Astrid, a perfect premier

  • Didier Reynders announces that Astrid will direct economic missions until next May in India, Saudi Arabia and Oman.
  • “Then we will wait for the elections.”
  • The king called his sister to congratulate her.

For a few hours, the ballroom of the Hyatt Hotel in Johannesburg resembled the mouth of a river that brings together all of the currents of an exceptional delegation: ministers, business leaders, university professors, Flemish and French-speakers, not to mention many Belgians living in South Africa. They all blended together in a warm crowd. Suddenly, there was silence around a slim figure: Astrid of Belgium, with the ease and style of an “executive woman” in front of her board of directors, making the most highly anticipated speech of her trip.

 

The carefully written text was of course timely. It recognized the “peaceful transition” and the “appetite for democracy” of which South Africa is the symbol, mentioned Belgian know-how, the scope and ambitions of its businesses. It also confirmed what had been in doubt since the trip’s beginning: both the Belgian economic world and the universities want their South African partner to give them a platform, a “hub” from which they can penetrate the rest of the continent. They are specifically interested in the SADC (Southern Africa Development Community) countries. Although they are growing significantly, they yet remain undiscovered by Belgian investors. For example, the Port of Antwerp trains 400 South Africans each year in modern port management techniques and wants to provide the same service to other countries in the region – Namibia and Mozambique.

 

That evening though, beyond the visit’s official issues, the public wanted to see Astrid’s first steps in her post. No one was disappointed. The princess carried them off with adroitly, with openness and curiosity, as all those who met her confirmed.

 

Those who accompanied her to Angola, where she was met by the vice president, reported that she was “remarkably well-prepared with an in-depth knowledge of the issues…”

 

The princess never let go of her files, complete with several visible bookmarks. The photographers were the only ones who weren’t happy: “It’s not very glamorous in official photos; we would have preferred her to be nicely posed…”

 

Didier Reynders, who “chaperoned” Astrid with a sort of friendly complicity, says he was not at all surprised by the princess’ ease: “She has taken part in many humanitarian missions and, like yesterday, she is just as available…”

 

The foreign affairs minister refuses to admit that he had to “coach” Astrid on international questions, preferring to say that, “she has already traveled around the world…” In fact the South Africans remembered that the princess came to Kayelitsha Township, near the Cape where she met Dr. Eric Goemaere (whom she will meet again Friday) and that she followed the fight against AIDS.

 

As her entourage channeled the crowd which was eager to greet her, those who did manage to meet her were pleasantly surprised. One was thrilled that she remembered him, another said that Her Highness was up to date on their activities, and a third was touched by her ability to listen…

 

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: people who have been on princely missions and those in the Palace are pleased to find familiar traits in her and to recall her familial antecedents. For one, Astrid, with her smile and conversational skills, has inherited her father’s sense of humor. For another, her way of focusing on those she is speaking with, inclining her head to better hear, are reminiscent of her brother Philippe. Overall, her preparation, her availability, her wide smile, her way with people and her acuteness are important. Less complimentary observers attribute some of these advantages to a comparison with the “reserve” or “timidity” of Prince, now King, Philippe.

 

Of course, the guests listened to the princess’s public and private proposals. They were thrilled to see her move from group to group, to linger with them without having any other obligation than to be entirely present in her work and to take visible pleasure in it.

 

But, it wouldn’t be true to say that they didn’t notice or comment on her appearance or her aura. On this point fashion magazine readers were disappointed, Astrid, with her tailored beige linen slacks, which wrinkled as the hours went by, her white slacks or her beige and black dress, was well-dressed but a bit dull, clearly preferring “casual chic,” an efficient and relaxed elegance to the “high fashion” effect. She played neither the star nor the princess, and when she put on her enormous glasses or let the wind mess up her hair, the photographers wondered how they would be able to fill their glossy magazines.

 

But that didn’t matter. What everyone recognized was that Astrid, just like the grandmother she never knew, and whose name she bears, attracts attention less by her spectacular appearance than by the brilliance of her smile. The conventional expression is nonetheless pertinent: “the princess’ presence alongside the delegation of business leaders opened doors.”

 

The doors that were opened in South Africa and Angola were not only those of banks and businesses. In Kayelitsha and elsewhere, the princess, by her warmth and simplicity, also touched many hearts.

 

COLETTE BRAECKMAN

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