The comrades want ... and want

Crowdsourcing: Jacob Zuma supporters outside the Durban high court on June 8 when his trial was postponed. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP)

Crowdsourcing: Jacob Zuma supporters outside the Durban high court on June 8 when his trial was postponed. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP)

Saturday afternoon. The Bhekuzulu Hall at the University of Zululand is a massive, empty cavern. Hollow.

It’s deliciously cool inside after several hours of baking in the sun. The sweat built up sitting outside while the ANC KwaZulu-Natal provincial task team addressed the party’s branch delegates before sending them home starts drying in the chilled air. There’s a small group of comrades noisily taking down ANC banners at the side of the hall. Others are dismantling overhead lights. Nobody looks too enthusiastic about the job at hand.

They’re not the only ones deconstructing things. Outside the hall, vendors who had turned up for the three-day conference, called as a rerun for the November 2015 elective conference — itself canned by a court order —  are dismantling their small forest of gazebos and packing away boxes of ANC T-shirts and caps. The lucky ones made a few bucks on Friday morning outside the Durban high court when former president Jacob Zuma made his remand appearance.

Only a few food vendors had bothered to set up shop on Saturday. Most had left the previous evening when news filtered down that the conference had been halted by the Pietermaritzburg high court while they were on their way to the Ongoye campus.

The delegates are gone. Buses had been leaving the university since after breakfast. Those who had stuck around for the final briefing were ushered out while the media contingent were corralled in the canteen downstairs, decoyed by the offer of lunch along with the cops and the spooks underneath the hall to stop us from talking to the delegates. A bit of a waste of time, given the invention of the smartphone, but I suppose the ANC bureaucracy has to justify its own existence, stamp its authority.

READ MORE: Court halts ANC KZN conference… for now

As soon as the delegates were out of the hall, we were herded upstairs, the offer of lunch suddenly — cruelly — withdrawn, leaving notebooks and half-eaten plates of mutton curry and phuthu, for a long-awaited briefing with the leadership.

Co-ordinator Sihle Zikalala and convener Mike Mabuyakhulu are seated on the podium. Both are staring ahead at the stand of TV cameras in front of them. Neither is looking at the other. ANC national executive committee member Nocawe Mafu, the deployee in charge of overseeing the canned conference, is sitting next to them. She’s trying to smile but she’s battling.

I can’t say I blame Mafu. Empangeni is a pretty grim place at the best of times. Mafu led the team that suggested the conference go ahead in the first place. The mayhem that took place the night before happened on her watch.

Welcome to the Kingdom.

The top right-hand corner of the huge conference banner behind the three is unravelling. Like the conference itself — and the governing party in the province — the banner appears to have come unstuck.

I’m conflicted about the conference being canned. On the one hand, I’m heading home this afternoon, rather than Sunday, which is cool. On the other, the interdict stopping the conference — and the mini-riot halting the “consultative conference” organisers decided to push ahead with it despite the interdict — means we’ll eventually have to come back here and do this all over again. Hopefully before next year’s election.

Coming here in the first place was rather fruitless exercise, given that the court had granted the interdict stopping the conference. Continuing under those conditions was kinda strange. Creepy even.

It’s like having a wedding without actually getting married after the bride got cold feet and dumped you, or conducting a funeral with an empty coffin after the deceased has come back to life, or decided not to die in the first place.  A more sensible approach might have been to have regional leaders brief delegates, feed them and send them home. Most already knew by the time they landed, so why prolong the agony?

Then again, that would have robbed the comrades of the opportunity to humiliate ANC national chairperson Gwede Mantashe in apparent retaliation for Zuma’s court appearance earlier in the day. How else to read the chorus of Wenzeni u Zuma as Mantashe tried to address them?

Zikalala starts with an apology for the heckling of Mantashe. The alien behaviour of the comrades, like they never booed Thabo Mbeki. Or S’bu Ndebele.

Zikalala pauses. The apology is over before it ever really started, something like the conference. And the unity slate mooted to try to end the trench warfare that didn’t end in KwaZulu-Natal after the ANC’s Nasrec elective conference in December.

Zikalala goes on the offensive.

The comrades were angry about the conference being interdicted. The comrades were provoked, as it were, by national leaders of the ANC daring to interfere in KwaZulu-Natal. The comrades want the comrades who took the conference to court to be punished. The comrades want the judge investigated for ruling against them. The comrades want the conference to go ahead, chop-chop. The comrades want. The comrades want.

There’s a brief question time. Five only. No follow-up. No one-on-one interviews. They might as well have told us to stay at home. Sent us a WhatsApp message.

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