We almost never make it up. Promise.
23 October 2014 04:07 (South Africa)
Opinionista Branko Brkic

168 hours: A Gathering like no other, indeed

  • Branko Brkic
Two years after the original, we were back to it on Friday: The Gathering 2.0. With “more stars than The Expendables 2, but with better dialogue”, as our pre-event advertising slogan teased, the conference lived up to the hype, and then some: it was a truly meaningful place to be. This is my account of a special day.

Just three weeks before Mangaung, some of the South Africa's best and brightest gathered for a day of talk and debate, near-tears and laughter, where brains had to work overtime and hope competed with hopelessness. 

The whole event was really well organised by Angela Clark and our own CEO, Styli Charalambous. From the very beginning, we knew one thing: our job was always going to be the same as it is every day when we hit the Daily Maverick's “send” button: tell the truth, to the best of our abilities. The problem was, in many ways, telling the truth in South Africa of today was not exactly going to be a cheerful business. So we decided to inject humour, plenty of it. We needed the humour that was quick, sharp, relevant. Which is exactly why we knocked on the door of John Vlismas and Tumi Morake; we also phoned our friends at ZANews.

And boy, they all delivered. In the coming days, we will be incorporating their work into our normal daily content, but let's just say there was plenty of hearty and sometimes nervous laughter when Vlismas and Morake zinged, and that Zwelinzima Vavi literally cried with laughter during the ZANews-produced Limpopo-Sat crossing... And we needed the laughter badly. 

The day started with the trio of current, and almost certainly future, leaders of SA politics: ANC's Gauteng boss, Paul Mashatile; Cosatu Sec-Gen Zwelinzima Vavi; and DA's leader of the opposition in Parliament, Lindiwe Mazibuko. Seeing them sitting peacefully and respectfully there, on the Victory Theatre's podium, one couldn't but ask why it could not be like that all the time, and why so many political differences end up being fought violently.

First was Paul Mashatile: his speech about the current state of the ANC and Mangaung space, while peppered with the usual professions of unity, confidence in ANC's future and continuing leadership role, had a preamble of his personal desire for change. So close to the conference, and with ever-increasing pressure to close the ranks behind Jacob Zuma, it was an important and brave statement to make. What’s more, Mashatile must have known that coming to The Gathering 2.0 would be a 21st-century version of walking into the lion's den; the probing and take-no-prisoners questions by our associate editors' panel would have turned many a politician into a bundle of defence. Mashatile's responses along the party lines were not satisfying to most of the audience, and yet he never lost his composure. I certainly wouldn't have agreed with him, but he deserved respect.

Our favourite modern unionist of them all, Zvelinzima Vavi's speech, while stressing the country is still much better than it used to be, was a blistering attack on the ANC and SA's big (read: white-controlled) business. The statistics he quoted were genuinely depressing:

“Today unemployment, by the more realistic expanded figure, which includes discouraged work-seekers, has risen to the outrageous level of 36, 3%. Among Africans it is now above 40%, up from 38% in 1995.

“There is a particularly severe crisis among the youth, which constitute 63% of the working population, yet make [up] 72% of the unemployed. This makes it the worst in comparison to other middle-income countries. The difference between the others and us is that we have become used to this as normality.

“The inevitable consequence of high unemployment is poverty. Twenty-two and a half million people live on or below R10 a day. Around 14.5-million South Africans suffer from hunger. In 2005, 17% of the South African population were recipients of social grants. In 2010 this figure increased to 28%.”

Still, Vavi was grilled by Daily Maverick's Ranjeni Munusamy over Cosatu's support for continued ANC presidency of Jacob Zuma, a difficult-to-reconcile position. True to it, Vavi couldn't even start explaining, choosing a simple “no comment”. That said enough about where his personal stance was.

And then there was the DA's Lindiwe Mazibuko, delivering a powerful speech. While I think you should read Mazibuko's speech (as well as Vavi's) in its entirety, let us put some of the more important points here:

  • 2012, she believes, will be recorded as one of Malcolm Gladwell's "tipping points" when the political centre of gravity shifted decisively away from President Zuma and the ANC;
  • She powerfully compared the steps in the erosion of ANC's values to a fall of six connected dominoes;
  • She called Nelson Mandela a “transformational president”, Thabo Mbeki a “transactional president” and Jacob Zuma “neither”;
  • She extended a “hand of friendship” to all the political forces in the country, opening a door to the DA presiding over a much bigger movement.

To many political pundits (this one included) watching Mazibuko's delivery, it was obvious that we were looking at a strong future contender for SA presidency.

After the high-end politics of Mashatile, Vavi and Mazibuko, Section 27's Mark Heywood delivered a sobering presentation on state of school toilets in the Limpopo. It was beyond horrible: smelly, dirty, shocking. And Heywood continued to hammer the message down: not enough, not there, nothing. How are the schools supposed to deliver when the student's basic hygienic needs are not met? 

The emphatic Heywood then went on for a final drill:

“Is the crisis of sanitation in schools: (a) a legacy of Apartheid? (b) due to a shortage of resources? (c) due to corrupt provincial government and a failure of oversight by the national executive?”

What do you think? I thought so.

The media panel that followed brought together SA's top two editors, Ferial Haffajee and Nic Dawes; Chris Vick, the country's top reputational manager and 702's Aubrey Masango as a moderator. I had a feeling that the entire day could have been devoted to these supreme media thinkers, so big and numerous are the problems facing media today. From the revolutionary technological change of which no-one can really predict the outcome; to the ruling party's growing desire to control and not be scrutinised; all the way to the simple fact that the SA's market is achingly small, making it almost impossible to maintain a high level of journalism quality. Perhaps most ominously, Haffajee warned about the growing tide of calls for the insult of Presidency laws, headed by the SACP's inimitable Blade Nzimande. 

Just before lunch, Andrew Miller, a “street poet”, came gingerly onto the stage. But there was nothing shy about his poetry that flowed like hot coffee, wonderfully awakening, full of mystery and inner contradiction, with no hint of sugar. In his normal life a something of a genius wordsmith, Miller's slight figure dominated the theatre effortlessly. And as he retreated from the podium, audience applauding, I couldn't help but hearing, time after time “I'm an oppressor. I'm an oppressor.” Everyone should see Miller. And then complain about life – all the while drinking designer coffee in a suburban mall.

First after lunch was our mystery speaker number one, courtesy of our friends from ZANews, and crossing via Limpopo-Sat. We laughed. Some couldn't suppress tears. But it was over too soon. (Some key words: Limpopo, Chair, Woodwork, Mangaung.)

Tears of laughter were soon replaced by tears of different type. It was time for our Pulitzer Prize-winning Greg Marinovich and our second mystery speaker, Marikana miner Bhele Dlunga. 

Why did we decide to invite Dlunga? Because he is not heard in today's South Africa. Because he was the one under police's bullets at Wonderkop. Because he was the one who was arrested, tortured and charged with absurd crimes. Because he is a quiet, unassuming man, a member of the Church of Zion, and his only crime was that he wanted a better life. And because we wanted the audience to hear directly from him. Speaking through a translator, Dlunga projected a picture of a man in pain, full of sadness, a man struggling to understand how the government he voted for could shoot its own people. In soft, yet clear voice, Dlunga said that the miners didn’t know what the future would bring, but that they did know both the ANC and Lonmin were to blame for the Marikana massacre. And all along, one could hear a pin drop in the theatre. The Victory Theatre was a very, very quiet place while Dlunga was talking. I personally hope that his voice, and those of his friends, will be represented much more by other media platforms.

The Marikana massacre, obviously, nearly ruined SA's brand value in the world. For that reason, we brought the master brand expert Yvonne Johnston to explain how can we help restore our reputation to at least some of our former grandeur. We will bring her story in full later this week, but let's just say it comprises 12 steps and… sorry. We have no chance. But read it soon, and tell us what you think.

Jay Naidoo is one of the sharpest minds I have seen in the longest time. Daily Maverick columnist's speech was simple, precise, passionate. Watching him deliver it, I understood how this firebrand community organiser could marshal millions into a massive force that made the Apartheid government understand that they could not continue doing it alone. His understanding of Lula effect is deep and workable, his worry about SA's place in the space-time continuum deep and profound. Naidoo's delivery is a tour-de-force argument for active citizenry, for organisation at the grassroots level, and for putting democracy back where it belongs, in the hands of people. His comment on SADTU officials calling Section 27 Limpopo efforts anti-majoritarian: “Utter bullshit.” No-one could have said it better, Jay.

OUTA Chairman Wayne Duvenhage delivered what some considered a deeply disturbing speech about big business' lack of support of his fight against Sanral and e-tolling. Duvenhage is a hero to millions of motorists, yet he faces a long and possibly ruinous court case against Sanral, an opponent that has limitless resources, the money supplied courtesy of SA taxpayer. Sound crazy? Sound unfair? Yep, and much more. You will be reading Duvenhage's story on Daily Maverick soon, and can decide for yourself.

Ivo Vegter was... Ivo Vegter. While I personally may not agree with him most of the time, one cannot deny that the man argues well. Extremely well, actually. As a Daily Maverick reader, you may have realised this already. But seeing him live.. Damn, the guy's good. Even if I really, truly disagree with him. I presume that's what separates columnist-boys from columnist-men. Over the years, Ivo has grown into one of South Africa's finest.

Styli Charalambous made a powerful announcement of NewsFire, which we will cover in a separate article. Let's just say here we believe it is going to be huge.

The final speaker, and Daily Maverick's 2011 SA person of the year, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela took the stage, tasked with presenting the state of SA's public administration. Madonsela is an unassuming, measured speaker who does not need to raise her voice to command attention. Her presentation on the nature and extent of her work to combat corruption and maladministration showed why she is one of the most admired figures in South Africa today. Her courage and determination to pursue her investigations, even those which earn her the wrath of powerful figures, makes her a towering figure in the public service. And her response to Munusamy's question about Nkandla investigation going full steam ahead made instant headlines. Such is the power of honesty and competence in today's public life in this country.

And then, seemingly all to soon, Friday night came. Many a tired but happy brain retired for the night. Twitter buzz that was relentless the whole day, eased finally. The Gathering 2.0 was over.

Was it good? We think so. Was it meaningful. Definitely. Shall we do it again? Hell, yes! DM

  • Branko Brkic
branko3048 a ray

Brkic is the founder and editor of The Daily Maverick.

He has edited magazines on business and politics, technology, and wildlife. He has also published fiction and non-fiction books, most of them in Serbian. Though he has never pretended to be a reporter, his wide knowledge of politics (especially in America), combined with his experiences in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, gives him an unusual outlook on events in South Africa.

Despite the vowel-poor surname, he tells anyone who asks that he hails from Hyde Park, Johannesburg, having spent most of his adult life in South Africa.

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