George Lakoff, cognitive linguist, published a book in the early oughts he called “Don’t think of an elephant”. It was about what people in the persuasion business call framing. His point was simple enough. If you don’t want your audience to think about elephants, avoid using the word elephant.
I was reminded of this by the statement put out on Sunday by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation concerning Parliament’s 241-83 vote to debate putting government’s power of eminent domain — the US term for expropriation — on steroids.
“Minister (Lindiwe) Sisulu calls on the international community not to panic”, the statement was headlined, introducing, quite unnecessarily, the notion that something panic-worthy was actually going on here and that government and the normally imperturbable Cyril Ramaphosa might themselves be running around like headless chickens.
The don’t panic panic button pressed, the rest of the statement was likely to be a blur for most observers, a pity because the meat of the message was quite reassuring. There will be a process (we all know what SA processes do to action) and the views of all South Africans will be taken into account, not just those of the Julius Malema fringe.
That was all that needed to be said, though as I write, a week after the vote, the Rapid Response team at the Government Communications and Information Service is still crafting a set of talking points for “government communicators” at home and abroad.
Of course, panic is exactly what Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters want us all to do. It magnifies their importance. It makes them look as though their grassroots support is many times what it actually is. And it allows to them frame a critically important debate about SA’s economic future in an utterly counterproductive way.
Malema and Donald Trump are political soulmates. They work from the same poisonous playbook. Their modus operandi is to whip up fear and loathing, assiduously blowing on embers of resentment until the embers erupt into flame. They are master of the ju jitsu of making their opponents defeat themselves.
Trump tweets hard to goad his critics into saying things that energise his base. Does he really think arming teachers is a smart way of dealing with America’s gun disease? It doesn’t matter. The reason he says it is to stoke the great American culture war. Malema uses much the same tactics to fan racial animosity.
None of which is to deny that both men, whatever their self-aggrandizing motives, are poking at genuine wounds and that these need dressing. But they need dressing in a manner that doesn’t leave the patients crippled for years to come. If Malema and Trump are allowed to keep framing the debate about remedies, the prognosis is not good.
How then should the SA land issue be framed? Not, certainly, as something about which one must be told not to panic. Were I still in the nation branding business, I would want to put it in the context of pushing the economy onto a higher, more inclusive growth path. I would have advised the Minister against saying, as she did, “We invite members of the international community to continue supporting our effort to reverse the legacy of apartheid.”
Were there such a thing as the international community, it would have shrugged at that, if not rolled its eyes. For a better, more forward-leaning frame, consider what Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said in a splendidly proud and confident speech here last week: “We must create wealth and provide happiness to our nation…We are going to build a Ghana beyond aid…The black star is going to shine and shine and shine”. Ghana’s economy is projected to grow 8.3 per cent this year.