JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Thursday night the red carpet awaits South Africa’s biggest stars.
In designer gowns and traditional regalia, everyone from President Jacob Zuma and his four wives to opposition leaders, socialites, actors and singing stars will mug for the cameras on their way into the big event.
It’s like the Oscars, only it really isn’t. This is the annual opening of Parliament in Cape Town and the president’s State of the Nation address – one of the year’s biggest glamour events, and one South Africa’s stranger political traditions.
Think of the State of the Union, but imagine if much of the attention was focused on the red carpet show beforehand, complete with “best dressed/worst dressed lists” featuring prominent politicians.
The official Twitter feed from Parliament has asked MPs and their guests to “take selfies in your outfits” (the hashtag, in case you’re wondering, is #SONA2014Selfie).
The actual address itself is inevitably deadly dull. President Zuma isn’t known for his engaging speech-reading style, and by the end of the lengthy talk expect some people in the audience to be snoozing in their fancy frocks.
So where did the unusual red carpet tradition come from?
Most political analysts and parliamentarians that GlobalPost spoke to were mystified by its origins, though we did get some clues.
The red carpet show is clearly a post-apartheid phenomenon. Before South Africa became democratic 20 years ago, the opening of parliament was a conservative and heavily militaristic affair, with white, mainly male politicians favoring dreary grey suits. The event was off limits to the majority of South Africans.
Since 1994, the annual February event has become increasingly colorful, with the high fashion component evolving over the years. Dressing to the nines isn’t an official requirement, though dressing formally is an expectation.
Many of the ceremonial traditions in South Africa’s parliament come from the British, a former colonial master. But the fashion display, “that’s a uniquely South African thing,” one long-time parliamentary staffer explained.
“It shows pride and excitement in the new parliament,” he added. “It’s the same as Hollywood – when they go to the awards they wear the best clothes.”
As for what to wear, most political leaders favor South African designers, though some attendees wear fashions straight off the Paris runways.
Politician Terror Lekota drew attention for his traditional Basotho attire in the 1990s, while Mandela’s grandson Mandla Mandela has been widely photographed in Xhosa regalia, going barefoot on the red carpet.
Last year one of Zuma’s wives was slated for her “boob-baring peach dress,” described by one South African newspaper as “too everything – tight and revealing.”
Which brings us to the one thing that South Africa’s version of the Oscars is missing: an equally over-the-top, Joan Rivers-type TV personality to hold these politico fashionistas to account.
Sure, there are newspaper reporters who turn fashion critics for a day, weighing in on who wore what. But when you’re talking about an event that begins with a military fly-over and somehow manages to incorporate flamenco dresses, men in kilts, tribal regalia, and Royal Ascot hats, that hardly seems to suffice.