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23 March 2017 23:52 (South Africa)
Opinionista Branko Brkic

The day we gathered to talk elections

  • Branko Brkic
    branko3048 a ray
    Branko Brkic

    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.

    Recent columns:

It was a great day for Daily Maverick, our audience and, we hope, for most of our speakers. It was proof, if proof were ever needed, that South Africa’s politicians, intellectuals, media, and its people could gather together to participate in a meaningful conversation about our reality, successes and failures, and about what the future of this country should look like.

Thursday, 10 April 2014, around 9:00am: John Vlismas and Tumi Morake walk onto the stage at the Lyric Theatre, Gold Reef City. John makes an obligatory joke to explain why we're all sitting inside a... casino.

(It is a funny one: We've gathered inside a casino, because that’s what SA's economy today is like: only a few win big, while millions never earn a dime.)

Audience, 600 people, laughs. Ok, here we go.

In the hours that followed, the stage belonged to people who had something to say: their words were important, enlightening, revealing, depressing, exhilarating, deep, powerful, inspiring, bewildering... sometimes downright funny.

These people were some of the best this country has ever presented. In order of appearance: Max Du Preez, Helen Zille, Malusi Gigaba, Zwelinzima Vavi, Mamphela Ramphele, Rehad Desai, Sisonke Msimang, Vuyiseka Dubula, Fatima Hassan, David Lewis, Andrew Miller, Iraj Abedian, Irvin Jim, Jay Naidoo and Thuli Madonsela (via pre-recorded speech).

Max Du Preez was fiery and resolute in his assessment of the SA's democracy and media. (He was also kind to Daily Maverick, for which we were truly thankful). The old hand, legendary journalist and book writer, he was never known for pulling punches. Let's just say that Du Preez was in devastating form that morning.

In the main political panel, Helen Zille was projecting strength and rectitude rarely seen in our politics. Her speech was forceful, delivery assured, her solutions meaningful and real.

I believed then, and still believe now, that Malusi Gigaba was the bravest man on that morning in this nondescript casino in the southwest of Joburg. It is not easy being an ANC man in the public discussion environment as it was on the day. When you are sent to defend the indefensible, the task becomes a herculean one.

Cosatu's General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi (NB: Tumi Morake did check his Facebook status just before she announced him) was in mood for a fight, and was... very funny while doing it. We will never forget how he pushed his lectern as far left as he could, presumably all the way past socialism. Vavi is the only speaker who spoke at all three Daily Maverick Gatherings. He never fails to deliver a great speech and even greater flame.

And then, Mamphela Ramphele walked up front... and delivered probably the best speech of her life. She was fiery, quick, precise, damning. She was the ANC's nemesis of the day, the one who delivered the zingers that hurt the most, the cuts the went the deepest. She was awarded with applause that in one moment threatened to become an ovation.

Zille, Gigaba, Vavi and Ramphele were then grilled for more than hour by our editors' panel: Ranjeni Munusamy, Justice Malala and Richard Poplak.

After lunch, Rehad Desai reminded us what really happened on the killing fields of Marikana. The horrifying images from a short preview of his movie, Miners Shot, shook the visitors from their post-lunch slumber.

Soon after, Sisonke Msimang quickly became one of the most recognised women in South Africa; a powerful speaker who took us through three stages of her grief over the lost love for her one and only, the ANC. Her words were precise, tinged with sadness, but her delivery remained one of effortless brilliance.

Msimang remained on the stage as moderator for the following panel, Social Justice. She was joined by the seasoned fighters, Vuyiseka Dubula from Sonke Gender Justice, Fatima Hassan from Open Society Foundation and David Lewis, CEO of Corruption Watch. Interestingly, their current positions are all relatively new: Dubula was active in Treatment Action Campaign; Hassan too, as well as advising Minister Barbara Hogan, while Lewis was South Africa's Competition Commissioner for many years. Perhaps inspired by the frank exchanges from before them, these civil society fighters came out swinging. No time for polite and meek anymore; fighting for what you believe is all the rage. Choice quote, by David Lewis: “I struggle to think of Blade Nzimande as 'the honourable'.

By the time Andrew Miller and his co-performer on drums, Lucas, glided onto the stage, the audience had been kept engaged for more than six hours already. It was hard to imagine that a bout of street poetry would interest them, let alone captivate, which is exactly what Miller did. Ever-more original, Miller is best left unexplained. Before the end of this week, you will be able to see the recording of his performance – maybe you could do it for yourself. But watch it.

And then the third and final panel arrived: Political Economy.

Iraj Abedian was a voice of cool and studied reason in the universe of fires and explosions. Irvin Jim came out swinging against the very positions that Abedian espoused. Then the ultimate firebrand, Jay Naidoo, delivered a tour-de-force performance against the excesses and current government's incompetence that matched Ramphele's pound per pound, and then some. All three speakers achieved what we thought impossible: bringing the temperature up to the level of the political debate just a few hours earlier. Another 60 minutes passed quickly while they were interrogated by Jeremy Maggs, Prince Mashele and J. Brooks Spector.

My only sorrow of the day was that the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, could not join us in person because of her overseas trip, if nothing but for the standing ovation she would have received at the Lyric Theatre, for the ultimate performance of protecting South Africa's Constitution.

While we were breaking new ground that day, social networks were properly buzzing. Twitter especially was red hot. Our hashtag #DMGathering has been tweeted and retweeted well over 12,ooo times and we trended globally. (Daily Maverick will be publishing a full report in the near future.)

It was a mad day. In the words of one of the Twitterers:

It was exactly like Daily Maverick: challenging, thought-provoking, compelling, entertaining and just a little bit crazy.

Some people asked us: what is the secret of The Gathering? Why is it so successful?

Our response is pretty simple: The Gathering is meaningful. And it shows. Hopefully by now you can see it for yourself. DM

PS: The Gathering – Election edition was blessed by our dream sponsors in Nando's and Omidyar Network, as well as eNCA, Project Isizwe, Glenmorangie and Neotel. Thank you guys, you made it happen.

The event itself was organised and produced by the impossibly efficient John Vlismas and his crew, easily the best bunch in the country.

  • Branko Brkic
    branko3048 a ray
    Branko Brkic

    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.

    Recent columns:

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