The polo playas of Mangaung in their drop-top Beemers

2012-01-14 18:37

Shortly before setting off on the N1 to Mangaung for the ANC centenary celebrations last weekend, one of my companions wanted to know: why Bloemfontein? It’s unbearably hot, she reasoned, and way too small to handle a massive influx of people.

There are several answers to the question: It’s where the ANC was born. It’s slap in the centre of the country, so almost everyone can drive there in their fancy Range Rovers. But just as important, its compact size makes Mangaung/Bloem the ideal informal boardroom for the country’s tenderpreneurs to cut the next big deal.

Bling is no longer unusual at ANC events. Party hacks and journalists are used to the rows of Mercs and Rolls Royces in the parking lots of conference venues and the polo shirts in every cadre’s wardrobe.

But in Mangaung even the top blingers took it up a notch.

The Ralph Lauren staple, discreetly embroidered with a polo player emblem, was still in evidence, but a few fashion-forward comrades went further.

While sipping champagne in Cubana, the see-and-be-seen hangout of the weekend, one comrade actually arrived in a real polo outfit – by Fabiani, the name emblazoned on the upturned collar of the shirt. Complete with jodhpurs, striped stockings and a pert little hat, all that was missing was the horse. Sunglasses of course were obligatory, even in the dead of night.

Disgraced police commissioner Bheki Cele was clearly not bothered by his suspension. He rocked up at Cubana in a shiny black suit topped by one of his signature hats, and the assembled tenderpreneurs practically fell over themselves to shake hands with “Baba”.

My friends and I watched this show from what was probably the most expensive bar table in the whole of Mangaung.

According to the manager a patron had put down a deposit of R10 000 when he booked the table – which is why, he said, we would soon have to vacate it. We won a reprieve when we argued that, having paid a R150 door fee to get in, we had earned the right to stay at our table. The manager relented, but asked us to put our Windhoeks and Savannahs under the table to make way for the champagne.

But these were all just props for the real business of Mangaung – deal-making. A close friend – a wannabe tenderpreneur – refused to hang out with me because he said he couldn’t afford be seen with journalists when the tender cake was being cut in the VIP lounge.

We felt a little more at home in the shisa nyama in Rocklands, where a butcher, bottle store owner and DJ created a rocking venue where you could dance while you waited for your meat to be braaied. This meant an appreciative audience for the cavalcade of drop-top Beemers filled to the brim with beauties arriving at regular intervals.

At this dop shop, Johnnie Walker, albeit the Red version, was the favoured drink.

Even at the shisa nyama swift business was being done, with the DJ selling CDs of struggle songs for R50 a pop. You just had to check whether the fancy cover actually contained a CD.

For international guests, whether to attend at all was a cynical decision. One diplomat, advising his foreign minister according to the amount of “face time” he might get with the hosting president and on TV, confided that “there would have been too little of both, so I advised him to stay at home”.

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