ANTHONY BUTLER: A polarising figure with a narrative for all occasions
What matters about Fikile Mbalula is not his ministerial performance or colourful personal life but his parallel ANC career as talented fixer, spin doctor, organiser and campaigner
First published in BusinessLive
3 February 2023
Recently elected ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula is a polarising figure. To his critics he is a clown who messed up his cabinet portfolios. To his champions he is an organisational genius and a breath of fresh air in a political world short on charisma.
Now 52, Mbalula rose through ANC youth politics in Botshabelo, Free State, in the late 1980s and early 90s. He emerged at the start of the democratic era as a provincial youth league secretary before rising to the league’s presidency.
A protégé of firebrand and Thabo Mbeki loyalist Peter Mokaba, “Mbaks”, as he was widely known, switched sides to join the coalition that swept Jacob Zuma into power at Polokwane. Bequeathing his youth league leadership to Julius Malema, he rose rapidly to deputy police minister and then sports & recreation minister from 2010 to 2017. In this role he rebranded himself as “Razzmatazz” and energetically pursued the Commonwealth and Olympic Games.
He fared less well after 2017 in the more consequential roles of police and then transport minister. Rebranding himself as “Mr Fearfokol”, Mbalula seemed wedded to government by tweet, even in sensitive positions where this was inappropriate.
Meanwhile, across his ministerial career he starred in comic sideshows that kept him in the public eye. He was famously “kidnapped” by fellow ANC leaders Tony Yengeni, Nyami Booi and Mcebisi Skwatsha in 2008, and forced to undergo ritual circumcision in the undergrowth of Philippi in the Cape.
After a brief affair that resulted in a pregnancy, Mbalula, a public champion of safe sex, regaled the nation with unhappily detailed accounts of exploding condoms. A former special adviser to Mbalula also made startling claims about the then police minister’s alleged involvement in efforts to procure eavesdropping “signal grabbers” in advance of the ANC’s December 2017 conference.
However, Mbalula’s significance does not derive from his ministerial performance or his colourful personal life. What matters about Mbaks is his parallel career inside the ANC, as a talented fixer, spin doctor, organiser and campaigner.
The “state of disaster” narratives that emerged from the ANC’s national executive lekgotla on Monday bore Mbalula’s imprimatur. As the ANC starts on its year-long election campaign its strategy, directed by Mbalula and deputy secretary-general Nomvula Mokonyane, is going to be a multi-pronged attempt to deflect blame for the power crisis.
He has portrayed Eskom’s “code red” status as something unexpected, like a natural weather event. He insisted that under a state of disaster “experts” will be in charge, not ministers — meaning these same experts will be the ones to castigate when the lights stay off. Best of all, he has implied, with just a grain of truth, that a key problem has been too many Treasury regulations that prevent political leaders from implementing their turnaround visions.
The secretary-general also promised no power outages by “the end of the year”, which we can take as a decision that maintenance will take second place to ANC popularity in the run-up to next year’s elections.
Cyril Ramaphosa may well be dependent on Mbalula’s political capabilities if he wishes to remain SA president in 2024. At the same time, the secretary-general has been a Mbeki supporter and a Zuma loyalist, and he will quickly become an advocate for the merits of a Paul Mashatile presidency if circumstances require this.
If the ANC decides it needs to work with the EFF next year, Mbalula will be the key facilitator with his old friend Malema. If the liberation movement decides it wants to get rid of Ramaphosa along the way, Mbalula will be on hand to trash his record, while conjuring up a fresh narrative for the new leadership.
• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.