Days of Zondo

Fikile ‘Fearfokkol’ Mbalula tripped up by semantics of his Gupta-fix tale

By Jessica Bezuidenhout 22 March 2019
Caption
Then Minister of Sport, Fikile Mbalula.
Photo: South African Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula addresses a media conference in Cape Town

Former Cabinet minister Fikile Mbalula has denied withholding key information about the Gupta hand in his appointment as the Minister of Sport and Recreation during a 2016 interview with the former Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela.

Testifying at the Zondo commission into State Capture, Fikile Mbalula confirmed a controversial Gupta call ahead of his appointment –but was grilled about why he repeatedly emphasised that it was former president Jacob Zuma who appointed him to Cabinet during that interview.

Senior advocate Leah Gcabashe interrogated him about a string of inconsistencies in his version to Madonsela against what he has now told the State Capture Commission.

Mbalula said he did not believe they were inconsistencies. Instead, he said, in his interview with Madonsela, he stood accused of having been a Gupta appointee to Cabinet.

As a result, he had framed his responses to draw the distinction between his official appointment by the former president against an earlier congratulatory call from Ajay Gupta.

Mbalula said the Gupta patriarch had called him in 2010, ahead of a Cabinet reshuffle, to congratulate him on being the new sport minister.

Left stunned, he testified that he immediately shared this information with a “comrade” who was with him at the time.

In what he described as a brief conversation, the Gupta brother introduced himself on the phone and then allegedly told Mbalula of his appointment to Cabinet.

I was told I would be minister of sport and it happened.”

But Mbalula waited about 10 months before finding an opportunity to share this personal Gupta experience with the ANC during an NEC meeting at which the influence of the Guptas on the party came up for informal discussion

Zuma was present at the meeting.

I confronted them in a meeting of the ANC’s highest decision making body.”

You could hear a pin drop.” The room went silent and there were those sitting with their heads facing down, he said.

One NEC member stood up and “rubbished” what he had said while there were references to “beer hall” antics by those defending Zuma in the room.

It was not about the Gutpas for me, it was about a ‘tendency’ that could undermine the cause.

I think in the NEC; the majority are Cabinet ministers or deputies. It would have been difficult for them to stand up in relation to the Guptas,” Mbalula said.

But, he did not understand why the warning amounted to nothing in a room of about 80 NEC members.

Instead, he charged, some saw it fit to leak to the media details of his claims, making it sound as though he had confessed to having been appointed by the Guptas. Retired General Siphiwe Nyanda had previously testified to how the ANC’s NEC had turned a blind eye to Mbalula’s claims in 2011.

I raised it at the NEC meeting to illustrate that this thing of the Guptas, them interfering, calling ministers …it is a big problem. I said that one day this would land us in a big crisis.”

This, he said, he told the NEC, was because the Guptas appeared to enjoy powers that not even ordinary members of the ANC have.

A lone voice at that NEC meeting 2011, Mbalula’s confession may have seemed “principled” at some point – it came almost two years before the Guptas Waterkloof aircraft landing in 2013 and years before the #Guptaleaks would see the light of day in 2016 – but his failure to be forthright with Madonsela came back to bite him on Friday.

The Public Protector conducted an investigation into State Capture and in 2016 recommended the establishment of a Judicial Commission of Inquiry currently taking place before deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo.

Justice Zondo said that upon reading the transcript of Mbalula’s interview with the former Public Protector, he was left with the impression that Mbalula ought to have revealed the details of that Gupta call to her – instead of just his address to the NEC.

It looked as if she tried to get the answer, quite a few times, about whether a Gupta brother had told you in advance about the appointment,” Justice Zondo said.

Mbalula said it was unlikely because the purpose of that interview was different, that it had been an attempt to pin him down as a “Gupta appointee”.

The Commission heard snippets from the transcript of Mbalula’s interview with Madonsela in which she clearly tries to engage him on having been informed of his appointment by the Guptas.

I deny that vehemently,” he said.

So you deny that?” Madonsela asks.

Emphatically,” Mbalula said.

He implied during Friday’s testimony that this remained true because, while the Gupta brother had called him ahead of time, he did not technically appoint him.

He maintains he was never “offered” a job and nor did he “accept” such a post.

He was merely called and congratulated because the Guptas appeared to have known about his promotion ahead of time.

Upon re-examination by his counsel, Mbalula was asked to elaborate on the fact that no other NEC member had backed him in that meeting.

He referred to “cowards” who could not raise their opinions about “the elephant in the room,” the Gupta factor.

The silence of his comrades and their alleged failure to support him during the meeting was as an act of “cowardice”, he said.

*The Commission resumes on Monday. DM

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South Africa is in a very real battle. A political fight where terms such as truth and democracy can seem more of a suggestion as opposed to a necessity.

On one side of the battle are those openly willing to undermine the sovereignty of a democratic society, completely disregarding the weight and power of the oaths declared when they took office. If their mission was to decrease society’s trust in government - mission accomplished.

And on the other side are those who believe in the ethos of a country whose constitution was once declared the most progressive in the world. The hope that truth, justice and accountability in politics, business and society is not simply fairy tale dust sprinkled in great electoral speeches; but rather a cause that needs to be intentionally acted upon every day.

However, it would be an offensive oversight not to acknowledge that right there on the front lines, alongside whistleblowers and civil society, stand the journalists. Armed with only their determination to inform society and defend the truth, caught in the crossfire of shots fired from both sides.

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