Author: Journalist, Media Consultant and Economist Daniel Tonga, July 25 2017 - When one listens to politicians speak and takes a critical analysis of their political discourse, there is no doubt that present day politicians seriously lack the art of political rhetoric in Zambia. In times of a crisis or disaster, politicians are too quick to accuse their political rivals of sabotage using most the despicable language and speeches that end up dividing people instead of uniting them. They often use derogatory terms and threats as a way to convince people that they are in charge and under control. Their manner of speech is no different in even in times of elections. They insult, offend and disparage each other to gain political mileage. Sadly, even within their internal party systems at conventions where they gather to elect new officials, they malign each other without any sense of using civilised speech to persuade people to vote for them. All their speeches delivered at such functions or any other are never short of insults and sarcastic language. This is done by all politicians both in ruling and opposition political parties. This manner of speech and how they present their arguments shows serious lack of rhetorical skills among politicians in present day political life and discourse.

Recapturing the lost art of rhetoric, there are few examples that this paper brings to the fore in support of this argument.

President of the Republic of Zambia, Edgar Lungu in one of his speeches he delivered during a political campaign in 2016 once said: “I will crush you like a tonne of bricks.” He was threatening and referring to his political rivals of what he would do to them if they provoked his political camp. This was a threat and warning to his political rival.

Again, opposition political party leader Hakainde Hichilema of United Party for National Development UPND in 2016 during his political campaign once remarked: “Zambians must pray hard if I lose elections, there will be an Armageddon.” He said this suggesting that he would not accept defeat if he lost the coming election. He was firm and determined in his speech during this campaign.

Another political party leader, Saviour Chishimba of United Progressive Party UPP when he was reacting to a threat imposed by president Edgar Lungu to declare a state of emergency once said: “He said it himself (Lungu) that he is a dictator that you are going to bear with me, I’m going to become a dictator, as if this is his father’s country. Is this your father’s country? Is this your country alone? ”Mr Chishimba asked.  He added, “To bear with you (Lungu) over what? And how can you (Lungu) ask people to bear with your foolishness? This is utter foolishness!” said Mr Chishimba at a press briefing this year.

These three are excerpts from speeches of three political party leaders among many other speeches from politicians. These parts of speeches from political party leaders were delivered at most critical and defining moments in Zambia’s history. Yes, they are quotes and do not necessary define the whole speeches delivered by these politicians but they give an idea of the tone, speech composition and manner of speech common with today’s politicians in Zambia. This is not political rhetoric but manner of speech anchored basically on attempting to defeat political rivals and do little to persuade people to follow a political party’s agenda or course.

But, what is rhetoric?

Tania Smith (2008) in Edu Rhetor blog definesrhetoric as the study and practice of communication that persuades, informs, inspires, or entertains target audiences in order to change or reinforce beliefs, values, habits or actions. In addition, rhetoric, as defined by Aristotle, is the faculty of discovering in the particular case all the available means of persuasion, (Kennedy, 1963, p.19). Therefore, rhetoric is basically the strategic use of communication or speech to accomplish purposes with target audiences. It can be used for ethical and unethical purposes, but ought to be used for good ends and to enhance truthful and honest messages.   

Again, in ancient Greece and Rome the art of rhetoric was at the heart of political life. It was an art of political discourse, in which a speaker or writer attempted to inform, persuade or motivate particular audiences in specific situations. In the Greek tradition, rhetoric played a central role for productive civic practice and organising political life. It promoted economic expansion, ensuring security, and promoting civic virtue and participation.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in Zambia’s political life. There is no art of rhetoric.

In modern day politics, all politicians lack political rhetoric skills hence their speeches are not oratory or persuasive. The way they deliver speeches and how they speak at different occasions, normally result in division, tribalism, anarchy and hate in politics. They lack oratory and persuasive skills to appeal to people’s minds. No time in Zambia’s political history have we ever seen politicians who lack rhetorical skills than now. Lack of rhetorical techniques among these politicians makes it hard to combine freedom and order. It is high time that politicians developed the art of rhetoric. There is need for politicians to be excellent speakers and use of rhetorical devices to convey their message than threats, hate and divisive speeches.

Yes, some people have dismissed political rhetoric alleging that it is empty, false, argumentative and manipulative blaming it for many ills in the world. But communication scholars indicate that rhetoric, like many other human arts, achieve its greatest purpose when used to communicate and enhance truth and mutual understanding. It can also help to persuade people in order to bring freedom and order. Ian Harvey (1951) remarked that rhetoric is the technique of persuading free people to a pattern of life; and persuasion is the only possible means of combining freedom and order.

Therefore, politicians need to develop a skill of knowing how to persuade people than just issuing threats and forcing people to believe what they are saying. It’s important that they acquire persuasive and oratory skills which can help them deliver quality arguments as well as persuade people than maligning fellow politicians to win political support. As Aristotle indicated that, rhetoric is the process of developing a persuasive argument and oratory is the process of delivering that argument.

It’s now that Zambian politicians need to think about how they can change people's minds through knowing how to persuade them and win arguments, other than forcing people to believe what they already know.  Plato a great Greek philosopher once said, “Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men.” As such, it’s important that politicians win arguments or elections and govern based on how they have appealed to change people’s mind in a democracy like Zambia. It has been said, rhetoric and democracy are inextricable. Rhetoric delivers message to people and where there is democracy there is rhetoric. The two are related.

Is there anything that can be done to change the status quo and help bring back the lost art of political rhetoric?

Yes, there are several steps. First, politicians need to master the art of rhetoric by learning how to develop and structure arguments. They need to improve effective reasoning, structure their speech and conversation techniques. This is important for discourse and debates. If these are intensively followed, they can help to bring back the lost art political rhetoric.  

It should be remembered that in today competitive politics, politicians can only win genuine support by knowing and understanding on how to persuade people not just making promises, assertions and fabricating lies against a rival. They need to go beyond this and deeper. It’s not until they do so that people can genuinely be engaged and led. If practiced seriously, rhetoric can play a big role in changing how politics are done in Zambia today because the logic and art of rhetoric is simple - persuade people through strong, clear arguments and lead.

By Journalist, Media Consultant and Economist Daniel Tonga

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