Johannesburg - Three weeks before the delegates descended on its campus in the most anticipated political event of the year, the University of the Free State campus was quiet. The car parks were full, but the students sparse.
You spotted them sitting alone with their heads bowed over notes, or walking determinedly towards exam halls, their lips moving quickly and quietly. In the coming days, marquees would be erected, delegates would arrive, votes would be cast.
Now, footsteps echoed dully in the vast Callie Human building. It was where Julius Malema was elected president of the ANC Youth League four years ago. But now its shutters were closed, its hundreds of chairs were empty, its floor was crossed only by multicoloured sports lines. Outside, Busisiwe Ntshulana and Barbara Segacwi clutched their study notes desperately.
“Maybe if this was Macufe (Mangaung’s own arts festival), we’d care and stay in town,” said the communications students. “But our concern is just this re-exam. All we know is that we have to be out of our communes by a certain date.”
Thousands of delegates would soon be in town and Kovsies would be housing some of them. But first came the end of year admin and readying the university for the influx of new undergraduates in 2013.
Outside the university grounds, there was no hustle of preparation. Christmas decorations had gone up in local malls and school children tugged at the uniforms that were only days away from being hung up for the year.
No political predictions or pundits plastered over the local paper, but the story of British engineer Chris Preece - murdered on a farm at the weekend - and concern over spreading farmworker protests.
“This is just Bloem,” said a local journo at The Block and Cellar. Across the street from the university, it was busy but not bursting. Soon enough.
On the other side of town, the Cubana whisky bar was fully stocked, its VIP section decked out with deep couches. A picture of a beret-wearing Che Guevara hung from the wall. It was just the sort of place for young revolutionaries to unwind. But on this Wednesday afternoon, it was empty bar the staff.
At the Mahungra Food Court and Car Wash, owner Power Tshabalala was prepping for a party. He’d started the business with the last R350 in his pocket seven years ago, he said. Now, the car wash portion of the business was merely a side note to the deafening music and flat-screen TVs and local food.
“I handled the whole centenary,” he said. “We put up a stage, had local DJs play, held a comedy show. I want them to keep coming back.”
This weekend, his dusty corner on Nelson Mandela Drive and McGregor could be brimming and Tshabalala was preparing to take on extra staff just to handle the load.
But until then, it is just another quiet day in Bloemfontein. The ANC centenary celebration was still plastered across the city. Giant Mount Rushmore-type faces stared down at the streets from the cooling towers. Dube. Tambo. Zuma. The faces of the ANC. And at their base, the very Wesleyan Church school for black children where the party had been founded 100 years earlier. The most the city had seen so far Mangaung-wise was the erection of the municipality pillars at both entrances to the city: three rising masts, black, green, and orange.
“I’m big on branding,” said municipal spokesman Qondile Khedama, handing over a business card with the same logo. The city was keen to establish its reputation as the go-to spot for conferences, and the ANC conference was going to be a gold-mine brand-wise. “Mangaung” printed again and again in local and international news reports? You could not buy that kind of coverage.
“All these activities - the World Cup, the centenary, Macufe, the national conference - have given us a platform as a city to better position ourselves as the chosen destination, ‘at the heart of it all’,” he said. “We’re looking at a number of things, at what will be left for the city once the conference is over. The pillars are permanent features. They’re part of the legacy and brand we’re trying to build.”
But branded conference posters and banners hadn’t gone up in the streets yet. The flags and the vuvuzelas were still there on each pole. An oversized black-and-white soccer ball dominated the foyer of the municipal building. You’d think it was 2010. It was only at the ANC’s local headquarters on Charles Street that there was any sign of what was coming. “Only 19 days until the 53rd National Conference,” read the giant signs.