oa African Yearbook of Rhetoric - Harold Macmillan : the wind of change

Volume 2, Issue 3
  • ISSN : 2220-2188
  • E-ISSN: 2305-7785



When, on 3 February 1960, Hendrik Verwoerd, Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, ideologue and architect of apartheid, rose to his feet to move a customary vote of thanks in response to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's (1894-1986) speech at a luncheon meeting of the South African Parliament, the tone of his rebuttal was indicative of two schools of oratory on a collision course. Macmillan's speech was carefully written and crafted (as can be seen from the preserved notes) and it had been rehearsed a month earlier in Accra. The tone is sedately grandiloquent, reminiscent of Churchill's psalmody yet in keeping with British, formal parliamentary oratory, but aristocratically delivered as a sort of command to lesser beings. Verwoerd's style, by contrast, is direct (he had no preview of the violence of the indictment), ironically well-timed (There are two ways in which one can approach a motion of thanks... I will not inflict upon you either) and communicational, progressing rapidly from sound bite to sound bite. If anything, in terms of rhetoric, the difference in styles of delivery says more about the gap opening between the declining colonial power holding forth, and the soon fully sovereign, White republic for which a referendum had been announced two weeks before Macmillan's visit, and meant that South Africa, unlike India, would leave the Commonwealth - while the Black majority, silenced and ostracised, observed that odd joust, and its leadership was left to draw far-fetched conclusions. Indeed, the speech delivered in Cape Town had an impact its antecedent delivery in Accra could not have had. It raised the Liberation movements' hopes for a steadfast support by Britain; it may well have been a precipitating agent for the surge of revolt and the violence of repression that followed shortly after Macmillan spoke (the Sharpeville massacre), ushering in a state of emergency that would last thirty years until F.W. de Klerk's speech, at the same Parliament, in February 1990. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission settled on 1 March 1960 as terminus a quo for gross violations of human rights and their amnesty, one wonders if the date should not have been that decisive, critical, demarcating speech by Harold Macmillan - a speech that remains, for that reason, an essential if paradoxical moment in Africa's liberatory eloquence.

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