South Africa

ANALYSIS

Consistency, truth and the ANC’s Fikile Mbalula Problem

Consistency, truth and the ANC’s Fikile Mbalula Problem
ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Deaan Vivier)

While many look forward to the post-2024 election political landscape, the ANC remains by far its most consequential factor. And, after the president, the most important person within the ANC is usually the secretary-general. Fikile Mbalula is in a position where he could alter the trajectory of the party and potentially the entire country. But recent events suggest that what he says cannot be entirely relied upon, posing a significant danger to the party.

The history of the ANC reveals just how important the position of secretary-general is. There was a time when some people believed Gwede Mantashe, in that position, was the most powerful person in South Africa.

At other times, it was the situation in that office that determined the difference between cohesion and disunity in the ANC. In short, all disputes — between individuals, branches, regions, provinces and leagues — end up in this office. It is often the secretary-general who decides who wins and who loses, and on which technical points.

This is why Mbalula is so important. And yet.

It is also why it is so important for the secretary-general to be consistent and tell the truth. As is often stated, politics is about the message. In the case of Mbalula, he will not be able to succeed as ANC secretary-general unless his word is trusted, his threats have a bite, and he is seen as a steady hand on the tiller in perennially turbulent waters.

Crucially, the ANC secretary-general must be careful to ensure harmony in the top leadership of the ANC, otherwise the organisation will crumble into warring factions.

Several recent incidents suggest that Mbalula is finding this difficult.

First, there was Mbalula’s comment that the ANC chair, Gwede Mantashe, was wrong to “defy” President Cyril Ramaphosa and refuse to attend a signing ceremony involving several European leaders. 

For the secretary-general to take on such a senior ANC leader in public is almost unheard of. And it was an empty comment, as it is unimaginable that Ramaphosa will remove Mantashe. 

Then came his comments about Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan.

Speaking at the ANC Women’s League conference, Mbalula said he was telling Gordhan “to move faster or we will move you”.

This was interpreted as an order for Gordhan to resolve the Transnet Freight Rail issue (where a Chinese SOE is refusing to provide maintenance services for Transnet while the SA Revenue Service insists that the company pays it R3.6-billion) or be fired from Cabinet.

That forced the ANC to issue a public statement clarifying the comments.

‘That minister cried so much’

Then Mbalula said in isiXhosa what has been translated by TimesLIVE as: “That minister cried so much, I had to change my position and issue a statement. That minister cried and complained to the president; why am I singling him out?”

He went on to say that ANC National Executive Committee member Derek Hanekom was a “freelancer” and that he was going to attend to “that freelancer”. Hanekom had commented about Mbalula’s earlier statements on Twitter.

This suggests that Mbalula was rebuked by Ramaphosa for his Gordhan comments and that it was Ramaphosa who instructed the ANC’s communications machinery to dial back the comments.

Normally, the ANC’s spokespeople and communications machinery are under the control of the secretary-general. This suggests that either Ramaphosa overruled Mbalula directly, or he ordered Mbalula to issue that clarification himself.

And finally, over this last weekend, Mbalula released a statement claiming that registration delays at the ANC Veterans’ League conference were responsible for his speech starting two hours late.

News24 reported that the league’s leader, Snuki Zikalala, then told Ramaphosa that in fact the speech was delayed because Mbalula arrived late.

On Monday morning, Zikalala told SAfm that Mbalula had not lied, but that there had been a misunderstanding and the entire thing was a storm in teacup.

But considering Mbalula’s non-reputation for punctuality, people will be forgiven for having different views on what really occurred.

No one who paid any attention to Mbalula’s career before he was elected to this position will be surprised by any of this.

A reputation for diplomacy (not)

The closest he has ever come to having a reputation for diplomacy was his non-trip to Ukraine as Russia launched its invasion there.

He once had to apologise for comments he made, under no pressure whatsoever, while addressing taxi drivers. The SA Council of Churches felt so aggrieved they publicly asked if ministers needed guidelines for speaking in public.

And, of course, there is the finding that he received money from a sporting goods businessperson, which he spent on a family holiday to Dubai.

All of this may lead to questions about his credibility. But perhaps even more important than that, it will lead to questions about whether the voice of the ANC can be trusted.

For example, one of the most pressing questions at this moment is whether the ANC will work in a coalition with the EFF. Investors, businesspeople and the DA will probably base some of their most important decisions on the answer to this question.

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This makes any public comment by any official in the ANC vitally important.

For some, when Mbalula says that the ANC must pull out of its cooperation agreements with the EFF in Gauteng metros because, “We can’t go with people who want to see us out of power”, this means that the ANC won’t work with the EFF in national government.

But, in the past, Mbalula and EFF leader Julius Malema have worked closely together. Sometimes their rhetoric has resonated, and the occasional photographic evidence of a social relationship between them has emerged.

Before he suddenly started supporting everything Ramaphosa did, Mbalula campaigned as a radical and was in the very centre of Jacob Zuma’s support faction ahead of the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007.

How can his word be trusted?

This makes the question of whether Mbalula really wants to end the ANC’s relationship with the EFF difficult to assess. While he may now be saying that he wants to end these agreements, how can his word be trusted?

Mbalula’s recent comments also create other problems.

It is well known that the secretary-general of the ANC plays an important role in any Cabinet reshuffle. In some cases, it’s been reported they were present when ministers were told of their appointment or removal. Their job was to represent the party, to make the point that the decision about a particular minister was a decision of the party, and not just the President (even though, strictly legally, this is entirely up to the President).

And, when the secretary-general of the ANC has disagreed with the President on a reshuffle, it’s been a sign the party’s top leadership disagrees with the President — as happened with Jacob Zuma’s sacking of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister in 2015 and of Pravin Gordhan in 2017.

This shows that comments made by an ANC secretary-general about Cabinet ministers really matter. If ministers feel they do not have the support of the party, they simply cannot govern. And they need this support consistently.

This is the risk that Mbalula is taking, that once no one believes his word, his powers will disappear.

While this may be self-harming, the damage is not limited to him.

Because of the position he holds, every ill-judged utterance by Mbalula will damage the ANC itself. Based on his previous track record, there are likely to be many more to come. How it will affect the party that he aspires to fully lead one day, remains to be seen. Our guess is, not well. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    “it will lead to questions about whether the voice of the ANC can be trusted.”

    Let me help short circuit the need for questions:

    The voice of the ANC can’t be trusted; our beautiful South Africa is literally drowning in empirical evidence of this simple fact.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    Is Mbalula Trustworthy?
    Is The Pope Jewish?

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    What a bunch of Palukas! The whole lot of them! So infantile and ridiculous – it’s an embarrassment to those of us footing the bill!

  • Heinrich Holt says:

    Frikkie mostly provides entertainment value. Period.

  • Peter Oosthuizen says:

    If his lips are moving, he’s lying.

  • Hilary Morris says:

    “Once” no one believes his word? Has anyone ever believed a word Mr Fokol says? He and the ANC deserve one another. He is the perfect person to be the Secretary General. He reflects the chaos, the indecision, the pass-the-buck-ism, the delays, the incompetence, the jobs-for-pals regardless of (in)ability. Mbalula is there precisely to reflect what he does – the ANC in all its’ glory.

  • Andy Miles says:

    The key words in this article are – “otherwise the organisation will crumble into warring factions”. That is precisely what it should do. In a functioning democracy these ANC factions would be political parties each following their own beliefs. Instead we have one ANC with unmanageable factions with irreconcilable differences – too broad a church – held together with the toxic glue of self interest and corrupt deal making for power and wealth. Any common sense reading of the Constitution and its intentions would surely render the ANC as unconstitutional and thus presumably illegal? Further, I contend that an evaluation of what is required to be successful in the ANC, and what is required to perform in Government are in no way aligned. The “school and university” of the ANC produce “cadres” for the greater good of the ANC, or as it has become the ANC faction to which one is aligned. It does not produce public servants. We are a long way off track to building a democracy and in respect of the ANC being able to run any form effective and efficient Government for the good of South Africans. The empirical evidence is overwhelming.

  • Rozanne Tonkin says:

    His appointment to Secretary General in the ANC was shocking considering his track record of failure as the previous minister of police and transport. Maybe they didn’t know what else to do with him?

  • Peter Holmes says:

    Stephen, you are a master of understatement. To quote you (above) on Mbalula “But recent events suggest that what he says cannot be entirely relied upon”. What a diplomatic ways of saying that this individual habitually lies through his teeth!

  • Ritchie Morris says:

    The “will not be able to succeed as ANC secretary-general unless his word is trusted, his threats have a bite, and he is seen as a steady hand on the tiller in perennially turbulent waters.” If the ANC wanted an effective SG, Mbalula would never have been appointed to this position. Half the time what he says does not make sense and the other half of the time he opens his mouth to change feet.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    I’ve said it repeatedly: Mbalula is the most inept buffoon in post-apartheid politics. He has achieved the square root of fokol in any post he’s occupied, although that’s no different to most ANC ministers. But FixFokol actually believes his own BS about what a great leader he is, despite the overwhelming evidence that he’s a serial failure, and the bottom of the heap of a party of serial failures. As with the majority of those on the left of SA’s political spectrum, they confuse bombast with decisiveness; puerile name-calling for political strength; populist, popgun soundbites for withering intellect; and tired, revolutionary rhetoric for great policy: they’re stuck in a 1950’s Stalinist inspired Groundhog Day, whilst South Africa collapses around them.

  • Patrick Devine says:

    The cadres are mostly just empty suits that mumble stuff they hardly understand and live in a world where failure, venality, mis management and corruption are ok.

    If you recall the ‘fake deaf signer’, the cadres think if you look the part, Italian suits, German cars, Swiss watches & Scotch Whisky, you obviously can do the job.

  • Brian Doyle says:

    He was not named Flip Flop for nothing. He does not tell the truth as well as being one of the most incompetent minister in whichever position he occupied, and he has carried on with that in his present position

  • Michael Evans says:

    This arrogant buffoon must have been one of our worst cabinet ministers when he was minister of transport. He oversaw all the corruption and ineptitude. Yet I have heard reliably that he wants to become the next President of the country when Ramaphosa stands down, and for that reason he is already having a go at Paul Mashitile. Hopefully we never get to the point where one of those two is the option for President. That will take us back to the Zuma era, or worse.

  • Gordon Pascoe says:

    Let’s thank our lucky stars that he is no longer a minister.

  • Sam Shu says:

    I fail to see the value of this article. We know minister fear fokol is a liar and blows whichever way the wind blows. The analysis of the impact on the ANC and/or South Africa? No different to the chaos of today. The makeup of the cabinet, etc.,? irrelevant. We have proven incompetence and corruption at all levels.

  • Cachunk Cachunk says:

    How can we have such a bunch of illiterate, moronic, incompetent, corrupt, racist, inarticulate, uneducated, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-democratic, insensitive, unstrategic, shortsighted, lazy, self-serving, pocket-lining, ass-licking, unethical, moral-lacking, bottom-feeding scum as our “leadership pool”?! Come on South Africa, wake-up!!!

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Writing about this moron is a waste of time.

  • Geoff Woodruff says:

    Mbalula is a classic example of a man who “runs with the hare and hunts with the hounds” To make things worse, he appears to be extremely dim also.

  • Bruce Q says:

    Clearly, some folks in the ANC know what they are doing.
    They are very aware that the ANC is a failed party that cannot be repaired.
    They have decided the ANC’s sell-by date has long gone.
    They needed to install someone in the position of DG who would ensure the required demise of the party.
    They found the perfect candidate and installed the much loved fool of fools:
    Mr. Fix Fokal Frikkie Baffoonalula.
    Pour those folks a Bells!

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