Political conferences can be excruciating, draining and mind-numbing events.
The ANC's five-day event last year at Nasrec, in the south of Johannesburg, started six, seven hours late, the media was contained in an internment camp, well away from delegates, and there was no ready flow of information and communication from the plenary.
The DA's federal congress is a whole different kettle of fish. Held over just two days, with less than half the number of delegates that attendeded the ANC's conference, it started on time on Saturday and even earlier than the programme outlined on Sunday. It concluded a little later than scheduled on Saturday and smack bang on time on Sunday, with a press conference with the new leadership to boot.
The ANC's conference ended six, seven, eight hours after its scheduled conclusion and its new leader had to take to the podium well past midnight. And there still hasn't been a press conference with the new leadership (nor will there be).
The biggest difference between the ANC and DA's respective events, however, is the level of access to internal party machinations and debates. The media had full access to all policy debates and constitutional amendments at the DA congress – mundane as it was – while every discussion and debate at the ANC's conference took place behind closed doors, more than 500 metres removed from the fourth estate. At the DA congress, WhatsApp was used to confirm face-to-face appointments, at the ANC's conference it was used as the main tool to extract morsels of information.
Of course the stakes in the ANC are much higher. It is the governing party and its policies become government edicts. There is no such danger for the DA.
The race debate in the DA, encapsulated by the (minor) wrangling around the diversity clause inserted into its constitution, could have gone south for the party. The original wording was disputed by two white MPs and contested by some emerging black leaders. Of course it was viewed through the prism of race, as these things normally are, but all role players were readily available to explain the toing and froing around the matter. When the amendment was put to delegates and debate ensued, it happened in full view of the media.
At Nasrec, when delegates almost came to blows over land reform and expropriation without compensation, news about the content and context of the debate emerged in drips and drabs and was then sanitised in a press conference – all because the ANC chooses to have its policy debates away from the prying eyes of the media.
Of course the stakes in the ANC are much higher. It is the governing party and its policies become government edicts. There is no such danger for the DA – they can pretty much construct any policy position knowing that it won't soon become national policy. And the two parties are of course in two vastly different positions: the former in decline and convulsing from internal ruptures, the latter growing and crying out for attention.
A telling difference? At the conclusion of the ANC's conference, delegates launched into the party's rich canon of struggle songs. DA delegates were left jiving to Dr Victor and the Rasta Rebels and "Give Me Hope Jo'anna".
Conferences can be excruciating.