Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

A member of the ANC’s department of information & publicity walks past a colleague and me and asks: "Why do you look so nervous? You’d swear that you were voting delegates."

It is Monday, day three of the ANC’s 54th national conference. Delegates have been voting through the night for their new top six leaders and we, the media — and the rest of SA — are on tenterhooks for the results.

It has been a long three days with 1,000 journalists cooped up behind a fence with no access to the delegates and limited information about what is happening.

This is starkly different to the ANC’s Mangaung conference five years ago, where Jacob Zuma was elected for a second term, or to the 2007 Polokwane conference, say colleagues who were there. Then the media were free to walk around and talk to delegates.

At his final briefing on Monday, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe was asked about this new secrecy and alienation of the media. He said it was to put a stop to a "free for all" and ensure communication was formal and structured. "[Imagine] the scenario of the conference becoming a festival of journalists talking to branch delegates and allowing delegates to have debates they are having in plenary with journalists. That destroys [the] essence of conversation, it’s a formula for a collapsing conference," he said.

But technology is our friend.

After nominations and the commencement of voting, backers of Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma were hard at work trying to convince people that their candidate had it sewn up. Videos of large numbers of delegates caucusing on the sidelines were making the rounds. There were head counts of actual delegates attending these caucuses and the numbers were sent out to show just how strong they were.

Mantashe said the media were cooped up to prevent a free-for-all and the conference collapsing

ANC leaders took to Twitter to make their endorsements and certain leaders, mostly provincial chairmen and league leaders, were ushered into the media pen to give interviews about how confident they were that their candidate would win.

Some media houses, those who so badly wanted Dlamini-Zuma to win, started calling it in her favour on Monday afternoon. Our motto was, rather be right than first.

So we sit writing for every possible scenario. With so much time on our hands waiting to be ushered to plenary, we might as well use it wisely.

Finally we are taken into the main hall, only to spend almost two hours waiting for an outcome. Imagine hundreds of journalists on the floor, almost sitting on top of each other. What a way to get to know colleagues more intimately.

The atmosphere is electric. Delegates from both sides are resilient; they keep singing and chanting as recount rumours do the rounds.

Jelly and custard

By this time there are a number of disappointed faces on the stage where the outgoing ANC leadership and national executive committee are sitting. Cellphone batteries are running low — every journalist’s fear ahead of a big announcement, especially in this day and age, as you’re not just expected to write a story but to tweet, blog, and take video and photos.

Finally the electoral commission arrives and results are announced — with some shocks. I mean, who thought Ace Magashule would make it to Luthuli House on a Ramaphosa ticket? Even the media, who spend a lot of time with the ANC secretary-general, are shocked.

But now the real work starts: interpreting what has happened, making deadlines and finding the back story. Another few hours of frenzied writing and the stories are written, we are exhausted but comforted by a little tub of jelly
and custard.

Oh wait, it is not over, we are dealing with a possible recount. Time for more jelly and custard.

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