Opinionista Lebo Keswa 8 September 2014

Mbalula: A champion of social cohesion

Sport is a powerful tool that we have so far failed to use effectively to bring people closer together in South Africa. But Fikile Mbalula is changing all that. Why isn’t the ANC taking a leaf out of his book?

Fikile Mbalula is a political survivor and is firmly entrenching himself as a leader in social cohesion. By ensuring that sport is the talk of the town, through his irreverence when it comes to calling for transformation, Mbalula is making a greater contribution to social cohesion than all his political counterparts combined. How I wish at least the Department of Art and Culture would follow suit.

It is not easy to turn a low-profile portfolio into something to behold, but Mbalula has done so with distinction. Compared to all his predecessors since 1994, he has shone, and yet as a society we do not applaud just brilliance.

Mbalula’s journey thus far has taught me that sometimes in politics it’s all about learning to wait your turn. Mbalula’s biggest mistake was to run ahead of his time by contesting uncle Gwede. That was a miscalculation which resulted in egg on his face, but you can be sure a man like Mbalula can not be put down forever. Over the last few months he has turned over a new political leaf, bringing sports into the mainstream political and social discourse in a dynamic manner.

Many might not remember that Mbalula was instrumental in installing Zuma to the ANC presidency in Polokwane, and getting rid of Mbeki. He is an organiser extraordinaire, and was at the forefront of defeating COPE as the biggest threat to the ANC in 2009. He has a strong track record as a political organiser.

His predecessors in sports may be hard to remember. But look at what he has been able to achieve since he became sports minister. It is, in fact, unbelievable. His recent use of Twitter to get conversations going is an initiative that very few in Cabinet have managed to muster. He has gone from not knowing how to spell “Twitter” – like some of us! – to having thousands of followers eating out of his handle every day.

As you may appreciate, the Twitter streets are harsh, and anyone venturing there can hope for a good measure of hostility. So a political leader who ventures there knows that it will not be business as usual. S/he has to engage with those whose views s/he may not always find palatable (one recent example being @sentletse, who refers to Mbalula as Minister of Social Affairs on Twitter). Yet Mbalula handles it with aplomb.

Social cohesion is doing exactly that – building bridges and reaching out to people beyond our comfort zone. As the saying goes, those that are not sick do not need a doctor. Preaching at political meetings of the converted is not the way to build a new nation. The ANC in Gauteng learned the hard way that neglecting the needs of the middle class can be politically costly. In a strange way, Mbalula’s venture into the Twittersphere as the lion’s den of the middle class is a small act that indicates what bigger strategy the ANC should deploy in dealing with fading support amongst the middle classes.

It is crucial that the ANC replicates what Mbalula is doing. There are many leaders of the ANC who do not bother to engage with youth on social media. This is a big mistake, and a leaf must be taken out of Mbalula’s book to engage where it matters. Rumour has it that there are some who are considering Mbalula as a candidate to lead the Gauteng province. I think, once again, this will be a big mistake. Campaigning using his current position must be Mbalula’s focus ahead of the next ANC conference. Going into Gauteng to rattle the cage of David Makhura is not a good idea, as it is there is the dilemma of whether the demoted Paul Mashatile will not be fighting for his life there. ANC chairpersonship may well be the only lifeline left for Mashatile, and Mbalula would be well advised not to contest him.

Sport is a powerful tool that we have so far failed to use effectively to bring people closer together. Since Nelson Mandela, Mbalula is the next best thing that has happened to the use of sports as a tool of social cohesion in our country. It must therefore go beyond PR gimmicks and must be sustained through an agenda of fundamental change in sports, a subject that’s close to the hearts of many people in South Africa – wherever they fall on the political spectrum. Such a mission needs a dynamic champion, and Mbalula fits that bill. Having said that, I hope he has presidential ambitions, since he’s got my vote – unless, of course a female candidate competes for the position. DM

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