Marianne Thamm

What's in a gesture?

2007-08-30 09:08
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Marianne Thamm

I take it you've seen it? The photograph of President Thabo Mbeki and DA leader, Helen Zille at their "historic" one-on-one meeting at Tuynhuys this week?

Well, almost every local editor thought it significant enough to publish in colour on their front pages, so I assume you've studied it closely and thought about it.

But in case you haven't, here's my reading of the snapshot and the unseen currents that might or might not swirl around it.

There, on the left, is President Mbeki wearing the uniform of male politicians, the understated dark suit.

The suit - usually black, navy or grey - is the outfit of choice of most male heads of state (unless they're loony, kleptomaniac, military dictators, in which case they're inclined to power dress in uniforms with lots of shiny, bells, buttons and medals).

The suit serves to signify professionalism, quiet authority and a certain degree of conformity. Check out the line-up of big cheeses at any G8 meeting and they'll all be there sartorially synchronised presenting a unified grey slab to the rest of the world.

This is something disgraced MP Tony Yengeni didn't quite understand. He had a penchant for flamboyant yellow suits - en kyk hoe lyk hy nou! (As a rule, never trust a politician in a suit of colour or an army uniform.)

Traditional dress, beards and other headgear are another story... more later.

The silk shirt

In the photograph that appeared this week, DA leader Helen Zille, is wearing a cerise, hip-length silk shirt over what appears to be a black, floral skirt.

Zille - like so many other female leaders, including US and French presidential hopefuls, Hilary Clinton and Ségolène Royal, and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, - has had to find her own way of wearing clothes that make the same statement as the suit.

It's not easy, society still objectifies women even when they are in charge and Zille's wardrobe, unlike Tony Leon's, is closely watched and commented on.

So there's Zille, hands at her side, the right one raised slightly as if to fend off or return Mbeki's unexpected gesture. His expression appears to be caring, gentle. His lips pursed slightly like a mothers' fussing over a child.

Zille is laughing heartily, maybe genuinely, but there's a tiny suggestion of surprise in her eyes.


But was Mbeki's gesture as spontaneous, affectionate or harmless as it appears? First, let's look at the timing.

Zille said that she had straightened her own collar before going into the meeting. Remember she's on his turf and that he is a supreme strategist.

"The president with his beady eye noticed something and straightened it," she later told a journalist. But did he really?

Or was his a move more calculated than that and aimed at disarming, unsettling or even patronising Zille?

Would Mbeki have dared to adjust Tony Leon's tie, or dust a speck of dandruff off Mangosuthu Buthelezi's collar? And what would we have thought of that intimate gesture?

The President knew photographers would be there and would capture the moment.

How would the President have felt or responded if Helen Zille had fiddled with his cuffs or collar before this significant meeting?


No, make no mistake, the gesture was a strategic one, aimed at asserting exactly who was in charge.

And I have a feeling that although the president pays lip service to gender equity and the role of women in government, he prefers them compliant and loyal like Manto and Phumzile rather than strong and independent like Nozizwe and Helen.

I rest my case...

Send your comments to Marianne.

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