South Africa

The ANC’s Great Mayonnaise Moment: A Mangaung fairy tale that starts badly but ends well

By J Brooks Spector 13 December 2012

Through our special temporal channels, Daily Maverick has secretly received an anonymous account of what has now universally become known as the Great Mayonnaise Moment – the surprising circumstances that fundamentally changed South African politics in December 2012. We have tidied up the grammar a bit and left out a name or two to protect the innocent – but except for those modest changes, the following is precisely what we received in that fateful rendezvous, right in front of the Stargate situated in deepest Rosebank. Notes by J BROOKS SPECTOR.

The report begins: 

…The Mangaung conference began confidently and optimistically – the weather was bright, sunny and wonderfully warm. How little did we know what was in store for us as we gathered in our thousands from the far distant corners of South Africa, wearing our colourful T-shirts, baseball caps, and makarapas. As our meeting began, it felt wonderful to come together at that amazing concert on 16 December to hear all those new and old musical performer favourites. Yes, the concert started late, but then that just meant it ran well into the evening and then on to the early hours of the following day – it was a great jol for everyone.

Then, the next day, our meetings really began in earnest. There were all those long debates in the plenary sessions about seating delegates from some of the more obstreperous provincial delegations and then there were the commission meetings on contentious things like nationalisation, broad-based economic reform, national health policy and educational reform. These meetings were where it got interesting, even before we had a chance for our selection of the party’s president, deputy president and general secretary, national executive committee and so forth to lead our party. This is where we had a chance to argue about the way forward for a National Health Insurance scheme, how we should take full charge of the country’s strategic minerals from the capitalists and finally take control of the country’s economic destiny that was waiting for our miraculous touch with baited breathe. These were difficult meetings but the process made us proud to be part of a party that debated things honestly and openly.

But then, just like that, everything changed. Most of the delegates, and many of the top officials as well, enjoyed a noisy, friendly lunch together on the 17th. The food was basic but plentiful – this was real food of the people. There were great helpings of beef curry, chicken stew, pap, samp, rice, spinach, green beans, beetroot and potato salad – as well as a whole slew of rich, creamy desserts.

Maybe the problem was that the day was a really hot, sunny one – and the buffet tables had been waiting for us, hungry comrades, for over an hour by the time we were released for lunch. Some of us wanted to thank the caterers for the meal, saying it was one of the nicest picnic lunches we’d had for a long time – and so we asked who had had the tender to make these great meals for us. 

It turned out that a whole collection of Mangaung community groups actually cooked all this food themselves – it was a real grassroots effort by the community, right from the townships, although some of the ingredients came from larger businesses. For example, we learned that On Point Food Support Services Pty Ltd (a catering arm of the Ratanang Trust) had actually prepared all the mayonnaise, sauces and condiments for all of the meals in advance up in a light industrial park outside Polokwane and they had then delivered them to the community groups in the townships. No one ever really figured out if the problem had been inferior or adulterated ingredients used in the sauces, or poor storage conditions and a lack of refrigeration, or just the combined impact of all of these problems – plus the blazing heat. But the doctors told us later that taken together that made everything the perfect medium for an explosion of salmonella bacteria. 

Maybe the doctors are right and someone cut a few corners, or maybe the food just sat out in the blazing sun a bit too long, but by two o’clock in the afternoon, more and more delegates were beginning to leave the meetings and make their unsteady way to the temporary clinic that had been set up nearby. Soon enough, the clinic medical team was overwhelmed and calls went out across the city for back up. Of course it was a holiday weekend and the hospitals were on skeleton staffing – and more doctors and nurses were already on vacation, heading south to the ocean shores of Durban, George, Knysna and Cape Town – or even overseas for long-awaited holidays. Even the Defence Force medical teams were not enough. A lot of people were very sick.

We learned afterwards that it was salmonella poisoning and we were lucky no one actually died, even though thousands were overcome by their pain and acute discomfort. You can imagine what it was like. Our meetings collapsed into disorder as increasingly unwell session chairpersons adjourned every one of the meetings temporarily – and peremptorily – without any ceremony. By the evening, television news broadcasts led with baleful panoramic scenes of thousands of sick delegates spilling out from the medical tents and onto the lawns beyond. It was terrible, it looked like a battlefield scene right out of a Hollywood movie like Gone with the Wind, some people said. The entire leadership appeared incapacitated.

Still, fortuitously for the three of them, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, Planning Minister Trevor Manuel and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan had left together before lunch was served to have a quick strategy meeting. They wanted to talk about the budgetary effects of the country’s hospital revitalisation plans and the impact of the National Health Insurance scheme that was a major, contentious topic in one of the commission report-back meetings. Together with the health minister’s driver, the four men drove away from the conference site, looking for a place to meet quietly over a quick lunch. The driver told several of us later that one of them had suggested a KFC or Nandos for some nourishment, but Trevor Manuel said they should head for the nearest Shaaba Fish and Chips, Pravin Gordhan would approve of that choice for cost reasons after all.

Coincidentally, the SA Communist Party’s Jeremy Cronin had left his meeting as well to write some poetry about his fervent hopes for the classless future in which lumpen proletariat would finally be free. And Zwelinzima Vavi of Cosatu had eschewed a special luncheon invitation with some of the ANC’s bigwigs to mend fences. Instead, he preferred to consume a packed lunch he had brought with him that morning in a symbolic protest against culinary excess and the fact that the ANC leadership can enjoy all the great food with absolutely no consequences.

By the time all five of these men had headed back to the campus meeting site, the effects of the sudden epidemic had gotten out of control completely and none of the other senior officials could come to the dais in the front. As a result, by the time the late afternoon sessions were due to start, only a handful of delegates, plus Vavi, Cronin, Manuel, Gordhan and Motsoaledi were actually available to meet.

In desperation, this ad hoc meeting agreed that the five – Vavi, Cronin, Manuel, Gordhan and Motsoaledi – would form an interim steering committee. They would manage the party’s business until such time as they could organise still another gathering to finish the party’s conference agenda and elect its new list of permanent officials.

But the funny thing was, as party members around the country learned what had happened, the interim committee became the country’s highest trending Twitter topic ever, and the public’s approval of this interim selection became immediately apparent. Even the president and deputy president of the ANC & the country felt obligated to accept this ad hoc second centre of power. After all, it was hard to argue with the group’s overwhelming level of national support and the increased likelihood this group would be able to lead the party to electoral triumph in less than two year’s time.

Once this “Gang of Five” was in charge of the party, it was logical for them to take responsibility for the nation’s government as well. When the party’s delegates reassembled for their second try at a national party convention, they picked the ANC members of the quinumvirate to serve as party president, deputy president and secretary general, and the other two men – Zwelinzima Vavi and Jeremy Cronin – took the other senior party positions.

Then, as some lawyers explained it us later, things just fell into place in accordance with the provisions of Chapter 5, Sections 88, 89 and 90 of our South African Constitution. The whole thing reminded us a bit of how Kgalema Motlanthe had temporarily become our country’s president, when he replaced Thabo Mbeki after he had lost the trust of our party at Polokwane.

This time around, however, the National Assembly accepted what had become the inevitable resignations of both Jacob Zuma and Kgalema Motlanthe as president and deputy president. Jacob Zuma went back to Nkandla to the quiet life of an extended family man and cattle rancher, while Kgalema Motlanthe volunteered to work on re-energising and re-invigorating the political and moral education of our party – a task he always told us he would like to do once he left politics. And he became the coach of his local soccer team.

Then according to section 90, the remaining members of the Cabinet agreed to appoint Dr Motsoaledi as the country’s new acting president and Trevor Manuel as its deputy president. Pravin Gordhan agreed to stay on as finance minister and national planning minister to finally bring some real clout and coordination to our government in economic policy-making. We were in a rut, we all knew it, and we knew something extraordinary had to be done.

Even those heretofore troublesome priests, business leaders and the main opposition party indicated their initial, albeit wary, support to the way things were turning out for us. Then, by the time the general election came around, under this unlikely and unexpected quinumvirate and the new interim president and deputy president, public pressure by many of us across the country forced creation of a second government of national unity – and it was not a moment too soon. The on-going educational distress, including textbooks that were unaccountably printed in Albanian and Macedonian and distributed in Limpopo, a growing number of failing mines, a series of new police shock scandals and the continuing fall in the value of the rand vis-à-vis a basket of other currencies made it clear we needed emergency action by our government. All of these pressures drove the country’s leaders to join together to tackle the country’s problems with some new vigour and energy. Even the Freedom Front+ stopped going to court over language policy and the people in Orania offered to rename their town to Hani-ville as a token of their unexpected support for the national unity government.

And as for Julius Malema? Although he wasn’t invited to the big tent in Mangaung because he was no longer a member of the party or its youth league anymore, as a key figure with one of the service providers via his financial interest in that On Point food products company that had supplied the mayonnaise, mustard and peri-peri sauce for lunch, he had been able to mingle with the delegates and join them at the groaning board for that fateful lunch. However, it was discovered, we learned, that he had a serious allergy to eggs and all egg products like mayonnaise – and he was never heard from again. Cue the rainbow.

The end! DM

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