Language can be an incredibly difficult communication tool to master and English in particular is widely recognised world-wide as one of the most complex and confusing of all languages.
The pronunciation of words that sound exactly the same when spoken but are spelt very differently and with meanings that are totally unrelated to the same-sounding word is just one example of how confusing English as a language can be.
While many other “tongues” also have their quirks and some complexities, as a language used almost universally in today’s global economy, it really is critical that English should be mastered.
It is against this background that it is worth examining the true value of what was said and discussed at the World Economic Forum on Africa hosted in Durban earlier this month (this month’s cover story). All keynote speeches were delivered in English.
While English was the designated language for the conference and all keynote addresses were delivered in English, it should not be assumed or taken for granted that what was said was communicated effectively or clearly understood or interpreted in exactly the same way by all concerned.
Take for example a phrase such as “geopolitical risk” that was bandied about quite freely by a number of key speakers from all over the world.
Our own minister of finance, Malusi Gigaba, referred to Africa being faced with “geopolitical risk” but was specific by qualifying this risk as “the fallout from Brexit and uncertainties in major economies like the US and China”.
The federal finance minister of Germany, Wolfgang Schäuble, agreed with his South African counterpart about the treat of “geopolitical risk” but took an exact opposite point of view by saying the risk was with Africa itself and the inability of African leaders to build economies and sustainable growth based on “inclusiveness”.
This brings us to another English phrase that is currently being bandied about with gay abandon as one of the most hotly debated yet least understood phrases ever coined in the history of English language. The phrase is: “radical economic transformation.”
In order analyse and break down the true meaning of this phrase and how it should be understand, the simplest methodology is to access the synonyms feature in the spell checker of the industry-standard word processor.
Doing so reveals the following:
Radical – fundamental, essential, deep-seated, thorough, far-reaching, drastic, major.
Economic – financial, monetary, fiscal, trade and industry, profitable, financially viable, cost-effective, money-making.
Transformation – alteration, change, conversion, revolution, renovation, makeover.
And so it can been seen from the list of synonyms that can be attached to each of the words that make up “Radical Economic Transformation”, a very different meaning can be implied or intended depending who is saying it and who it is being communicated to.
If you are a person with strong socialist beliefs or a politician hunting down a constituency that would support wholesale nationalisation of the South African economy, the phrase would be qualified and explained by using synonyms such as “drastic and far-reaching” for the word “Radical”.
“Economic would be explained and qualified by synonyms such a “financial” and “monetary” with any reference to money-making being avoided at all costs.
“Transformation” would be interpreted as a total “revolution” related to the existing economic order.
Supporters of “radical economic transformation” from other political persuasions, including the far-right and so-called WMC, would far prefer to use synonyms or interpretations that allude to the necessity for “essential, financially-viable conversion” of the South African economy.
The tragedy facing South Africa right now, is that the phrase has been coined based on the history of struggle when extreme revolutionary rhetoric was needed to garner and motivate support for a cause that needed and demanded extremism to succeed.
Extremism is no longer needed. Instead it becomes self-serving for those who would wish to grab and hold on to power for selfish or self-serving political reasons.
Let us all hope that the true meaning of “radical economic transformation” can be found in the wide range of synonyms that are available in the English language and that we all get to speak with one tongue in striving to achieve a sustainable, just and inclusive economy.