The eThekwini municipality’s head of parks, recreation and culture, Thembinkosi Ngcobo, speaks to a conference attendee yesterday at Coastlands uMhlanga, which was to have been the venue for a social cohesion conference, which was cancelled by the city at the last minute. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng

Ethekwini Municipality dropped a bombshell yesterday when it cancelled the R2.1 million Third Social Cohesion Conference, a move that left delegates and media attending the event stunned.

The conference, postponed when it was scheduled to be hosted by the Durban ICC from May 29 to 31, was scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

Thembinkosi Ngcobo, the city’s head of Parks, Recreation and Culture and one of the organisers of the event, told The Mercury deliberations on the cancellation began on Sunday night.

However, Mayor Zandile Gumede’s spokesperson, Mthunzi Gumede said the decision to cancel the conference was taken last week, adding that this was communicated to organisers, including Ngcobo. Gumede said, following the recent provincial social cohesion conference held in KwaMashu Christian Centre, a decision was taken that the municipality should take a cue from the provincial conference resolutions.

Owing to this, the city had to look at making changes to the pre-planned conference.

“The venue, programme, including guest speakers and stakeholders had to be revisited,” he said.

The issue of venue was specifically raised as a different venue that could accommodate more people and that was closer to the people was preferred over a hotel.

Gumede said the mayor had requested the city manager Sipho Nzuza to conduct an investigation into this matter and institute disciplinary measures if necessary.

The decision to cancel the event came to a head yesterday morning with the announcement to cancel the conference following a directive from city manager Sipho Nzuza.

On Nzuza’s reasons for the postponement, Ngcobo said: “We didn’t have time to talk that much, but from the way he sounded, it was not something too negative.”

Ngcobo said he did not know how much of the allocated R2.1 million budget had already been used at the time of the conference’s cancellation.

“Surely it can either have been all used or just below that amount, I don’t know at this point,” Ngcobo said.

Of the budget approved by the city’s executive committee, R740 000 was allocated for the venue, R300 000 for speakers and facilitators, and R135 000 was for travel and accommodation. A further R570 000 was budgeted for public relations and marketing, with photography and videography set to cost R150 000, and R45 000 for technical support.

Ngcobo was quick to dispel rumours that the cancellation was because people higher up in the ANC didn’t want IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi to deliver his keynote address.

However, in a media briefing yesterday, Buthelezi said he believed a group of powerful ANC members were behind the conference’s cancellation.

He alleged that “someone higher up in the chain of command” did not want to hear what he had to say. Buthelezi was scheduled to give a 40-minute opening address on history, identity and social cohesion. The IFP leader said his office was informed of the cancellation at 9.30pm on Sunday.

“When my office enquired to confirm this information we were told, quite bizarrely, that no reasons were advanced for the directive,” he said.

He said he was qualified to speak on the subject as he had pursued social cohesion and reconciliation for several decades.

Buthelezi detailed a “pattern of behaviour” he claimed was evidence that the ANC in the province had a history of blocking him from ANC government-organised events, at the expense of social cohesion.

Buthelezi revealed that 500 people, including panellists, facilitators and speakers, were meant to attend the conference.

“We need to know how such a waste of money can possibly be justified,” he said.

ANC provincial spokesperson Mdumiseni Ntuli said the allegations were without substance. “The ANC was neither involved in preparations nor decided on the postponement of the social cohesion event. The postponement or cancellation was a decision of the city informed by their analysis of the state of readiness,” said Ntuli.

Ngcobo said a meeting was scheduled between him and Nzuza where reasons for postponement would be outlined.

The DA in eThekwini said it had written to Gumede, and Nzuza seeking clarity on the conference’s cancellation.

“We would like the city manager to explain exactly how much of the money budgeted for the conference was already spent when it was inexplicably cancelled moments before it was due to kick off,” said Zwakele Mncwango, DA eThekwini Caucus Leader.

The Mercury