Don't encourage us
20 January 2018 01:19 (South Africa)
South Africa

#ANCdecides2017: Reporter’s notebook – the day of waiting dangerously

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • South Africa
Photo: Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte watches proceedings at the ANC's 54th National Conference underway at Nasrec, Johannesburg. Photo:Daily Maverick/Leila Dougan

04:59. The cat. Outside again. The dogs inside. Whining and mewling. What is it with them? You can’t put them in the same room, but they can’t live without each other. Spock (the cat) is always logical in his arguments, his ears forming a perfect triangle as he follows in front as you stumble down the passage, determined to trip you up. It’s the same every morning. And makes me glad the children are in the Republic of the Western Cape at this time, so they don’t hear that dad’s first verbal utterance every morning is a word they are not allowed to say. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Kettle click. Steam. Ping. Pour. Life. Livable. Right, time to shower, pack and go.

It was bold and bright outside on Sunday morning. High summer means the sun is up long before most people, just a few joggers and cyclists out on the roads. But the “media” parking lot at Nasrec was already full. A cop, at the first stop, was glad for a chat. And bored with guarding a stack of Sunday Independents. I asked him if they were all for him, he laughed and passed one through the window, “because you asked so nicely...”.

And into the studio and the discussion with managers about when we should start the live broadcast. Phemelo Motene was sounding incredibly upbeat and cheerful. Can’t stand cheerful so early in the morning. But she is infectious, and finally the juices began to flow. The smart money was on a delayed start to the day, we would wait for a bit. We were right.

Time to look, and laugh, at the Sunday papers. City Press was going with “Day of Reckoning”, the “Reckoning”, for some reason, in bright red. No doubt some newspaper expert somewhere told them that was the colour. The Sunday Times, which also likes a lot of red, also led with the conference. But the stand-out was the Sunday Independent, which carried a front page editorial backing Dlamini Zuma. Couching its endorsement in the way that the New York Times had backed Hillary Clinton, it went on about why Dlamini Zuma was the best choice. Next to it was a long lead “news story” by the editor, Steven Motale, making another round of his incredible claims. It suggested that Cyril Ramaphosa’s delegates were staying at posh hotels in Fourways through a booking made by Bidvest, and that Bidvest had paid for it. The story did carry the strong denial from Bidvest (an official explained that they did do block bookings as part of their business, but this was nothing to do with them). However, the main thrust of the story was the quotes by the liar and fraud Carl Niehaus. About half the story was given over to this liar. Which is what it was really about.

This is a contested issue, but when you consider how poorly Dlamini Zuma polls in urban areas, and how the Sunday Independent is sold mostly in urban areas, it makes you realise how this is really not about sales at all. It’s Kenny Kunene and influence. But, like ANN7, it risks becoming a parody of itself.

Anyway, finally, onto the wireless and a discussion with Limpopo Premier and ANC leader Stanley Mathabatha. I’d never shaken hands with him before, he was interesting and informative. Normally you have to ask who people are backing in political contests. Not him, he comes straight out with it. And he doesn’t even wait to tell you that he believes Ramaphosa is going to win. I ended the interview by breaking all the rules and telling him how much I’d enjoyed the chat; he returned the favour with a lament that 702 is not available in Polokwane.

Then it was time to chill out for a bit and await developments. They arrived with sudden speed. An announcement on the ANC’s media WhatsApp group that a press conference would be held soon with Jessie Duarte about credentials. It is amazing how quickly a big room can fill up when journalists are bored and told they will suddenly have something to report on. All through the thickets of chairs and forests of tripods they raced, with Duarte and Zizi Kodwa coming up behind them. Kodwa did the introductions, while Duarte had the floor and the attention of television stations from Saxonwold to Hyde Park.

She explained that the credentials process was finally finished, that we now knew that all the delegates who were in were meant to be there, that everyone who was meant to be there was there, and that everything was as it is. There was an air of exhaustion and stress about her. All of the top ANC officials look like this at this point; these are difficult things to manage. The stories started to come out immediately, there had been a big fight said some, others that it was clearly a loss for Dlamini Zuma because of how the numbers actually panned out, and are we finally going to get going was the question.

On the radio, Prof Richard Calland and political numbers expert Nathan Dufour were explaining why all of this was important. After drowning slightly in the figures (I did maths on the Standard Grade under the old education system, there was no lower grade at my school than mine), I suddenly realised why this was important. When you make election predictions you create two sets of data, the numerical outcome you predict, and the outcome that is then announced. This means that if they are different you can interrogate them and see which is wrong. They were trying, and succeeding, in doing the same here. It’s complicated, but really important work. And they explained it as well as it can be explained without using graphs.

Then I had time to catch up with Ronald Lamola. For those with long memories, he was the deputy leader to Julius Malema in the ANC Youth League back when Saxonwold was only a suburb. Now he’s emerged as one of those people pushing hard for Ramaphosa. He and I must have boxed hard back in the day, but he was all smiles and gracious and laughing at the memories. I’d always thought that it was odd for him, as a lawyer, to hang out with a group of people who showed as little respect for the law as Malema did. Perhaps the training has taken hold. He had plenty to say about Ramaphosa, but stepped back from criticising Dlamini Zuma.

The optimism about this conference now finally achieving lift-off with the adoption of credentials was short-lived. I should have known better. It was time. To wait. Again. That’s what you do at conference, that’s how these things roll. But I couldn’t do it any longer. I have an early start on Monday morning. I said my goodbyes to Eusebius as he was talking on the wireless, shook the hand of Vukani Mde, waved to the newsroom (in a friendly fashion and not like an Eastern Cape delegate to Jacob Zuma), and wandered off.

In the car, the radio smörgåsbord was interesting. Talk Radio 702 was on the conference, a competitor was playing music, SAfm had a radio play. Really. Remember them? I can’t have heard a radio play in 20 years. It was The Great Gatsby. I came in as Nick Carraway was trying to convince people to come to Gatsby’s funeral, and was reminded of the genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his evocations of character and class. By the time I got home Carraway was talking about the failure of people from the American “West” to manage the East Coast. It was a brief holiday from the pressing demands and stress and worry about Nasrec.

Then it was time to debate myself. Should I restore, temporarily, the Multichoice subscription and watch it all on a combination of public broadcaster, Hyde Park and Gupta? What about all of the corruption that’s been unveiled around Naspers and MultiChoice and the money they offered for unencrypted digital TV? Ethics. Sometimes it’s easy to overthink things.

In the end, I plugged the computer into the TV and live-streamed from the SABC.

When it finally started, I was struck by how Baleka Mbete had her cross face on, her parliamentary face. I couldn’t help but hope she remembered that she couldn’t just fail to recognise anyone. The delegates had plenty of questions, but my heart was with the guy who said we should just get on with the election, “without any waste of time”. I couldn’t help but notice the strap line on the SABC’s live feed, that the visuals were “courtesy of ANC productions”. A reminder that the feed is controlled by Luthuli House, and no one else.

Delegates were not in the mood for Mbete, or anyone else. Resonances of Parliament were all over the place, the points of order, the frustration, the Mbete reaction. Delegates were not happy with all sorts of things. Eventually Naledi Pandor was able to calm things down, and some sort of agreement was reached.

Like everyone, I felt a knot in my stomach when Dren Nupen and the election officials took to the stage, the final start of this election process. They read out the numbers in a proper neutral fashion, Cyril Ramaphosa nominations from 1,469 branches, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma 1,094, they have both accepted the nomination...

Man, this is close.

Sometimes, things are just odd. And yet, you knew they were coming. But still, how does David Mabuza get 1,128 branch nominations for Deputy President? In some ways, this is far more revealing about the situation in the party than anything else. Everyone knows his track record, the claims against him.

Then came the drama. Pandor declining her nomination, Zweli Mkhize declining his nomination. Of all of the other candidates, Mkhize’s was the one that had the highest chances.

So folks, it’s now slate against slate. A proper old-fashioned shoot-out. There is no coming back from this, all of the attempts to “foster unity” have failed. In some ways, it was always destined to be thus, the writing was on the wall the moment Zuma sacked Pravin Gordhan. But now it’s all out in the open, and this will surely be more damaging to the ANC than Polokwane was.

For now, it’s time to sleep. Or try to. To put the iPad away, to behave like my normal pre-millenial self and watch some TV, and perhaps, in the interests of sedation, have a medicinal glass. And to find the damned cat. DM

Photo: Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte watches proceedings at the ANC's 54th National Conference underway at Nasrec, Johannesburg. Photo:Daily Maverick/Leila Dougan

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • South Africa

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