The eagle doesn’t chicken out


It’s only a week into 2019 and I already feel like I need a holiday.

It’s as if the two weeks of no deadlines, no shoes and no cellphone never happened, as if work never stopped, even for the briefest of moments, as if the respite from the treadmill was only a figment of my imagination, a dream or a hallucination.

There’s no real reason for me to feel this way.

Two weeks is a short holiday. I could have done with four — but I took it really easy with the demon drink over the festive season and there’s no way I should be feeling this whipped.

Perhaps it’s the fact that the campaign for the most important election since 1994 is already well under way, despite the fact that most of us are still writing 2018 on the bank deposit slips we have had to fill out for back to school.

Perhaps I’m just getting old. Weak. Jaded.

Either way, right now the May election date looks rather far away.

It’s surprisingly cool inside the first-floor hall in the Central Methodist Church in the centre of Durban. The venue is about half-full, a mix of cats in church robes and ANC comrades in party T-shirts with Thuma Mina written on the back and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s head on the front. There’s a full contingent of presidential protection unit minders in suits around the hall, some of them in plainclothes sitting among the punters in the hall.

I’m not big on churches, but I’m pretty familiar with Central Methodist.

In the 1980s, the Concord News Agency had offices there, so I got to know it pretty well.

The hall also hosted lots of political events those days. One of the most memorable was a prayer service for Robert McBride, now head of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. Then, McBride was on death row, facing the noose for his role in the Magoos Bar bombing. There were all these bishops and cardinals praying that the Nats wouldn’t execute McBride, all incense and hymn books.

All of a sudden, the mood changed and the prayers were drowned out by freedom songs and slogans as word spreads that ANC leader Harry Gwala, recently released from Robben Island, had arrived to address the meeting.

In seconds, the bulk of the bishops were off the stage and heading for the exit, less than keen to share a podium with Gwala, a hardcore communist who had very little in the way of good things to say about the church. The Lion of the Midlands didn’t appear to mind.

The clinic downstairs at Central Methodist does free, anonymous HIV testing. At one stage I was a pretty regular customer. I’m not any more.

The last time I was at Central Methodist was in October 2016 for the memorial service for Fezeka Kuzwayo, or Khwezi, as she became known during former president Jacob Zuma’s rape trial. It was a pretty tragic occasion.

Back to Tuesday.

Ramaphosa appears a whole lot more welcome than Gwala was as he takes to the stage at the end of the hall. For a start, the robed reverends don’t hit the exit. They also stand up and clap, which is always a good sign, and line up to hug the head of state as he joins them for the service. The Methodists in the hall break into song, accompanied by the instrument that looks like a washing machine hose and sounds like a cross between a horn and a football rattle, making it clear that they are happy to see the head of state.

Ramaphosa is here for a service before addressing the party’s 107th birthday celebration at Inanda later in the day. The party, it appears, shares a birthday with R Kelly. That’s pretty creepy.

Ramaphosa may need the congregation’s prayers. The rally’s taking place around the corner from Amaoti, home of Durban mayor and ANC eThekwini chairperson Zandile Gumede, whose region threw everything it had at stopping Ramaphosa’s bid for the presidency. It’s not exactly a home fixture for Ramaphosa and the chances of him getting heckled are pretty good.

The reverend on stage wraps up his sermon. It’s been about eagles being fed chicken feed but retaining their eaglehood. Or eagleness.

Ramaphosa gets his turn. His speech is pretty slick, built for purpose, full of biblical references and quotes and pointers to the historical relationship between the ANC and the religious community. It goes down a treat with both the comrades and the congregants.

Ramaphosa starts getting to the punchline, comparing the ANC to an eagle that renewed itself in December 2017, when it elected him and started to rid itself of the Zuma project.

Gumede, clad in a red-and-white Methodist outfit with a white beanie, is stony-faced as she marches out of the hall with her retinue.

Like I say, those prayers may just be needed.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper

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