Robbie got some stick from a listener who accused him of being “racist” for having the temerity to describe a government minister, Malusi Gigaba, as “articulate.” The listener basically felt that John was judging a black person based purely on his command of English.

Well, it’s easy to chuck the race card around – and John is no racist. Ask his long-time technical producer Darius Mothibe – or any of the other black staff at 702.

But the listener does raise an interesting point. Do those of us who speak English as a first language – or speak it fluently on a daily basis - judge others by their ability to do likewise?

A couple of days ago, John was interviewing the new Communications Minister, Yunus Carrim. To me,  Carrim came across as switched-on, reasonably knowledgeable and keen to make a difference to this underperforming ministry.  And, as an English-speaking listener, I found myself enjoying his fluency which translates, to my ear, as quick-thinking and intelligent.

And I guess that’s one of the reasons why the ANC often does so poorly in the media. Above all, the media wants quotable quotes. It wants ministers who can express themselves (in English) quickly, articulately and quotably! Carrim and Gigaba – and also like those opposition politicians the ANC loves to hate, Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mmusi Maimane.     

Yes, I agree, it’s probably unfair to judge a person on his/her command of English, particularly when many of us English-speakers can barely manage fluent Afrikaans, let alone any of South Africa’s other indigenous languages. 

But like it or not, these days English is South Africa’s language of communication – and the ANC could do itself a huge favour by employing more Gigaba’s and Carrim’s. They SOUND efficient, even if they’re not, and when efficient communication is a must, that’s half the battle won.

Some of you may recall the words of a song by Johnny Clegg and Juluka. “Third World Child” was written back in the ‘80’s and was a look at how black people saw the arrival and influence of whites in South Africa. “He said…you should learn to speak a little bit of English, don’t be scared of a suit and tie, learn to walk in the dreams of the foreigner….I am a Third World Child.”

Those immortal lyrics were no doubt intended ironically, but today they ring truer than ever. Learn to speak English fluently and articulately – and you’ll win a lot more friends and influence a lot more people than if you can’t!    

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