'Us and them' at ANC conference

Feria Haffajee

It has been a sweltering week and it is a long walk to the ANC plenary tent at the sports fields of the University of the Free State.

It reveals a party of two sets of delegates: the walkers and the drivers. The walkers foot it, conference back-packs weighed down with policy documents plotting how to deal with South Africa’s wealth gap.

The policy is a work in progress. Meanwhile, the delegates who are drivers put foot to the pedal and speed past the walkers. The cars at the conference are breathtaking.

The driving delegates favour gleaming dark sedans with tinted windows. The brands in vogue appear to be Land Rover, Porsche and BMW.

When the plenary sessions end, the roads are jam-packed with the bling wheels. The cars usually belong to Cabinet ministers, “deployed cadres” like directors-general or executives in parastatals and the private sector.

The contrast is stark, especially when the shining sedans line up against the worker delegates’ buses emblazoned with images of President Jacob Zuma and promising a better life.

At lunch, the comparisons are stark again. The rank and file queue in lines that snake to fetch a simple served lunch.

Not a stone’s throw away is the dining room of the Progressive Business Forum. It’s baroque, with elevated centrepieces and long orchids holding their own against the heat. Food is served in courses, waitrons check if you have a serviette.

You can mingle with the who’s who: I spotted President Jacob Zuma’s besty, Vivian Reddy, sitting with Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi. The party’s economic czar, Enoch Godongwana, lunched with the brainy Joel Netshitenzhe.

Education director-general Bobby Soobrayan was there too, along with a range of other people I recognised from the socials pages.

The advent of the forum has made more stark the divisions of the ANC into those with money and those without.

The brainchild of former National Party turned ANC members Renier Schoeman and Darryl Swanepoel, the forum has commodified the time and expertise of ANC members and sells it to those with money. You can buy breakfasts, lunches and dinners with Cabinet ministers and ANC leaders.

For more money, you can buy space in the platinum lounge where networking is helped along with the best single malts and white squishy leather seats you simply sink into.

I stood and gawped from the outside as a pretty hostess manned an entrance policy that was, she said, only for a handful of exclusive delegates. When other delegates wanted a break, I saw them take off their shoes and sit on the grass.

ANC conferences haven’t always been so “us and them”. I remember a time when delegates all ate together, walked together and stayed together.

Now, high-end digs go for R35 000 a day to retire to the sanctuary of Woodlands Estate and play a round of golf after your round of electioneering.

Newsfire, the news agency of the Daily Maverick, reported some delegates had stayed in buses, others on single mattresses in student dorms.

I saw a few people sprawled exhausted on pavements outside the university entrance, clearly about to sleep the night.

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