December 6, 2013

Reading the Tribute Photos: Mandela's Masterful Body Language

Mandela Botha

Upon his death yesterday, tributes as well as images of Nelson Mandela are pouring forth. How masterful was he as a craftsman in social space? Well, let’s just look.

If these are over-accentuated examples, they are also textbook cases of authority and emotional intelligence exercised through body language. They are complex, too, each photo capturing a combination of actions or commands which, in the overall, moderates otherwise powerfully assertive actions and renders the other person disarmed.

The photo with Botha, Mandela’s head and eyes partly trickster-ish and partly running interference for his left hand, is truly an example of arresting someone. Although taken at Botha’s home six years after he resigned the Presidency, it’s startling how startled Botha looks while Mandela’s gesture and manner is as warm and ingratiating as it is forward.

Mandela Pienaar

The famous photo of Mandela congratulating South Africa’s rugby captain François Pienaar is also a case study in embracing an adversary. The story, almost legend at this point, of Mandela throwing his unqualified support behind the all-white team is widely known. The handshake is firm. The gaze is direct. That all seems uncomplicated. What’s so fabulous and intricate about the photo, though, is that left hand on the player’s shoulder, as directive as the hand on Botha’s arm. When we consider how the two sides of Mandela’s body work together, the kind of balance and control he brings to the contact simultaneously honors and engages Pienaar, and also fixes him in place.

Mandela Blair

Finally, the shot with Blair — actually take physical control of the Prime Minister — shows Mandela exercising full advantage of levity … and age. If he’s got a lock on Blair, however, he’s not pulling him at all. He’s just placed him in position so he’s fully subjugated to whatever it is Mandela’s saying saying about him, as if he was rolling those comments down his left hand like a runway.

The Onion had the most fantastic tribute and takeaway last night, encapsulated in the headline: “Nelson Mandela Becomes First Politician To Be Missed.”

When you see how elegantly he commands these powerful, interpersonal situations, melding charm, grace and warmth with assertion and power, it does illustrate that high a bar.

(photo 1: Walter Dhladhla/AFP/Getty Images caption: South African President Nelson Mandela, right, holds the arm of former apartheid hardline President Pieter W. Botha as they meet on November 21, 1995 in Wilderness. P. W. Botha, whose iron-fisted rule of South Africa from 1978 until 1989 earned him the nickname “Great Crocodile”, received the South African President in his house in 2: Philip Littleton / AFP – Getty Images caption: South African President Nelson Mandela (L) shakes hands with Springok captain Francois Pienaar after their team defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg in this June 24, 1995 file photo. photo 3: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP caption: South Africa’s former President Nelson Mandela, right, meets with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing street in London 26 November 2004.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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