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When appropriate speech captures the moment

Radical South African politician Julius’ Malema’s, Mama we are waiting for a signal speech at Winnie Mandela’s funeral event generated excitement not only in South Africa but in Kenya.

The speech found its way into social media platforms. This is not the first time a funeral speech has stirred minds, hearts and souls of those still living.

People in history have seized such moments to redefine what the dead meant to society. Too often, people are looking for meaning in their lives and the lives of their children.

Those who are able to give words to people’s fears, hopes and aspirations are the ones people yearn for. They want someone to raise their hopes and to calm their anxieties. Most people don’t have the linguistic ability to capture the essence of the moments or situations.

They have a mixture of fear and hope. Fear for the future because the person who defined the future for them is no more. Hope that out of the death, someone will turn up to embody their hopes. They hope that a man who will fight the forces which make life less tolerable will arise: to carry on their hopes and aspirations for the future and to calm their anxieties.

That is probably why Malema’s speech resonated so well with many people, particularly those who supported Winnie despite the challenges she faced later in life —from charges of murder and divorce. A funeral speech needs not be offensive to stir people’s hearts.

It may be calm and restrained. All it needs to have is to interpret the occasion: the meaning of the social, political and even economic situation people face and if possible what they need to face situation. Good or bad. We have had in History such moments.

One thinks of the Pericles funeral oration at which guardians of the society died in large numbers and were being buried. Pericles lent his voice to the meaning of the Athenian life and the ensuing death of the soldiers who died fighting for the Athenian or Greek way of life.

Another memorable speech in the annals of politics is that of the Gettysburg address delivered by Abraham Lincoln at a cemetery for soldiers who had died during the Civil War.

The speech encapsulate the ultimate meaning, in Lincoln’s view, of the war—a contest “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, (the proposition that all men are created equal) can long endure.

Fictional works also provide great funeral speeches — the best known is that by Mark Anthony’s I come to bury Caesar and not to praise him, in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

What is the lesson we learn from Malema’s speech? There are many lessons we can and should learn from it. Death is a recurring human frailty that will continue decimating us.

What is important is that we should seize the occasion, particularly when a prominent person leaves us, to think about either what the deceased meant to us or what the issues that are waiting for our interpretation mean to us. Speeches are instructional performances.

They educate. They acculturate, they help modify or change people’s beliefs, attitudes and behaviour towards a desired direction. Speeches affirm beliefs, attitudes and behaviour deemed desirable for the community safety and wellbeing.

The death of a person—great or modest—provides an occasion to remind us where we are and whither we are or should be going. Experts in public communication know the ultimate value of communication in the society.

Those who appreciate this take pains to put into words what they say or avoid saying during these public rituals. In his insightful classic, On Leadership, John Gardner says that the task of explaining is so important that some who do it exceptionally well play a leadership role even though they are not leaders in a conventional sense.

They do this because they find or have the words to explain the moments, the occasions which present seemingly insoluble problems. The trouble is that some of those who find and have the words may be demagogues or political anarchists whose influence on the people may be negative.

Formal institutions should invest more in ensuring that they have within them men and women who can help consolidate the words (whenever) needed to explain themselves with clarity, eloquence.

Politicians should equally invest in public communications if they hope to consolidate and expand their influence on their constituents. —The writer is the communications officer, Ministry of Education

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