Perhaps it was a thinly-veiled and rather passive aggressive insult. That's certainly how the leaders of the ANC Youth League delegation to its mother party's policy conference read it. Why, they wanted to know, had they been seated at the far back corner of the cavernous plenary hall at Gallagher Estate, right next to the toilets?
Perhaps it was a strategic peacekeeping decision; that position put the league as far away from the sometimes rabidly pro-Zuma supporters from the KwaZulu-Natal delegation, while keeping the two groups in the same room. With the frail and the disposable (guests and tripartite alliance representatives) as a buffer in between, so that no real luminaries were put in the line of fire.
Whatever the intention, the youngsters were having none of it. As others were still fighting their way through a security choke point, the leaders picked up the rather large sign designating their seating and marched, in a determined clump, to a faraway, much more prime patch of real estate, just four rows back from the stage. Not quite in spitting distance from, say, President Jacob Zuma, but certainly in a position to easily raise a point of order, and be caught by the TV cameras. Or maybe chuck a plastic water bottle, if the occasion demanded it.
The land was unclaimed, but the neighbouring former liberators were not amused, and within minutes organisers were called in to mediate. Mediation, though, was not an unqualified success. Off went the place-marker board, back to its original location, carried this time by an organiser, while the small group of youth leaguers remained defiantly sitting in the places they had claimed, some with arms crossed, others with their berets in the air.
Things might not have ended there, except that proceedings finally kicked off, so they did.
It was a small vignette in a large conference, and one of no real importance on the face of it. The youth league did not use the position to raise points of order, or disrupt proceedings, or do anything other than make a point.
But connoisseurs of political conferences will tell you that seating arrangements feature calculations of status and risk as complex as any seen at a wedding where the families hate one another – and that they can have a considerable impact on the outcome. ANC members in particular are well practised at using songs to gauge support for this policy or that candidate, and swing-votes have more than once swung on the perception as to who was in control of a hall rather than the reality.