Across the open space, beyond the confines of the temporary wire fencing were almost 5000 delegates, drawn from across the country, meeting to elect a new president for the ruling ANC.
One “journalist,” though, was making news. Except there was no news really and this was not a real journalist, at least not a real, live one - but a puppet - and a real puppet, not a puppet journalist.
Chester Missing, the creation of social commentator, ventriloquist, puppeteer and lightning-fast comic Conrad Koch was in the house - saying things that many South Africans can only think about in private and getting away with it among some of the most hard-boiled politicians in South Africa.
Outgoing party secretary-general Gwede Mantashe was almost overcome by emotion as he bade farewell to the press corps, mentioning the puppet not once but several times. North West strongman Supra Mahumapelo was positively skittish - at one of the most tense moments in the history of Africa’s oldest liberation movements.
And when he wasn’t doing interviews or analysis, he was enlivening everything with his pithy Twitter feed @ChesterMissing. Today, Chester will be in East London, on assignment in the field at the Buffalo Stadium when he’s not in studio doing analysis.
In any other country this might be considered surreal, especially in a nation such as ours where the bizarre has often become the new normal. The fact that it isn’t speaks volumes about Koch and just how effective his creation has been.
Koch grew up as an outsider in Cape Town. He went to the exclusive Bishops Diocesan College, where he was often bullied. His parents divorced. He ended up practising ventriloquy with puppets to amuse himself.
“I was the kind of guy doing magic at weekends; it hardly endeared me to the rugby types,” he says, ruefully. It was when he went to study anthropology at the University of Cape Town that his eyes were properly opened.
“I’d got snippets about apartheid, growing up, but it was UCT and the TRC that made a huge impact on me - and at the same time, stand-up comedy really took off in Cape Town.”
His contemporaries at varsity included Riaad Moosa, David Kau and Kagiso Lediga.
“It was a great think tank for comedians and it was where my comedy, which had been anthropological,exploring black and white cultural issues, developed a distinct political tone.”
By the early 2000s, Koch went back to university, this time to Wits to do his Master’s in corporate anthropology, “because that’s where most conversations happen in South Africa between the different groups.
“I wanted to say more, but I felt I didn’t have enough knowledge.”
He emerged with the knowledge he needed - and with Chester Missing, a racially complex puppet, but most definitely not white.
“His name was Missing to signify the racial complexity I wanted to discuss. I made him the voice that spoke back to me.”
eTV’s Late Nite News with Loyiso Gwala gave Chester a national footprint - it also freed Chester.
“It gave him a chance to exist more and play - and then for me to keep up with him. I hid under the desk out of sight and let him just take over. I didn’t have to do ventriloquy any more, which was a relief, you try saying Ramaphosa quickly and not moving your lips!
“When he became a dude in his own right, his career - and mine - took off. I was doing well with theatre and corporate gigs, but when Chester became his own guy, it was a different world.
“The next big click was probably the ANC elective conference in Mangaung in 2012. Chester had great rapport with politicians, probably the turning point was with Gwede, he was so warm, so accepting, he took the ribbing in extremely good spirit. So too did (ANC chief whip) Jackson Mthembu.
“Mmusi Maimane was actually the first politician Chester ever interviewed. He was great.”
It was the beginning of something. Chester Missing allowed politicians to drop their guard, to be human - and not be afraid.
“Magdalene Moonasamy, when she was still with the ANC Youth League, once explained it beautifully. She said it was because Chester exists but doesn’t actually exist. It allows you to be insulted without actually being angry about it. As soon as the politicians know how to play back, it gives me the licence to really push it.
“Far more politicians are more salt-of-the-earth than we give them credit for. We forget, too, that the ANC has a huge culture of humour - the same kind of humour that allowed its members to survive exile, imprisonment or repression here at home.”
From Mangaung, it was a straight trajectory to Nasrec in December, no longer doing spoof interviews but now moving into the studio interacting with analysts doing real and intensive analysis - with Chester’s trademark biting humour.
“Chester works well as an analyst because the other analysts know the context, they get the gags immediately and when you’ve got someone of the calibre of Ebrahim Fakir interacting with him and host Jeremy Maggs guiding, there’s magic.”
Missing is no longer missing. He’s now white.
“I felt I’d explored that narrative to the full artistically. It wasn’t relevant any more,” Koch explains.
So what’s Chester expecting today?
“Chester is looking forward to seeing his comrades,” says Koch. “He knows he’s a puppet and he’s always willing to sell out. He wants the ANC top six to be extended to a top seven, he’s the only guy who’s shorter than deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte, so he’s prepared to be deputy deputy secretary-general.
“He’s hoping CR will say only two words to JZ, ‘Voet’ and ‘sek’, but I think, unfortunately, Comrade Unity will rear its ugly head.”
* Don’t miss Conrad Koch and Chester doing Puppet Guy at Pieter Toerien’s Studio Theatre at Montecasino between April 25 and May 27. Tickets available through Computicket.