The critics are already saying it was "stage-managed", but the first day of the Mangaung conference gave the clear impression that this would be a Jacob Zuma conference. He may be maligned in the press, in public debate, and in dissident branches, but inside the ANC's big tent, Zuma was like the prodigal son coming back home: welcomed back with open arms, hugs and kisses.
A renowned charmer, Msholozi is a man for a moment like this: he worked the crowd with his singing, belting an old but not-so-well-known tune that he said mostly veterans would be familiar with.
Nelson Mandela warned that the road would be long and hard, he sang, "we'll meet on Freedom day".
He sang it well and with so much gusto that in the end even his adversaries from Gauteng started singing along. And Zuma felt the moment. He arrived three hours later than he was billed to start, having worked-up a sense of anticipation from the waiting audience, like a popular boxer entering the ring.
In the past when there has been a contest between the leaders, the ANC has worked to avoid a public competition for the loudest cheers by ensuring that the two leaders enter at the same time. But this time there was no denying Zuma his glory.
For some time before he arrived, delegates from the Free State and some from Limpopo sang a song belittling Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe that went: "We heard the good news that the one with the goatee is going; let him, let him go". So when ANC national chairperson Baleka Mbete announced that Zuma was about to arrive, the crowd went wild with excitement and like a ring announcer she goaded them: "If you are this crazy even before he arrives, can you imagine when he is actually here!" Nothing would dampen the mood despite the three-hour delay and the fact that some delegates slept in buses and still had no accommodation.
Gwede Mantashe, secretary general of the ANC, had said last week that he was prepared to put his neck on the block that there would be no disruptive behaviour similar to the scenes at Polokwane five years ago. This undertaking was quite bold considering that in the days leading up to the conference a regional ANC leader had been killed in disputes related to Mangaung, a provincial leader had escaped assassination, provincial structures had taken the ANC to court and there were last-ditch efforts to prevent the conference from going ahead.
Mantashe was mostly right.
And except for the venomous songs, the heckling was limited and no speaker was interrupted. Although this may be a function of the fact that it was only Mbete, Mantashe and Zuma who handled the microphone and none of the officials perceived to be opposed to Zuma had spoken. But Mbete implored the delegates to keep the conference orderly and to sing constructive, positive songs, rather than ones that belittled people. As for Motlanthe, the man contesting Zuma for the presidency, he kept silent and looked unimpressed with the proceedings, occasionally chatting to other officials.
It has been a long week for him. Party leaders, including his rival, Cyril Ramaphosa, have, according to reports, tried to persuade him not to contest Zuma in order to give a semblance of unity, but he spent his time rebuffing the calls.
This being a distinctly a Zuma conference, those who support him could try some faint defiance, like some whistles at the beginning of Zuma's speech; or they could, like the man they admire, keep a dignified silence and let all unfold around them. Delegates from Gauteng and the Western Cape sat stony-faced amid the applause.
The president, meanwhile, was so emboldened that he condemned unruly behaviour in the ANC, even threatening to invoke measures associated with the apartheid government, such as the introduction of school inspectors to instil discipline among teachers. He even, without a sense of irony, warned that there was no place for people who joined the party to enrich themselves. For a president accused of abusing taxpayers money and improperly connecting his family relatives to business, Zuma knew he could get away with it; after all, this was his conference.