IT’S every public speaker’s worst nightmare: when nerves take over, your brain freezes and you totally lose it.
Elizabeth Tsvangirai, the 35-year-old wife of Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister, suffered that fate on October 24 after spending a good part of close to a minute trying to pronounce the word REITERATE.
So bad it got, her audience at the official launch of the Thokozani Khuphe Cancer Foundation finally said the word for her loud enough to ease her out of her mental cramp.
After her car-crash performance on the podium, there is concern within the party that Morgan Tsvangirai’s advisers are moving too fast too soon with a woman who received no grooming at all to prepare her for a role as a potential First Lady.
Senior officials in the party fear she has been thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight in the stampede to bury Tsvangirai’s love scandals.
One senior official briefed: “They [Tsvangirai advisers] have thrown her at the deep end in their desperation to create a public profile for her. They must slow down.”
Elizabeth – whose most recent profile is that of a soldier’s widow, beauty salon owner and single mum-of-three – had already spoken at two public events before the Cancer Foundation launch meltdown.
Barely two weeks after her wedding to Tsvangirai on September 15, she had her first public engagement at the King George VI School for Disabled in Bulawayo.
On October 24, she spoke an event at the MDC-T’s Harvest House HQ in Harare where she donated food items to the families of 31 party activists whose trial for killing a police officer in May last year has dragged on for over a year.
Her speech at Khuphe’s Foundation launch was a step up, however. The usual audience of adoring party activists had been replaced with Deputy Prime Ministers Khupe and Arthur Mutambara, several cabinet ministers, diplomats and a heavy media presence.
Her seven-minute speech began with the routine introductory pleasantries, her voice a little bit shaky from nerves.
The build-up to the meltdown was marked by the odd grammatical mistake and stumble.
Two-and-half-minutes in, as she praised Khuphe’s bravery in fighting cancer, she stumbled and self corrected, telling her audience: “Sorry, I will take it again”.
Slightly over a minute later, her audience would have picked up this grammatical error: “When women becomes victims of cancer...”
She motored on that time, but five minutes into her speech, she found herself in a real spot of bother while trying to say “reiterate”.
“Against the above, I wish to re... I wish to reillutrate...,” she said, followed by the now familiar “sorry, I will take it again.”
Take 2: “About the above, I wish to reillu... illutrate. Sorry, mhh mnc. Sorry, I will take it again.”
Take 3: “About the above, I wish to reillutrate...”
At this point, several people in the audience were muttering the word hoping she will catch it and come out of the spiral.
“Mhhm, sorry, yes aha, no it’s spelt wrong,” she said in reply.
At least she had now figured out that it was spelt wrongly, surely she would get it at the next opportunity?
Take 4: “About the above, I wish to reillutrate, illurate sorry mnc.”
After 37 seconds of trying, Elizabeth was now a nervous wreck. A few people started shifting in their chairs. Most were quietly embarrassed for her, the mood generally that of empathetic discomfort than hostile delight.
As she prepared herself for a fifth attempt, several people in the audience made sure this time she got it.
Take 5: “About the above, I wish to re... (shouts of ‘iterate’ from the audience) iterate that we stand here today on this occasion to witness the launch of this foundation inspired by the personal experience, humanity, humality (humility perhaps?) and strength of character exhibited by Honourable Khuphe.”
Her early composure was gone and several stumbles followed as she rapidly went through whatever remained of her speech.
It had been a humiliating nightmare and as she stood down from behind the podium, there was polite applause.
ELIZABETH SPEECH [GO TO 4-MINS 58-SECS]