Stand-up guys, slate politics and the ‘other’ ANC

Wednesday. I’m early for the ANC provincial executive committee press briefing at the party’s Pixley ka Seme House in Stalwart Simelane Street, Durban. It’s a pointless exercise. 

There’s no way the gig will kick off on time. Our host, Nobala — provincial secretary Super Zuma — is one of history’s great Time Bandits.

Nobala is a master of the party machine. Super has a rep for ensuring a clean sweep for his conference slate. Branch, region, province or national. Time management, however, is not Nobala’s thing.

I’m early because I missed a briefing called by the “other” ANC in the province on Monday. They forgot to invite me, so I’ve been playing catch-up on the phone ever since.

The boardroom’s set up like a lecture theatre. A table in front for the hosts. TV cameras in the aisle at the middle of the room. Maybe the ANC’s information and publicity cats got the invite wrong and it’s another OR Tambo Memorial Lecture.

Nobala and spokesperson Mdumiseni Ntuli take their seats. Ntuli gets going. In seconds, the front row is in stitches. So are the cats at the back with the bulges under their coats. Mdumiseni’s a genuinely funny guy. If the “other” ANC wins in the high court in Pietermaritzburg at the end of the month and Mdumiseni and Super get booted out of Pixley House, our man could do stand-up for a career. I’d pay money to go see him.

Nobala kicks off with a report on the OR Tambo 100th anniversary celebrations. Maybe I’m right, after all. Nobala moves on to issues of governance. I’m wrong. Nobala gets to the court case. The case is “one of the many challenges facing the ANC which, while difficult, is not impossible to resolve”. Fully.

Nobala lashes the wit ous over Black Monday and segues into preparations for the 54th ANC national conference. The conference at Nasrec is gonna be mad. I’ve been at them all, including the consultative conference in Durban right after the ANC was unbanned, as either staff or a journalist. Except Stellenbosch. I can’t remember why.

Polokwane was insane. Big John Mchunu, the eThekwini chairperson, ran things from the boot of his car. Big John gave lessons in the art of delegate management. Big John made sure that KwaZulu-Natal’s branches voted as a single bloc. Jacob Zuma’s slate made a clean sweep.

Nobala tears into CR17 for the “deeply offensive” act of publicly declaring his slate for December. Deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa has decided to “betray the NGC [national general council] decision on the need to overcome slate politics is choosing leadership”.

I catch the mad cackle before it leaves my throat. This is funny, but in a sick way. I don’t think Nobala will find his words as entertaining as I do.

Nobala wraps up. It’s question time. I’m at the back so my mind starts to wander while I wait for my arm to be acknowledged.

In seconds it’s 1990. We’re back in the Diakonia Hall in St Andrew’s Street in Albert Park.

The ANC’s just been unbanned. It’s the first meeting of the Durban Central branch. The hall’s packed. Freshly returned exiles and trade unionists from the flats in Park Street and St George’s Street. A sprinkling of cats who are still underground, academics and domestic workers. A big mob of United Democratic Front and Natal Indian Congress members from Grey Street. Shopkeepers and stone-throwers. A few Albert Park Mandrax merchants came along to see whether the ANC branch would get in the way of business.

It’s the first branch meeting but there’s already two slates from two caucuses. Ours was led by Uncle, as Natoo Babenia was known. Uncle was for real. Top man. Uncle served time for bombings in India before he came to South Africa. Uncle did 10 years on Robben Island. Uncle ran a bombing campaign with the Chesterville comrades when he got out of jail. Uncle’s flat in Short Street was a classroom, a bomb factory and a library all in one.

We’re backing veteran ANC activist MD Naidoo, for chairperson. We’ve been caucusing like mad, so there’s names for the entire executive and additional members. For the comrades with defective memories, there’s small squares of paper with the names written in descending order. There’s even notes about who is going to nominate and second who. I’ve seen slates at work in Cosatu elections, but this is another sport completely.

The “other” slate is run by comrades, mainly from the unions and the research units attached to them, we call the “ultra left”. They’re so busy arguing with each other that, by the time nominations come, they can’t make their minds up about who will nominate who from the floor.

Our slate walks it. Every single position. There’s not even an additional member on the branch executive from the “ultra left”. Dololo.

Ntuli acknowledges my arm. I ask my question.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Storyteller.

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