Following the State of the Nation address, there appeared an ANC invitation that billed “His Excellency” President Jacob Zuma’s presence at a “dialogue with the president on radical economic transformation”.
That the launch site for the war against so-called “white monopoly capital” was to be Durban’s Oyster Box Hotel, which markets itself as “the ultimate in colonial comfort and style”, makes clear exactly who the “radicalism” is intended to benefit.
Attendance was limited to 250 “dignitaries” at a cost of between R250 000 and R750 000 a table.
This was also, to the best of my knowledge, the first time that the ANC publicly accorded Zuma the title of His Excellency. This is an honorific that does not exist in the constitution, nor in traditional parliamentary usage.
Until now, a simple “sir” sufficed. Occasionally one heard “Mr President” – an American and European usage that subtly makes the important point that however exalted the office, the man who occupies it is still an ordinary citizen.
The issue of nomenclature is not as trite as it may seem. The words we use shape the reality of our existence, in that they set its parameters.
A few years after America had ditched British rule, there were heated debates as to how the new president of the United States would be addressed. The proponents of an exalted title – among those mooted were “excellency”, “highness”, “protector of the liberties” and “majesty” – were met with derision.
“Mr President” it would be.
And in India in 2012, after taking office, President Pranab Mukherjee approved new protocols of address. “Colonial era” forms were dropped and Mukherjee became India’s first “Hon’ble President”, with “excellency” in future only used with a foreign head of state.
But such good sense is relatively rare. Zimbabwe’s tyrant in-chief always signs off on his pronouncements as “His Excellency Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe”.
This is relatively staid stuff – although the contrast between the aristocratic “excellency” and the humble “comrade” is gratingly incongruous – in a country where not being sufficiently respectful of “Mad Mugs” can get you jailed.
The use of “comrade” is, of course, unremarkable in pseudosocialist states. It is used by every leader with any pretence of Marxist egalitarianism. Interestingly, our own president seems to have gone off it a bit – in the most recent Sona Zuma used “compatriots” instead.
So Zuma’s acolytes are going to have to up their game. Their choice of “his excellency” is not going to cut it. It is not only redolent of the privileged world that our president, with his newly discovered populist credentials, claims to reject, but it is just so old fashioned.
The first step is perhaps to insist, in the Mugabe style, that Zuma’s full given names always be used. Mugabe’s middle name, Gabriel, is so fey and Western, but Zuma has as middle name Gedleyihlekisa, which is sonorously, authentically African.
On the other hand, this is perhaps not such a good idea. Gabriel is from the Biblical archangel who serves as God’s messenger. Gedleyihlekisa translates to “the one who laughs while he endangers you”.
Back to drawing board. Maybe we could ask the imbongis to come up with an authentic title.