Opinionista Chris Vick 31 October 2011

Has Mbalula become the ANC’s latest political Icarus?

Two weeks ago, the only thing on Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula’s mind was probably who was threatening to kill him for investigating who really runs South African cricket. A week ago, his attention would have shifted to wondering why the promise of him becoming police minister had not materialised because of ANC in-fighting. Today, he could use his political sense and join the dots and work out why a burst condom is causing him so much trouble – and earns him headlines such as “Mbalula in sex scandal”.

Fikile Mbalula, simply put, has become the latest political Icarus to fly too close to the sun.

On the face of it, the fact that he impregnated someone who may have a history of blackmailing political leaders should be of little consequence. Particularly to a media that is trying to present itself as being responsible, sober-minded and objective in the midst of conversations around a media appeals tribunal – and which recognises that the closer we get to the ANC’s Mangaung conference, the more we’re going to experience what comedian Loyiso Gola describes as “ANC manga-manga business” (dodgy shit, for the uninformed).

After all, extra-marital affairs are no novelty when it comes to politicians. Nor, truth be told, are they a novelty when it comes to journalists and editors. So why the moral outrage at this dose of hanky-panky, replete with burst condoms, furtive SMSes and townhouse trysts. And why is it suddenly so newsworthy?

Thus Jacques Rousseau’s comment in a tweet on Sunday afternoon, which was retweeted by Business Day editor Peter Bruce: “I’m quite surprised to find that knowing Mbalula is an unfaithful husband is in my (i.e. the public) interest.”

City Press’ front-page rationale for breaking the “sex scandal” was that Mbalula’s behaviour “directly contradicts comments made by him at a World Aids Day gathering… at which Mbalula appealed to the youth to be faithful to their partners”.

In an interview outside court on Saturday afternoon – where they had fended off an attempted Mbalula interdict – City Press staff told etv that Mbalula was a role model for the youth and should be exposed for having been hypocritical about not using a condom.

Well done, City Press, for finding us a politician who is a hypocrite.

The problem was that rival newspaper Sunday World had a slightly different angle: that Mbalula was the victim of someone with a history of “doing the Mbalula”, and that her past victims included former presidential spokesman Zizi Kodwa and unnamed others. She had, Sunday World claimed, demanded R40,000 to go away – and had seemingly touted her story around town before City Press took the bait.

But was City Press “had”? Were they sold a line by an extortionist? The newspaper’s leadership will probably have to spend an inordinate amount of time in coming days clarifying their decision to publish. Stand by, 702…

In dealing with the decision to publish, City Press will have to post-mortem the story from all angles, not just from the salacious “gotcha” point of view they seem to have applied so far.

Among other things, and with the beautiful benefit of hindsight, they may have to ask:

  • Did they know that there are other examples of the person in question having tried to blackmail politicians? Sunday World and the Sunday Times, for example, seemed to have little difficulty finding people such as Kodwa to say that the woman had also tried to embarrass them.
  • What is their formal response to the suggestion that they paid the woman for information? Sunday World, for example, published a lengthy email from the woman to Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi waAfrika in which she asked for advice on how to deal with the situation. Included in the email is the sentence: “I hv been receiving calls from someone claiming to be from City Press saying I shld sell them my story”.
  • Were they being spun by people who are opposed to Mbalula’s ambitions, or did those people help to trigger getting this issue into the public domain?
  • Crucially, did City Press factor in the possibility that this is part of a concerted campaign to discredit Mbalula at a time when he is not only eyeing a senior post in the ANC leadership, but is cracking down on manga-manga business in South African sport?
  • If they did, should City Press not have put this context into at least one of the several articles they published –knowing how the media has been used in the past to make or break potential leaders, and knowing that the ANC elective conference dominates the current political discourse?
  • Did they comply with the “new” Press Code which was published earlier this month (seemingly to convince the ANC that media is more self-critical and circumspect about what it reports, and when)? In particular, does it meet the criteria in section five, which states that the press “shall exercise exceptional care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation, bearing in mind that any right to privacy may be overridden on only by a legitimate public interest”? Is hypocrisy, for example, in the public interest?

Sunday World and the Sunday Times probably have a few questions to answer themselves – for example, why did the Sunday Times hide behind an abridged version of Sunday World’s story and not run their own article – particularly given that an email was sent by the woman in question to one of their journalists? And does Sunday World not run the risk of being seen to whitewash the issue for Mbalula?

As Angela Quintal, former editor of The Mercury who is taking up the editorship of The Witness this week, puts it: “The facts may differ, but [there are] some similarities with the Sunday all those years ago when different JZ/Kwezi versions appeared in papers” – a reference to the speed with which the Mbeki and Zuma spin machines went into action when allegations of rape were first made against Jacob Zuma.

There is no doubt that the media will face some stern tests in coming months with the release of the Donen Commission report, the reopening of the arms deal and who knows what manner of personal or political scandal dropping out of the next tree.

Ultimately, journalists are going to have to consistently ask themselves what the motives are of the people who blow whistles in their face.

And they will do well to remember the case of deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, whose own reputation was dragged through the mud a couple of years ago when the Sunday Independent suddenly revealed details of a “love affair” – and then backed down once the motives of some of those involved became clear.

Because at the back of all this, there’s a broader, political question: why would anyone want to pick on Fikile Mbalula?

The recent Cabinet reshuffle provides a useful reference point.

The ANC NEC was recently provided with testimony that members of the Gupta family had clear knowledge and insight into the 2010 Zuma Cabinet reshuffle. In a frank review of the state of the movement, some NEC members told, for example, how the Guptas had informed them who was going to be moved, and who wasn’t, several days before the reshuffle actually took place.

The 2011 Zuma Cabinet reshuffle also has the hallmarks of Gupta knowledge: the family-owned New Age published an accurate prediction on the morning of the day it was announced. And, from a close reading of this week’s Sunday World, it appears that the reshuffle was supposed to include the movement of Mbalula to the powerful position of police minister – but that this was blocked due to some unexplained “internal pressure”.

But why would someone want to block the advancement of one of the most energetic, focussed and assertive young members of the ANC’s leadership cadre?

Firstly, Mbalula has an extremely close relationship with Julius Malema, man of the moment, who threw down the mother of all gauntlets with his march on the Union Buildings this week. So if you strike Mbalula, you strike Malema.

Secondly, Mbalula is the most articulate challenger to Zuma’s point man in Luthuli House, Gwede Mantashe, and is by default key to driving the campaign against a second Zuma term.

Thirdly, he is beginning to crack down on corruption and stick his nose in an area that Zuma’s friends, the Gupta family, might prefer he left alone: South African cricket, replete with allegations of corruption which can be traced back to the deal – brokered by the Guptas – to host the Indian Premier League.

The Mail & Guardian alluded to the nexus of these struggles a couple of weeks ago, when deputy editor Rapule Tabane commented as follows:

“When our reporters decided to dig deeper into Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula’s affairs and his interactions with Cricket South Africa this week, they stumbled on a familiar player in our body politic: the Gupta family. 

“It was a bit of a surprise finding in this unfamiliar terrain, but the information pointed to the family’s interest and influence in the administration of sport and its not-so-great relationship with Mbalula. 

“But the name was there all right and, suddenly, an inquiry into some cricket administrators who did not want their finances probed had ANC Mangaung 2012 connotations.”

The conclusion made by Tabane – a protégé of Haffajee during her time as Mail & Guardian editor – is that “the era of innuendo, hinting and allegations has recently gone into overdrive”

So are we seeing a resurgence of dirty tricks? Are we seeing a resurgence of the hand of the Guptas? Or are we seeing both – and is Mbalula the Icarus who flew too close to the Gupta sun?

The answer may lie in Tabane’s column, where he observes:

“Recently, when National Intelligence Agency head Gibson Njenje had a fall-out with Intelligence Minister Siyabonga Cwele and subsequently announced that he was quitting the agency, it emerged he was uncomfortable that he was being asked to spy on political opponents of the dominant faction of the ruling party. 

“It also came to light that the people who had complained about him to the President were none other than the Guptas…”

Maybe the woman he burst a condom with did have genuine motives in asking for R40,000 to go away.

Maybe it is time someone blew the whistle on the philandering activities of South African politicians – because maybe Mbalula’s part-time lover is right when she says: “Certain government officials promise young girls business in return 4 sexual favours.”

Maybe it’s unacceptable that a minister has sex with someone while he’s briefly estranged from his wife and that he “could be used to sleeping around without protection & forgetting about them”.

Maybe it’s time other politicians learnt a lesson from all of this when it comes to their sexual conduct – and favours.

But maybe it’s also time we took a step back, looked at a potentially salacious lead story from all angles, and asked those basic journalistic questions: Who? What? Where? When? How? And, most importantly, Why? DM



Vick has previously worked as Tokyo Sexwale’s PR consultant and political advisor. He now runs his own communication company Code Black.

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