United we stand — and stumble on

The outcome of the ANC’s long-awaited KwaZulu-Natal conference was a win for the Thuma Mina crowd. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The outcome of the ANC’s long-awaited KwaZulu-Natal conference was a win for the Thuma Mina crowd. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Saturday. The sports centre at the Durban University of Technology’s Steve Biko campus is packed. All the seats on the floor are taken by the voting delegates to the ANC’s long-awaited, and repeatedly postponed, KwaZulu-Natal provincial conference.

The spillover — a mass of government employees attending the conference to find out whether their bosses have made it into office, a phalanx of bodyguards, party staffers and accredited hangers-on — has headed upstairs to the first floor balcony, keen for a bird’s-eye view of what’s to come.

The media area, two rows of seats at the front left side of the hall, is equally choked.

There’s a line of chairs along the wall accommodating those with no seats at the trestle tables set up, classroom like, from the front to the back of the hall.

It’s day three of the conference but, according to the programme, we’re dealing with day two issues.

A failed attempt by some comrades from the Lower South Coast and Moses Mabhida region to halt the conference through an urgent interdict to the high court meant the conference, which was to have started at 2pm on Thursday, only got going in the evening, once the word came from the ANC officials at court that the applicants had failed.

This wasn’t the first time the courts got involved in the KwaZulu-Natal conference. Last September, the high court set aside the result of the November 2015 provincial conference that elected Sihle Zikalala and Super Zuma as chairperson and secretary and ordered a re-run.

The re-run last month didn’t go well. In fact, it didn’t go at all. Another group of comrades went to court, claiming the process had been rigged. Their interdict was granted on the basis of claims that the process was being rigged again. By the time we arrived at the University of Zululand at Empangeni for ANC national chairperson Gwede Mantashe’s opening address, the interdict had been issued and the conference called off. We didn’t even get into the aborted session where Mantashe was booed.

Back to day three of this month’s conference. There’s a bit of a stench hanging outside the sports centre toilets. They’ve seen a fair bit of traffic, what with the mass catering for the 2 200 delegates and the delayed meal times.

Thus far we’ve stayed away from the conference food. Truth is we haven’t been offered any.

We’ve spent most of the conference outside the hall, apart from ANC secretary general Ace Magashule’s address and the nominations process.

Ace’s speech was awful. Factionalist as fuck. Laden with messages for the comrades meant to swing the vote in favour of the “status quo” slate, backed by the former president and punting Super Zuma for secretary again.

Ace told the ANC Youth League, which was backing the “unity” slate that included Mdumiseni Ntuli for secretary and Mike Mabuyakhulu for deputy chairperson, to sit down, to wait their turn.

Ace also spent a fair part of his speech — written to be delivered in Zuma’s presence — singing Zuma’s praises, revising as he delivered to promise a visit by uBaba at some point in the proceedings.

Clearly, from Ace’s script, uBaba was meant to be there ahead of the nominations but didn’t make it.

Zuma did attend Maskanda festival in Durban on Saturday, but didn’t pitch at the conference. I wonder what went down? Strange indeed.

Back to day three. It’s time for the top five results. Zikalala and treasurer Nomusa Dube-Ncube have been elected unopposed already, so it’s only the deputy chair, secretary and deputy secretary up for grabs. The result will indicate whether the delegates listened to Ace and voted for the status quo, or ignored him and voted for the unity slate and joining the ANC mainstream.

There’s silence as elections official Bontle Mpakanyane reads out the result. She gets as far as “Michael Mabuyakhulu, 912 votes” before the crowd explodes, drowning her out. A total of 1 745 delegates voted, so it’s obvious Mabuyakhulu has beaten his status quo opponent, Willies Mchunu, by about 100 votes.

Not everybody is pleased. Durban mayor and eThekwini chairperson Zandile Gumede, who had “mistakenly” referred to Mchunu as “deputy chairperson” in her welcoming remarks, has turned ashen.

Mama, as she’s known, is status quo all the way. She looks away, tries to avoid eye contact as the result for secretary is announced. It’s Ntuli, who comes from Mama’s region, who has won. Mama looks at the floor. Goes through the motions of clapping. Steels herself for the inevitable as Sipho Hlomuka, the unity candidate, is named deputy secretary.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s post-election address to delegates takes almost an hour. Thuma Mina looks well pleased with the outcome. He wraps up and we’re herded outside.

I head for home to file — there’s no media centre — with a sense of hope. This could be a big breakthrough for this province and an end to the killings that have escalated since 2015.

The mobile goes. A youth league leader has been murdered in Umlazi after returning from the conference.

The sense of hope is gone, deflated, like a punctured balloon.

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