Life, etc

Style democracy: What the ANC’s party wardrobe says about our politics

By Rebecca Hodes 12 January 2015

The ANC’s 103rd birthday celebrations at the Green Point stadium this weekend turned the fanwalk into a catwalk. What do the styles and costumes on display signify about the ruling party, and our democracy more broadly? By REBECCA HODES.

In contemporary South Africa, style is inseparable from politics. The personal presentation of our political leaders is as carefully crafted as any national address. The twentieth century relied on radio as its principal means of political mobilisation, as in Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, or the 1994 broadcasts of Hutu militia on the Rwandan station Libre des Mille Collines. Today’s political power is far more invested in the visual. Political photoshoots borrow the aesthetic conventions of magazines like Hello – America’s First Family in the White House – or Outdoor Life – Vladimir Putin’s encounters with the Siberian wilderness.

Activists, radicals and revolutionaries have long understood the importance of image, the symbolic power of dress. The bra, the beret and the keffiyeh have all been accessories to social revolt over the last century. In 1980s South Africa, clothing provided another expression of resistance to Apartheid. T-shirts bearing struggle slogans became a feature of the protests, rallies and funerals of the United Democratic movement. The T-shirt is an especially effective form of agitprop: a placard embodied. The most popular image on anti-Apartheid T-shirts in the 1980s and early 1990s, both in South Africa and abroad, was of Nelson Mandela.

After his release from prison, and during the tumult of the democratic transition, Mandela himself tapped into the world of wardrobe activism. He wore the Springbok jersey to the 1995 World Cup as a demonstration of reconciliation and national unity. Later, his brightly-coloured shirts came to signify his version of statesmanship, as an avuncular Afropolitan. South African sociologist, Deborah Posel, in her account of “Madiba magic”, ascribes Mandela’s charisma to the “politics of enchantment”. But as Mandela’s political career waned, so did the euphoria of the democratic transition.

By the late 1990s, the venality of the arms deal and Mbeki’s AIDS denialism had sullied the South African fairytale. Ongoing allegations of corruption, and a messy succession battle between Mbeki and Zuma, replaced the “politics of enchantment” with “politics as usual”. For the last two decades the ANC has had to work ever harder to maintain its symbolic position as South Africa’s party of liberation, its leaders as beacons of moral rectitude and strivers for social justice, rather than autocrats and racketeers.

While Mandela was styled as a man of the people, Mbeki’s pipe-smoking and penchant for tweed were interpreted as expressions of arrogance and haughty detachment. By contrast, Zuma was presented as a populist, a leader of the rank-and-file ANC and, in a feat of image splicing, a traditionalist. If South Africa’s second and third presidents had been brands, Mbeki would have been Stella Artois: ‘reassuringly expensive’; Zuma, Samsung: ‘everyone’s invited’. As its leaders became embroiled in scandal, the ANC’s dominance in successive elections testified to its enduring strength as a political brand, and to the loyalty of its voters.

Saddled with challenges in service delivery and job creation, one of the ANC’s strategies for sustaining electoral support has been through slick event management. The party has honed its expertise in arranging mass events. As Stephen Grootes writes, the line-up is largely formulaic. Leaders tap into a sense of nostalgic nationalism, fusing the histories of the anti-Apartheid struggle with that of the ANC. Speeches are long, peppered with references to the Freedom Charter and with quotes from Pixley ka Isaka Seme and Oliver Thambo. Then everyone gets jiggy to struggle anthems and, in more recent times, Umshini Wami. The solidarity that dancing bestows blurs the divisions in what is, in reality, a fiercely hierarchical organisation. And then it is time to cut the cake.

But this account elides an essential item on the ANC events roster: the T-shirt. T-shirts function both as invitations and advertisements for an event, and afterwards, as a form of commemoration. In their entreaties to people attending the ANC’s 103rd birthday celebrations at the Green Point stadium on Saturday 8 January, ANC spokesmen invited supporters to “paint the stadium yellow”. By this they meant to encourage people to dress in ANC colours, of course, not to goad the Democratic Alliance by encouraging vandalism of a provincial landmark.

In the days leading up to the ANC’s birthday, thousands of T-shirts celebrating the Cape Town birthday celebration were distributed. The latest edition in a long line of party sponsored T-shirts, they would have resonated in different ways with the positions and aspirations of various ANC members. As Posel writes in her account of the “politics of enchantment” in the post-Apartheid era: “the major enchantment of these times has been with the commodity, exuberantly – fiendishly – embraced, as the advent of freedom has been, for many, the freedom to consume.” For some, the 103rd T-shirt would have been a quaint throwback to struggle-era street wear, for others, a valuable addition to a scant wardrobe.

The costumes of those who attended Saturday’s party reveal much about what William Gumede has termed the “battle for the soul of the ANC”. On one side, those committed to broad-based participation and democratic redress, on the other, crony capitalists bent on elite enrichment. In the middle of these camps is a vast group of people whose notions of the ANC are ever-changing, a heady combination of hope and disappointment, nostalgia and disillusionment, who attended Saturday’s event out of habit, as a show of loyalty, as a networking opportunity, or just for the fun of it (and a bus ride to Sea Point).

Joining the crowds on the fanwalk outside the stadium, what was striking was the crowd’s apparel. Lots of people were wearing jeans and the special issue ANC T-shirt, with an image of Zuma on the front and ‘103 years of Selfless Peoples’ Struggle’ on the back. But many others were dressed in other modes of party-inspired regalia. Their costumes were similar to those I’ve spotted at diverse events held at the same stadium in recent years, ranging from international soccer games to the Lady Gaga concert and the annual Mother City Queer Project costume party.

There is something about these occasions which inclines event-goers to spectacle, to a sense of collective euphoria, and to performance. While people want to signify belonging, the enormity of the crowd also provokes an urge to individuality, to showcase difference. At Saturday’s celebration, groups of youngsters in particular had customised their outfits, conferring a dimension of supreme coolness to ANC party allegiance.

hodes-anc103-subbedm WESTERN CAPE

Three ANC supporters from the Western Cape. Photo: Rebecca Hodes

Much of the merchandise on sale took advantage of two seemingly universal human traits: the desire to keep cool in the baking sun, and an appreciation for accessories. Hats, in particular, were a major source of hawker revenue. I quizzed a group of men on why they had chosen the Panama style, when confronted with a dizzying array of potentials including quilted peak-caps, visors and Mafikizolo-esque trilbies. Clifford Motsepe, from Johannesburg, explained: “We chose these hats because they represent the modern, and the capacity of the ANC to adapt to the modern.”

The most popular women’s hat was of broad-brimmed straw, with a ribbon that matched the Paul Smith signature swirl, but in ANC colours, with detachable fascinator. Linda, from Johannesburg, said of her outfit (a military-style pencil dress with matching hat): “My aim was to look elegant.”

hodes-anc103-subbedm PAUL SMITH SWIRL

Photo by Rebecca Hodes.

Thabiso Motsani, a hawker from Johannesburg, had driven his ANC-branded merchandise down from Johannesburg to sell at the stadium. His stall specialises in Cuban (or Guayabera) shirts, which his wife sews at home. When asked about his choice of this style of shirt, with its tuxedo pleating and piped pockets, Motsani explained: “Most of the comrades, they went into exile in Cuba, so everyone likes Cuban shirts. It gives you dignity. You don’t have to wear a suit when you have this Cuban shirt.”

I’m puzzled by Motsani’s shirts which, while beautiful, are out of place. One of them is white with its cuffs and pockets in ANC colours, but the rest are a pale blue, a far cry from the event’s colour scheme. I hang out next to the stall for a bit, and a man approaches wearing a shirt which he bought from Motsani earlier that morning. They shake hands and start talking, the man evidently pleased with his purchase.

The shirts remind me of a 21st birthday I attended as a student at Rhodes. The dress code was “red and black with a hint of silver”. Wearing a black frock, I fretted that my outfit lacked the requisite hints. Scrabbling around digs drawers, I considered a makeshift accessory from tinfoil, but then found a piece of plastic ribbon that is used to tie around presents. I tethered this to my wrist, sprucing up the curls with scissors, and dashed to the party.

Once all the revelers were seated in the hall, the birthday girl made her entrance. Not a hint of black or red in her gladrags. Instead, she wore a beige dress that made her look as though she were draped in her own nudity. The sartorial genius was, of course, in distinction. While the hoi-polloi resembled a swarm of wasps, the party girl was all muted sophistication, exactly the approach of the man in his pale blue Cuban shirt, so light and cool in comparison to the yellow-clad crowds.

Further down the merch row, I watch another engagement between a hawker and potential buyers (a young boy and an older women, perhaps his grandmother). The child had already been bought a new beret, but clearly hoped for another purchase. “Do you have anything for ten Rand?” his prudent caregiver asked. The hawker’s response was to proffer a paltry-looking armband.

hodes-anc103-subbedm ANC MERCHANDISE

ANC-branded merchandise on sale outside the Green Point stadium. Photo: Rebecca Hodes

As I made my way to the stadium, preparing for the long speeches ahead, I caught up with three young women in skinny jeans. The value of each of their handbags was roughly equivalent to six months of salary at minimum wage – two Louis Vuitton totes, and a Gucci shoulder-sling. I asked them to tell me about their outfits, and one explained: “We wanted to be casual and smart as well, to show that we are all a part of the ANC. All of us are wearing designer labels. That’s who we are. But we are also supporting local businesses by wearing hats that we have bought here today.” I asked why they were not wearing the wristbands that would grant them access to the stadium. “Why?” my interlocutor inquired, “What colour are they?”

No-one need have worried about the wristbands. Despite the City’s insistence that the event be ticketed, and that people be admitted only if wearing a wristband, the crowd streamed in, wristband or not, after a perfunctory bag check. Msholozi spoke for over two hours, informal in an ANC-branded golf shirt. Its material was slightly shiny on the stadium screen – looking fresh and silky, its colour not quite canary, but the Pantone hue of ‘daffodil’.

I had been asking cool youngsters for their photographs all day, and what had struck me was their confidence in posing. Arm on hip, pelvis tilted, they assumed the bearing of FHM models so as to appear their most photogenic. This is the generation that has come of age on Facebook, gaining mastery in the art of self-curating. If the ANC is to remain ‘relevant’, in the terms of its own political nomenclature, it must continue to capture the hearts and minds of these Born Frees who, as Zuma acknowledged in his speech, today constitute over 60% of the South African population. If these young voters are to remain enchanted, their leaders must develop a new political elixir.

hodes-anc103-subbedm DURBAN

A young ANC supporter from Durban strikes a pose. Photo: Rebecca Hodes

But it is an older and ageing generation of South Africans that constitute the real core of party loyalists, the green-clad members of the ANC Women’s League who were given pride of placement in the stadium seating arrangements, straight opposite the podium.

After the president had spoken, and the deputy president had sung “Happy Birthday”, the crowd began to thin. I left the stadium amidst a group of elderly women carrying overnight bags. Judging by the cut of their skirts and head coverings, they were from the Eastern Cape, and had likely travelled on a bus overnight to attend the celebration. I asked an older woman if I could photograph her, and she smilingly obliged, then raised her fist in a salute. DM

Main Photo: ANC supporters attend the party’s 103rd anniversary celebrations at the Cape Town Stadium on Saturday, 10 January 2015. Picture: Department of Communications (DoC)/SAPA

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