Why Zuma didn’t pray

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ANC leaders, terrified of protests from disgruntled branches and the spectre of President Jacob Zuma addressing yet another empty stadium, pulled the plug on a National Prayer Day event in Durban on Friday.

On Thursday, provincial ANC leaders were frantically trying to mobilise branches to fill the 32 000-seater Kings Park Stadium in Durban to save the party – and the president – red faces on the same day that the high court was to rule on the 2009 withdrawal of his corruption charges by the National Prosecuting Authority.

The event was organised jointly by the Jacob Zuma Foundation and the provincial government, with the president set to lead religious groups, civil society and ordinary South Africans in prayer. A Durban council sitting and a session of the KwaZulu-Natal legislature were postponed to accommodate the prayer day.

ANC activists said they believed the prayer day was partly meant to help Zuma recover from the embarrassment of the party’s manifesto-launch flop in Port Elizabeth, but the event was cancelled early on Friday morning via a presidency statement. No reasons were given.

By that time, hundreds of hawkers had already set up stalls and car guards had positioned themselves for the expected influx.

ANC sources told City Press that, on Thursday night, provincial chairperson Sihle Zikalala called a meeting at the Durban City Hall at which branches were urged to make sure they filled up the stadium.

“Sihle was at pains to impress on comrades the importance of filling the stadium in light of the court ruling,’’ said an eThekwini activist.

“There were only two issues: the prayer day and the ruling. He said there was a need to show support to the president. There was no question of the event not taking place.

“Then something happened and the message went out to call off preparations. There was no explanation.”

The activist said there were branches that were angry about the provincial and eThekwini conferences – and about last week’s eThekwini list conference, in which a faction, led by Zikalala, controversially muscled aside an opposing group aligned to Premier Senzo Mchunu and Mayor James Nxumalo.

“They are scared they [ANC members] will protest,” he said. A national executive committee (NEC) member said the “best thing” had been to cancel, as branches were not happy. They decided it would be embarrassing to have Zuma either address an empty stadium or be booed in his home province.

The NEC member added that Zuma had had a “hard time” at a recent alliance meeting in the province.

Zikalala said the ANC was not involved in organising the prayer day, but it was announced at a cadre’s forum held on Thursday.

“The prayer [day] was not organised by the ANC. I had no involvement in the logistics, but I can tell you that people were ready to attend. We had a full hall and people were going there. Then we received a message that the event was postponed. We were not consulted on this,” he said.

Opposition parties condemned the cancellation, as government business had been set aside and public money was spent on the event.

Other ANC insiders said that although provincial leaders were asked to help fill the stadium, disaffection in the branches made this impossible.

“Things are also not well in branches. There have been serious tensions since the provincial conference and there was a lot of debate about whether to go or not, why they needed to go and what the prayer was about,” said an insider.

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