There’s nothing more frustrating than looking up a topic only to be confronted results written from a one-dimensional vantage point. Of the supposed Top 100 Best Speeches made, not more than two black orators feature highly: the cliched Obama and Martin Luther King Jr.
None of these black leaders’ magna opera sit at the top of our Five Best Speeches made by African Leaders list. The list adheres to the traditional rules of oratory adjudication used to compile all Best Speeches lists worldwide; paying attention to the speaker’s ability to convey his ideas in both an entertaining and informative manner. How he manages to grab the audience’s attention and maintain the same energy all throughout the speech is also a major consideration.
Many landmark speeches, that changed the course of our history failed to make our list bulkily because, even though they carried great content and were part of world-changing events, they lacked key aspects that make up a good speech, such as the ability to keep the audience engaged throughout the delivery. Nelson Mandela’s Treason Trial speech and Haile Selassie’s 1964 UN Address fall in this category; great content, but poorly delivered.
5. Robert Mugabe – World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002)
Very high on everyone’s bucket list should be attending a Zanu PF rally to listen to His Excellency President Robert Mugabe speak. Fifth on the list might sound disrespectful to one of Africa’s best speakers, but we had to start the list with a bang, lest you stop reading before getting to number one.
Mugabe’s speech at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 must be his most defiant and entertaining so far. He is known not to hold punches back in his interviews, but the Zimbabwean president was born to be at the podium, in front of a live audience.Increasingly under pressure from Britain and the US about his Land Reform policies that saw him expropriate farms from white Zimbabweans without compensation, Mugabe stood firm and demanded the West respect his country’s sovereignty. Most memorable words from the speech are: “We are not Europeans. We have not asked for an inch of Europe or any square inch of the territory. So Blair, keep your England and let me keep my Zimbabwe.”
Greatest experience about listening to Mugabe is that he is more candid than preachy, never speaks down to the audience but very comical in how passionate his words are about those that oppose him.
4. Thabo Mbeki – I Am an African (1996)
Not half as charismatic as Mugabe, yet slightly more technical in content and richer in research, at number four we have South Africa’s former president, Thabo Mbeki. His 1999 inauguration speech where he uttered the words “The People Have Spoken” is most probably the most underrated speech on the continent, yet many hail him for the iconic “I Am an African” speech he made at the adoption of the The Republic of South Africa Constitution Bill in 1996, while still Deputy President of the country.
There has been a lot of controversy regarding the originality of the words, but this is a great speech especially for the time it was delivered in. Just a two-year old democracy, South Africa was seeking identity and Thabo Mbeki added his voice along with the regular rhetoric of the Rainbow Notion (no typo).The speech contains many quotable words, some which are poetic enough to bring out tears of pride in the eyes of South Africans. Using words to paint the landscape of the infant nation, Mbeki described “the dramatic shapes of the Drakensberg, the soil-coloured waters of the Lekoa, iGqili noThukela, and the sands of the Kgalagadi have all been panels of the set on the natural stage on which we act out the foolish deeds of the theatre of the day.”
Great speech as it is Mbeki failed to “lift it off the paper”, as a result it remains a great poetic address that lacks the spontaneity required to give the words a life of its own.
3. Barack Obama – Yes We Can (2008)
Someone that never struggles to engage the audience and keep the energy high throughout his speech is the 44 president of the United States of America, Barack Obama. Sitting in third position because Obama has had better openings to a speech than he did on the “Yes We Can” delivered during his presidential bid in 2008. It took him ten minutes before he started the caller-response chant that became the signature tune to his campaign.
What makes the speech great though is that it is short, in rally speech terms; a little over 12 minutes. Obama is not a public speaker in front of that New Hampshire audience, but a master conductor waving his baton and getting a harmonious response from his symphony. Even as a viewer one feels like a part of the speech itself, even sometimes finishing Obama’s sentences.
One of the most amazing orators of our time, Obama knows exactly which words to stress, where to pause to let the audience get involved and at which point to raise his voice for the energy in the venue to trail him.
2. Martin Luther King Jr. – I Have a Dream (1963)
But if people feel Obama was overly trained to get to a pinnacle of oratory, they cannot accuse Martin Luther King Jr. of drawing by numbers. In fact, we know the former has definitely studied the latter’s skill in order to be as good as he eventually became.
Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” remains subject of good public speaking schools half a century later. Lasting only a little less than five minutes, and sitting second, it is the ultimate Toastmastery. Like a good native King was he did exactly as Franklin D Roosevelt would have preferred, “Be Sincere, Be Brief, Be Seated”.MLK maintained the energy he began the speech with, and at no point does one sense he’s lost the audience or has included a word that did not belong in the speech; with impeccable voice projection like well-thought out classical notes, each word follows the previous in perfect harmony right to the last “Free at Last”.
1. Malcolm X – Ballot or the Bullet (1964)
No one has made a better speech than Malcolm X’s 1964 Ballot or the Bullet speech. The opening of the speech contains one of the best ingredients of a perfect speech, humour. In his greetings he takes a swipe at some of the guests in attendence that do not hold his views in saying “…brothers and sisters…friends…. and I see some enemies.” The audience burst out in laughter and he had them eating out of his hand from that point on.
In the speech, civil rights leader calls for blacks to take charge of their lives, politically and economically, because the American government does not have their best interests at heart. X goes on as far as encouragig them to take up arms against the government.What makes Malcolm X a great speaker is not only his use of humour, which he uses as often as punctuation marks, but also his simple, conversational style of oratory. He is on stage, but it feels like he is sitting across the table and having a casual chat with an old friend.
The play of words when he says blacks should “stop singing and start swinging” is one example of the poetry in his oratory, but for the entire speech there are moments that have you in awe of not only his knowlege of politics and history, but also the conviction behind he has in his philosophies.
His energy is unmistakable, an encouragement to those that loved him, but definitely sent shivers down the spines of his detractors; which explains the way his life ended.
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