The district of Mangaung has shifted gear.
Green, black and gold colours greet you at every turn. The streets of the Mangaung municipality are now constantly packed with cars, buses and taxis. Tattered flags no longer flutter on the popular Nelson Mandela Drive, and even though the vuvuzelas are still there they are no longer the main attraction. It’s a quick drive through this town but even then it’s impossible to miss the vibe. There’s something electric in the air.
It’s such a departure from the Mangaung I experienced two weeks ago; back then the people didn’t seem too sure of their feelings about this conference, the state of the country’s leadership and even whether they believed their city was capable of hosting more than 20,000 people.
But now African National Congress members can be seen everywhere in the political party’s trademark shades, while the University of the Free State is an incredible hub of activity, with something to do, someone to chat to, ideologies to discuss and the ANC’s history to dissect. It’s a trip to the town’s popular 2nd Avenue and a viewing of Nelson Mandela’s statue on Naval Hill that reveals just how much of a buzz Bloem is currently experiencing.
Go to any of the popular bars and eateries and you’ll see the party's famous berets and banners welcoming ANC delegates. The first thing that jumped out at me was how difficult it had suddenly become to get a table, and when one finally became available I was served by someone so drained and taken aback by the volumes they had been experiencing since the start of the week of the conference that, she couldn’t hide her expression of disbelief. This waitress even said, “Tjo! This is a little bit crazy. I knew it was going to be busy but I didn’t expect anything this hectic.” Her colleagues who ended up passing by my table started sharing their celeb spotting tales with me. One went on to gush about bumping into legendary Kwaito artist Arthur Mafokate and seeing someone who looked like former presidential spokesperson Zizi Kodwa walking past their restaurant. She said she still had pictures of his wedding someone once mailed her. She couldn’t believe they were walking the streets of Mangaung.
I eventually decided to take a short drive away from there and found myself at Naval Hill, a beautiful and peaceful spot that’s almost removed in character from the city it lies within. I’m told it’s the only game reserve to be found in a city in the world. The reason for my drive though was a new addition to the hill’s landscape - the biggest statue of former president Nelson Mandela. As everyone keeps declaring, “It’s bigger than the one in Trafalgar Square or the one at Mandela Square.” It’s this tribute to Madiba that’s attracting as much attention as the conference itself. Unveiled just a few days before Jacob Zuma opened the conference, it has managed to boost tourism in the area and add to the air of excitement that seems to have put Bloemfontein under a spell of sorts. Families, friends, lovers and all sorts of people across our country’s rainbow spectrum have been left in awe of the statue which overlooks a city carrying so much of the ANC’s history.
The elective conference will be over by the end of the week and by then everyone, it seems, will have a completely different view of this city.