Delegates chant slogans as they arrive for the 54th National Conference of the ruling ANC at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
Delegates chant slogans as they arrive for the 54th National Conference of the ruling ANC at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

The ANC has looked upon the heavens for divine intervention as its 54th conference gets under way, with religious leaders blessing the gathering.

Jacob Zuma will take to the podium for the last time as party leader at the conference in Nasrec. He will deliver his final political report to the party.

This comes a few hours after his shocking announcement that free education for the poor and working class will be introduced next year.

It is not clear how the ficus is going to pay for this.

Zuma has also made some strange comments during media interviews. 

In an interview with the SABC he said he did not think he had made any mistakes during his 10-year reign.

Zuma's address to the conference is likely to set the mood for the big fight to follow over credentials. 

Nominations for leadership positions are expected to happen later on Saturday after the conference has dealt with credentials and constitutional amendments. 

Zuma was accompanied to the conference by three of his wives and some of his children.

The different camps on the conference floor - those supporting Cyril Ramaphosa and others backing Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma - were evident as delegates sang in favour of their preferred candidate.

North West, the ANC Women's League and KwaZulu-Natal delegates sang "Halala Nkosazana. Phakama Nkosazana. Unity masibambane". (Rise Nkosazana rise, the time is now). 

Ramaphosa supporters were singing "Zizojiki iZinto" (Things will change).

But the highly divided delegates sang hymns with one voice, putting aside the differences they had expressed just minutes before.

They answered an emotional plea from one of the religious leaders to rise and seek God’s assistance, to pray that they do not destroy but build.

KwaZulu-Natal ANC leader Sihle Zikalala expressed confidence ahead of the conference starting that Dlamini-Zuma would triumph.

The KwaZulu-Natal provincial executive committee was nullified by a court ruling and its members are among delegates who may not vote at the conference.

Nonetheless, Zikalala said: “Delegates are determined for radical economic transformation. Delegates are determined to get rid of people who have failed to implement ... a state bank. Delegates are determined that there should be a [state] mining company. It cannot happen if you still have a leadership that does not mirror those resolutions.”

When asked whether the province would accept the results of the conference if Dlamini-Zuma lost‚ Zikalala replied: “As we are here‚ we are here as the ANC. The results will be accepted.”

Ramaphosa looked the early favourite in the lively run-up to the conference: a group from Gauteng‚ Northern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal entered the venue in the morning chanting pro #CR17 songs.

"Siyeza siphete iBuffalo‚" sang the Gauteng group‚ indicating Ramaphosa is their preferred candidate.

"Ha tsa maye"‚ a group of Northern Cape delegates sang.

Security has been beefed up around the main entrance‚ with some police officers riding horses as they monitor proceedings. 

"Siyovotela wena Nkosazana‚" sang another group from KwaZulu-Natal‚ saying they will vote for Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.

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