South Africa

ANALYSIS

Fit to serve? Fikile Mbalula’s dizzyingly weird power of staying in power

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula. (Photos: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo / Lefty Shivambu)

The transport minister’s strange/erratic behaviour may be a consequence of his being allowed to act in this way for many years with no visible checks on his conduct.

Over the weekend, in what was perhaps an attempt to attract some kind of weird attention, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula claimed to have “landed in Ukraine”. He was — obviously — lying. While this is just one example of strange/erratic behaviour on Mbalula’s part, his conduct in recent times may be both a symbol and a symptom of what is acceptable in our politics, and of how dramatically this has changed. 

Mbalula’s Twitter history could also serve as an example of how a person in the current Cabinet can give the impression they don’t care much about their duties. That they are more focused on other issues, even as people in South Africa have to deal with the consequences of this lack of interest and the apparent lack of action. Mbalula’s behaviour may be a consequence of the fact that he has been allowed to act in this way for many years with no visible checks on his conduct.

It turns out that should no boundaries be placed on a young lion’s behaviour, consequences will follow.

On Saturday afternoon, Mbalula tweeted: “Just landed in Ukraine”. There was no explanation, no other data, and no justification for landing in a country currently under attack by Russia.

His next tweet, on Sunday, said, in capital letters: “INSPECTION at DLTC IN GAUTENG AND AWARENESS ON LICENCE EXTENSION LOOMING DEADLINE”.

This suggests that either his first tweet was not true or that he had access to a method of transport faster than anything known to humankind.

On Monday morning, when he was asked about his tweet, he failed to provide any explanation, telling Newzroom Afrika’s Ziyanda Ngcobo: “No, I’m not going to comment on that.”

Eh?

His failure to explain himself is going to invite speculation and perhaps derision for his tweet in the first place. It is clear he was not in Ukraine. So then why did he state that he was?

The answer may lie in what appears to be a deep-seated desire for attention or further inebriation.

Mbalula has a track record of this kind of behaviour.

Recently, during a meeting with taxi bosses, he used offensive language, complete with sexual analogies. He later apologised. But not before the South African Council of Churches had said it would communicate with President Cyril Ramaphosa to ask that a code of conduct for public comments by Cabinet ministers be drawn up.

Before that, during the run-up to the ANC’s Nasrec conference, he changed his Twitter profile to “Mr Fear Fokol”. When he became transport minister, he changed it again to Mr Fix.

Many would claim that so far he has, in the real world, Fixed Fokol.

But this is also a symptom of what is seen in our politics, where those who occupy high office do not appear to show enough interest in their portfolio, thus breaking their oath of office. Rather, they appear preoccupied with many other issues.

Over the past two years, the number of issues affecting SA’s transport sector has grown dramatically.

Last week the mining company Exxaro said that it had lost out on R5-billion worth of exports because of problems with Transnet, mainly related to our railway network’s sorry state.

Meanwhile, during the hard lockdown, major parts of our railway infrastructure were literally stolen, taken apart in broad daylight.

Around the country, potholes have become a defining feature of our roads

And many people are not able to get their driver’s licence cards simply because of the way the system has been mismanaged over the past few years, to the point where there is just one machine that can print the cards.

Despite all of this, Mbalula has chosen to deliver a puzzling tweet about Ukraine and then failed to explain his tweet.

The roots of this strange behaviour go back many years.

It was while he was the leader of the ANC Youth League that he developed a reputation for fiery language and for not sticking to the truth.

Once, in 2007, he claimed that to go to the University of KwaZulu-Natal was to see an institution that was “nothing but Bombay”. He then denied the comment, only to be confronted by the audio of both his statement and the context, recorded by this reporter for Eyewitness News.

No action was taken against him.

No one should be surprised, then, with Mbalula’s echoes in Julius Malema’s anti-Indian rhetoric of the past many years.

Again, in 2017, Mbalula was implicated in the plan for the police to purchase a “grabber”, a device designed to tap phone calls, ahead of the Nasrec conference. He was the police minister at the time. The outgoing National Police Commissioner, Kehla Sithole, claims it was originally Mbalula’s idea.

Also in that year, the Public Protector found that, while minister of sport, he had benefited illegally from money given to him by a sporting goods supplier.

Again, no action was taken against him.

Instead, he was reappointed to the Cabinet and rewarded with one of the most important portfolios, transport.

Just last year he tweeted about Cogta Minister Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, tweeting a picture of her with other Nasrec leadership candidates. He had to apologise for claiming that Zuma had believed “his wife will win”.

Dlamini Zuma was furious and reportedly did not accept his apology.

And still, no action was taken.

Through all of this, there have been other big changes in our politics which perhaps explain his survival.

It is impossible to imagine Nelson Mandela allowing a Cabinet minister to behave in this way. Indeed, he removed his ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela from her position as a deputy minister simply for questioning his government’s policies.

Again, it is impossible to imagine former president Thabo Mbeki allowing this conduct either. He fired a deputy health minister, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, ostensibly for taking a foreign trip without telling him (though the real reason was assumed to be her disagreement with his HIV-Aids policies).

All of this changed with the arrival of Jacob Zuma to the presidency.

Mbalula was a key player in his rise to power, acting as a cheerleader and leader of the ANC Youth League in the run-up to the 2007 Polokwane conference.

His fiery language was rewarded with him getting the position of deputy minister of police.

Meanwhile, the lack of action against him probably served as an inspiration for Julius Malema, who took over the ANC Youth League from Mbalula, announcing his arrival on the national stage by stating he was prepared “to kill for Zuma”.

Zuma’s lack of action against Malema inspired him further, perhaps sowing the seeds of his creation of the breakaway party, the EFF.

All of this leads to several questions, perhaps the most important of which is: Is there any boundary, real or fictitious, which would entail a Cabinet minister losing their job if they cross it?

Mbalula obviously lied when he claimed to have “landed in Ukraine” during the absolute swirl that is the Russian invasion and also the accompanying confusion around South Africa’s position on the invasion.

Other Cabinet ministers have committed similar offences. Recently, Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu condemned the ANC’s policy, insulted judges and suggested the President was lying and that his media team was “mischievous”. No action was taken against her.

Again, would she have made those comments if action had been taken against other people in Cabinet in the past?

This is part of a trend.

David Mahlobo is still the deputy minister of human settlements despite his actions while he was the minister of state security during the Zuma era, which included playing a role in the jamming of cellphone signals in Parliament in 2015.

Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula was allowed to keep her job as defence minister despite smuggling a young woman into the country from Burundi on a government plane and being curiously unresponsive in the July 2021 KZN and Gauteng rioting. When the time came for her to be removed, she was “punished” with the position of Speaker of the National Assembly.

Nathi Mthethwa has remained minister of sport, arts and culture despite facing severe criticism for his alleged lack of action for people in his sector during the hard lockdown.

With all of this, is there any reason to expect action against Mbalula now?

This demonstrates the weakness of the political centre that appears to be struggling to hold, and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s own perceived lack of constituency.

No matter what the ministers do, his action against them could change the balance of power in the ANC in some way, triggering possible greater and more serious consequences.

And so people just remain, no matter what they do or don’t do.

It is easy to laugh off Mbalula. The man gives the impression he should not be taken seriously. But his behaviour and the fact he gets away with it may show how our politics has changed and how this kind of conduct is now seen merely as weird, but not disqualifying.

Yeah, we know, it does sound crazy. DM

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All Comments 13

  • Rude, uncouth, greedy, incompetent, dishonest, heartless are just some of the adjectives that apply yo most of the cabinet – and it’s not that nothing happens, it does – they carry on benefiting from our taxpayers’ money. An appalling state of affairs that could make the state fail.

  • Confabulation is the process whereby someone, when required to attest to realities they don’t have access to, make it up. Mbalula, like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, is a default confabulator.

    He only accepts reports of realities if they fit in with his personal orthodoxies – correct beliefs – and may incorporate them.

    He then declares what any inaccessible reality ought to be, according to his internal map of the outside world.

    When a default confabulator, compulsive fantasist, has substantial influence over common discourse so that their made-up fables are taken to be real, if enough people believe them to be correct, they enter common orthodoxy, and become socially real, accepted truths. If those people act upon them, they become socially occurrent.

    If people around the confabulator don’t recognise confabulation, perhaps because they themselves are default confabulators, then there is nothing to stop rise to power. In any hierarchical organisation, when elevations is not due to superior competence, better bullsh*t wins.

    The efficacy of confabulation is illustrated by “Just landed in Ukraine”.
    In Mbalula’s brain, he doesn’t have a representation, memory, of not doing it, so that’s not real, so he supplies an account of what he wishes it to be, believing it to be so, which then becomes his true memory of it.

    Because that kind of memory blank for our own experiences isn’t available to us, we can’t believe that he is deluding himself in that way. We can only go be its evident ludicrousness, its phenomenal impossibility.

    What Maverick attempts to do is report true-life realities, things that actually occur, so that we can incorporate them into our overall reality maps as phenomenally valid, empirically attested. Then we can generate hypothetical representations that are possibly real, rather than confabulate what can’t be real, actual.

    Default confabulators infest our political and social lives to all our detriments.

    Note that confabulation is not lying: a liar knows the realities they deny; a confabulator doesn’t. Judgment of a confabulation isn’t about its truth or reality, but on whether you like it, it fits your own prejudices.

  • The ranting about the ANC in all it’s formations need to be followed up with alternative options otherwise we will continue to hit out at flies while the heap of rot remain in place. Start cleaning up in your own community by exposing poor delivery, when local politicians are exposed eventually the good will filter to the top. A change in Minister, President or political party will not bring change local active citizens will.

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