Final Word

Irony of an election about a president with little academic background

King or Presider.jpg

For many, if not most, South Africans the municipal elections were, at least by implication, really about the position of President Jacob Zuma, but therein lies a huge irony.

While it is a well-known fact that President Zuma is a man with almost no academic background, the term or title of ‘president’ made its first appearance in our lexicon in the world of academia – way back in the 15th century .

The word made its appearance in Late Middle English, via Old French from Latin praesident- ‘sitting before’, and is closely related to the word ‘preside’ from the Latin praesidēre, from prae ‘before’ and sedēre, meaning ‘sit’- that arrived in English via the French word présider in the early 17th century.

The website Dictionary.com gives it as: “1605-15; < Latin praesidēre to preside over, literally, sit in front of, equivalent to prae- pre- + -sidēre …””

How we arrived at ‘president’

Originally, the term referred to the presiding officer of a ceremony or meeting (or chairman). Today it mostly refers to an executive official – be it the head of state, corporation or civil organisation, as in ‘president of the South African Rugby Board’.

Even the officiating priest at some Anglican Church religious services is sometimes referred to as the ‘president’.

The earliest known examples come from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in 1464, and in 1660 William Brouncker was known as the founding ‘president’ of the Royal Society.

According to the website Blurtit the term ‘president’ was first used at Harvard University and was coined by Henry Dunster in 1640, who presided over the various colleges that made up the University.

Others, however, hold that the term actually derives from Cambridge University (UK).  The first president of Harvard was a graduate of Magdalene College Cambridge.  At that college the second in the hierarchy was and is known as the president, and the first in command as the master. When the first president of Harvard was appointed he was expecting a master to be appointed over him, but such appointment was ever made.

Political context

In political or state governing context, however, the term dates back to pre-revolutionary France, where a powerful magistrate as member of the so-called noblesse de robe or ‘nobility of the gown’, presided over parliament with considerable judicial as well as administrative authority and became known as the president of parliament. It was, however, a hereditary position.

During the time of the British Commonwealth, the term was also used for the person who presided over institutions like the Privy Council and later the Council of State.

The first president as a single head of state of a republic dates back to the establishment of the United States of America in 1787.

There was apparently quite a debate in the first Congress about how the elected head of state should be addressed, with suggestions varying from “His Excellency” and even “King” (according to some sources) to “His Mightiness, the President of the United States of America, and defender of the liberties of the same”.

However, the office of president was written into the constitution ratified, which created the US the government.

The Constitutional Convention debated a great many things (including how to elect the president and how long his term should be and whether he would be re-electable.

The term ‘president’ finally stuck, although the Virginia Plan, the first constitutional draft, referred to a “Chief Magistracy” – a term that delegates used synonymously with ‘president’.

Many other nations would follow the US example and Haiti became the first presidential republic in Latin America when Henri Christophe assumed the title in 1807.

Almost all the American nations that became independent from Spain in the early 1810s and 1820s chose a US-style president as their chief executive.

In 1802 Italy became the first European country with a president.

The first African president was the president of Liberia (1848) and South Africa followed in 1961 when it left the British Commonwealth to become a republic.

by Piet Coetzer

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