A curious prayer kicked off the ANC's fundraising gala dinner in Mangaung on Saturday night. As ANC bigwigs prepared to sup with influential business people in an attempt to win party donations, the priest referenced another meal, calling to his audience’s attention the moment when Judas betrayed Jesus during the last supper.
If it was a hint he was after it went unnoticed. This year brought South Africans the horror of the Marikana massacre, where dozens of miners were shot dead by police. It was a blood-curdling demonstration of how far the country’s liberation party had fallen; losing touch with the working class that voted them into the power while being drawn into problematic and complicit relationships with big business.
But none of this existed on the night. Cabinet ministers and the ANC’s top leadership rubbed elbows with enormously wealthy business people. Outside the venue Lindiwe Sisulu warmly embraced a member of the controversial Gupta family. Inside billionaire businessman Patrice Motsepe sat at the table with President Jacob Zuma, the privilege of which reportedly went for R500 000.
Indeed, the dinner was carefully stage-managed to show the ANC's would-be benefactors just how well the ruling party was doing. Zuma pulled out all the stops to woo his wealthy audience and gloss over the ills plaguing the ruling party.
Even former president Nelson Mandela’s name was invoked. "I'm sure all of us are wishing him a speedy recovery at the hospital," he said, referencing Mandela's recent illness which had the public in a tizz after a series of mixed messages emerged from the ANC about his condition and whereabouts. No matter, we were assured that Mandela was "very happy that his organisation is having a congress and happy that his country is a democratic country, and it will never go back".
Zuma fondly recalled how the iconic leader taught the party the ropes when it came to fundraising. The link made between greatness and giving the ANC money, the president moved on to tackle some of the regular criticism levelled at the party.
It was the ANC and its problems re-imagined, and it was almost believable. His tool of choice was a brand of logic that translated nearly every problem the party faced as a positive. Infighting in the ANC ahead of the conference was re-interpreted as the party’s "vibrant internal democracy".
"We do things that people think are a problem. But we are very proud of our culture and beliefs. That's why you’ll see very vibrant delegates singing and making songs with their hands," he said in reference to those pushing for his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe to assume leadership of the party. Not a word was said about the party's damaging court case and subsequent dissolving of the Free State leadership thanks to ANC infighting.
Yet the dinner wasn't entirely free of the hangover of the damaging factionalism. The party's money man, ANC treasurer general Matthew Phosa, snuck some of it into his opening address. "In challenging times we need leaders who will sacrifice for their values ... we need renewal and change," he called out from the podium. But his speech clanged with the death rattle of the change lobby, who are unlikely to see any return on their bet on Motlanthe with Zuma a certain winner at this conference.
Zuma's brand of logic continued to other criticisms facing the party. Corruption wasn't an issue, since the ANC had invented the fight against corruption. "Up until 1994 nobody spoke about corruption in this country," he noted. "It is us who said we must fight corruption and created the mechanisms to do so."
Service delivery received a similar treatment. People fought for it and protested because it was so good. "They know once they protest, delivery is coming as they have seen elsewhere; not because there is totally no delivery."
The volley of positive statements intensified towards the end. The ANC was composed of shiny, happy people who were just occasionally misunderstood.
"I wish I had the authority to make you all comrades!" he announced brightly in conclusion. "It is nice to join the ANC ... very nice. As you see, we are happy people." The odd titter from the audience was the only betrayal of any tension in the room. "You will see when we come out of this conference we will be united because we put the ANC above everything else."
And with that, the formalities were over and the roast chicken and vegetables were served. A band took to the stage, taking over from a collaboration between South African musicians Zwai Bala and brothers Cobus and Christo Snyman, dubbed the "Centenary Broers" for the occasion. They had earlier sung an acapella version of Bruce Springsteen’s ode to the working class man, Factory.
Early in the morning factory whistle blows,
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes,
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light,
It's the working, the working, just the working life.
Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain,
I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain,
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life,
The working, the working, just the working life.
Like the priest’s story, the reference appeared lost on the delegates. Except perhaps for one. Across town, the quintessential ANC leader turned businessman, Cyril Ramaphosa, wandered the corridors of Mimosa Mall instead of being at the dinner. His potential chances at the deputy presidency were damaged by his complicit action on the part of mine bosses in the Marikana massacre. Money may flow into the ANC’s coffers from the dinner but, as the capitalist maxim has it, there is no such thing as a free lunch.