Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Symbolism as the old order yields to the new

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30 Jul 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Don’t underestimate the power of the symbol in the Gauteng leadership race, writes Tony Leon

MARK Twain’s old line, "Every man is a moon with a dark side that he doesn’t show anyone," does not apply much these days. Politicians, from David Cameron to Barack Obama, and business moguls from Rupert Murdoch to Alan Sugar, blog and tweet semiprivate thoughts into the public domain.

Locally, the weekend media was awash with the excruciating SMS trail that beleaguered Congress of South African Trade Unions boss Zwelinzima Vavi released to prove that a political plot and an extortion racket on the back of an extramarital affair, and not rape, was the issue between himself and an employee.

Still, the good, old-fashioned photograph and TV moment has a way of freeze-framing and symbolising moments when the old order yields to the new. Some are conscious and calculating, others are offhand and unintended; sometimes the motive is unknown. A friend of mine, James Bradley, has written a powerful book, Flags of Our Fathers, which Clint Eastwood made into an equally compelling movie, about the background to one of the most symbolic and photographed moments in the Second World War. It provides the back story to his father and five other Marines who raised the flag after the Battle of Iwo Jima, which was the turning point in the Pacific War.

Then there was the moment in December 1970, when West German chancellor Willy Brandt dropped to his knees on a state visit to Poland, at the commemorative site to the Jewish victims of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943. One commentator noted: "Done in the names of Germans past and present, the silent act was arguably more powerful than any words Brandt might have uttered."

At home, on the eve of the most important and symbolic election in our history, in April 1994, a TV debate was held between the two main contenders, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk. Few who watched the debate recall any detail of what was, in the main, an unmemorable and fairly rancorous exchange between the leaders of two poles of our history and power. But TV, and the press photographers, captured for posterity the most significant and enduring moment of that evening. That scene is well described by a key member of Mandela’s election team: "Then Mandela suddenly shifted gears and changed the perception that everyone would take away from the debate. After attacking De Klerk one more time, he paused for effect: "But we are saying let us work together for reconciliation and nation-building," saying each word ever so slowly. Then he reached out his hand. "I am proud to hold your hand…. Let us work together to end division and suspicion." Thus was born the rainbow presidency of our most consequential president.

The author of that account was president Bill Clinton’s pollster, Stanley Greenberg, who was hired by the African National Congress (ANC) as a key strategist for its 1994 and 1999 election campaigns. He also takes the credit for helping devise the party’s inclusive and vote-winning slogan, "A better life for all". At the weekend came the announcement that he has defected from the ANC to the Democratic Alliance (DA). He is charged with assisting the party’s effort to wrest Gauteng from the grip of the ruling party.

Greenberg’s sophisticated and pioneering use of polling has a mixed record of success: but he is not simply an expensive number cruncher. As his biography, Dispatches from the War Room, reveals, he is an exponent of the art and meaning of the symbol in the rhythm of politics and elections. He describes the moment in the 1992 US presidential debate, when incumbent president George Bush was caught on camera "looking at his watch", signalling subconsciously that time was running out on his presidency.

Quite what Greenberg, or any Gauteng voter, will make of the weekend spread of premier Nomvula Mokonyane, posing proudly with her R10,000 LK Bennett shoes and matching handbag at the opening of a luxury store in Hyde Park, can only be imagined. I vaguely recall the parliamentary debate in 1998 that set up the National Empowerment Fund, which thoughtfully provided the soft loan of R34.1m to set up the emporium where the premier made her purchases. I don’t remember that among its purposes was to enable bling shoppers to "be able to spend on the designer garments we love without having to fly out of the country", to quote an enthusiastic shopper.

Mokonyane appeared unfazed by any negative image associations, announcing that "shoes and bags are part of my therapy" — a sort of Marie Antoinette meets Imelda Marcos takeaway moment.

Mokonyane’s opposite number on the DA benches is Jack Bloom, whom history will not record as a "fashionista". He prefers to tweet photographs of himself in a shack, where he sleeps one night a month in a different location. A symbolic, rather than a substantive, gesture, no doubt. But, then again, don’t underestimate the power of the symbol.

Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

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