Sunday, September 20, 2020

The sign of the times

So there is a new entrant to the political landscape. The rite de passage wouldn’t be complete without the customary colours, slogan, songs ÔÇô and, of course, what to do with the hands. The policies can wait.

The Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) has adopted the V sign as its salute and symbol.
The sign is a hand gesture in which the first and second fingers are raised and parted, whilst the remaining fingers are clenched. Warning: be careful where the palm faces to avoid unintended messages.

In most of the English-speaking world, there is a significant difference of meaning depending on which way the hand is held.

With the palm facing out, the gesture can mean “victory” or “peace”. The moment the palm faces inwards towards the signaller, the sign immediately changes into an obscene insulting gesture.
In all pictures that have been published so far, BMD members’ palms are facing the right way ÔÇô outward. It’s so much unlike one of the early personalities who is credited with popularizing the V sign, Winston Churchill, Britain’s Prime Minister during World War II. It has been noted that initially, he made the gesture both with his palm facing out and facing in (sometimes with a cigar held between the fingers), before settling on using the palm-out version most of the time.
The popular theory is that being an aristocrat, Churchill may not have realised what message he was giving with the palm-in version and stopped using it when it was pointed out to him what it signified to the other classes in Britain. Another suggestion is that he knew precisely what it meant, and was aiming it at the Nazis.

The V sign appears to have been around for hundreds of years, but the story of its origins is unclear. In fact, there are a number of legends which attempt to explain its birth. Unfortunately, they are mired in contradictions and discrepancies that fail every test of authenticity.
What is clear, though, is how the sign came to be an enduring and rallying symbol of hope during World War II.

An entry in Wikipedia says on 14 January 1941, Victor de Laveleye, former Belgian minister of justice and director of the Belgian French-speaking broadcasts on the BBC, suggested in a broadcast that Belgians use a V for victoire (French: “victory”) and Vrijheid (Dutch: “freedom”) as a rallying emblem during the war. He postulated that “the occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, would understand that he is surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure”. Within weeks, chalked up Vs began appearing on walls throughout Belgium, the Netherlands and northern France.

By July 1941 the emblematic use of the letter V had spread through occupied Europe and on July 19, Churchill put the British government’s stamp of approval on the V campaign in a speech, from which point he started using the V hand sign. It was to be Churchill’s signature throughout the war.
The end of the war gave birth to the 1950s movement to campaign for nuclear disarmament, whose leading lights included philosopher Bertrand Russell. The movement adopted the V sign. The 1950s gave way to the 60s and 70s generation of hippie movement that grew in the United States.
The hippies found a cause in the hugely unpopular Vietnam war, and led massive protests against the conflict.

Once again, the V sign came handy. Because the hippies of the day often flashed this sign (palm out) while vocalizing “Peace”, it became popularly known (through association) as the peace sign. Interestingly, the sign found its way into the mainstream of United States politics as well, where President Richard Nixon adopted it as one of his best-known trademarks. He would use it on his departure from public office following his resignation from office in 1974.

In local politics, Leach Tlhomelang adopted the V sign as a symbol of his short-lived Freedom Party, which he formed after breaking away from the Botswana National Front in 1989. The sign somewhat disappeared from the political landscape when the Freedom Party merged with Motsamai Mpho’s Botswana Independence Party (BIP) to form the Independence Freedom Party.

It’s a little ironic that the sign is coming back to our politics, courtesy of people who have something in common with Tlhomelang, the founding chairman of BDP’s Youth Wing in 1978 who defected to BNF in 1985. Of course, he has since gone full circle ÔÇô and is now back at BDP.
The founders of the BMD also grew up on the staple of BDP’s clenched fist salute. In fact, what they must have realized is that their new sign lacks the dramatic effect of the raised fist ÔÇô the salute and logo used at various times and different countries by all shades of characters from Marxists, anarchists, pacifists, trade unionists, to black nationalists as an expression of solidarity, strength or defiance.

For an organisation founded by people in protest against what they termed growing intolerance and dictatorship at their former political home, perhaps the V sign is the most poignant expression of their ideals. And, why, the mischievous ones might even, like Winston Churchill, occasionally choose to flash the sign with the arm twisted inwards ÔÇô and you would know who that is directed at.

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Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.