/ 22 July 2011

Fikile Mbalula: ‘coming man’

Fikile Mbalula: 'coming Man'

Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula is likely to move further up the greasy pole if, as is strongly rumoured, President Jacob Zuma shuffles his Cabinet in the near future.

A range of sources told the Mail & Guardian this week that Mbalula would be promoted to the post of police minister, while the incumbent, Nathi Mthethwa, was likely to move full time to the ministry of co-operative governance and traditional affairs. Mthethwa has held this portfolio in an acting capacity since its minister, Sicelo Shiceka, took sick leave six months ago.

Cabinet shuffles are normally kept a closely guarded secret by the ANC and government, and close aides and those affected by changes are informed just before the official announcement is made.

However, there is a widespread view that Mbalula would be the major beneficiary of a shuffle, confirming his rapid rise through the ranks of the executive.

Watch Sports Minister and senior ANC member Fikile Mbalula field some tough questions about government tenders, the ANC’s position on lifestyle audits and more, in the third and final part of our “Corruption is counter-revolutionary” series.

A former ANC Youth League leader, Mbalula is its candidate to replace ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe at next year’s elective congress in Mangaung.

Approached for comment this week Mbalula said he knew nothing about a possible promotion to the police ministry. “If I’d been informed about it, I would have already moved to that portfolio.”

But sources close to Mbalula said he had received informal inquiries about the Cabinet shuffle rumour at the recent international Olympics committee session in Durban. “He has decided to treat this as a rumour until it’s officially communicated to him,” said one source.

Mbalula became one of the ANC’s youngest deputy ministers in May 2009, moving into the police portfolio straight from a position as ANC elections chief. With no experience as an MP or government official, he rose quickly to a full ministry position when Zuma shuffled the Cabinet nine months ago.

He hit the ground running as sports minister, making several high-profile interventions — notably in the Cricket South Africa leadership battle and the collapse of the Gauteng Lions empowerment deal — moves clearly meant to raise his public ­profile and popularity.

But in a context in which most deputy ministers lived in the shadow of their ministers Mbalula had already become a household name as deputy minister of police.

His main responsibilities were administration and visible policing, which included key crime-fighting campaigns such as “Operation Wanya Tsotsi”, a community-led programme based on the “strategic isolation of criminals” and those who harbour them.

It was this operation that put well-known alleged Pretoria crime kingpin William “Mashobane” Mbatha behind bars after he had evaded prison despite convictions and cases against him over several years.

The ‘well equipped’ minister
Some commentators remarked that Mthethwa’s ambitious underling had more media visibility than he did and relations between the two men were visibly strained.

The youth league’s sponsorship is a powerful factor in Mbalula’s favour and in his rise to full minister and he clearly saw himself as Mthethwa’s senior in the ANC.

In November 2009 a scheduled address by Mbalula to the Pretoria-based National Press Club was cancelled at short notice, reportedly after Mthethwa and national police commissioner Bheki Cele phoned to demand that the minister should not be sidelined by his deputy.

Cele also reportedly ordered that all invitations to Mbalula should go through his office. Earlier, a police parade that Mbalula was due to attend in the Eastern Cape was reportedly cancelled because the minister had not been told about it.

But ministry sources said Mbalula was well equipped for the police portfolio. “Mbalula knows policing. I think he’ll do well in the police because of his decisive leadership. He speaks his mind, he’s a thinker,” said one official.

Doctor Tshwale, who served with Mbalula in the youth league’s national executive committee, described him as an energetic leader who “brings a lot of passion to what he does”.
Not everyone rejoices in Mbalula’s rapid rise through Cabinet ranks. Some have asked why Zuma

continues to promote a man who is being openly touted for the ANC secretary general’s post in a move that would remove Mantashe, the president’s ally. They add that his rise “speaks loudly of political manoeuvring” in which the rewards of higher government office are coupled with moves to weaken him in the party.

The appointment of former Johannesburg mayor Amos Masondo to head Zuma’s Luthuli House office, and of former ANC spokesperson Jessie Duarte to head the party’s new monitoring and evaluation unit, are cited as part of the plan to weaken Mbalula’s ANC role.

“They are promoting him in government but killing him in the ANC. They are already moving some of his responsibilities [as head of campaigns] to Jessie Duarte and Amos Masondo. They know that even if he shines in government they will have organisational control, which is where real power lies,” said one of Mbalula’s allies, who is also a government official and active in the ANC.

There are also concerns about his close ties to the youth league and the political debts this would incur. But a supporter argued that “in the ANC you are not voted in by the youth league, you are voted in by ANC members”.

Mbalula’s detractors add that, at 40, he is too young to take over the position of chief of staff in the ANC.

“He must wait his turn,” said one South African Communist Party (SACP) official. “I think Gwede and JZ’s [Jacob Zuma’s] attitude is not to react to him. They give him tasks because he is committed. They don’t want to write him off because he is contesting Gwede.”

Mbalula’s influence in the ANC burgeoned after he became youth league president. Placed 15th on the national executive committee list at the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007, he was considered an important “dog of war” in the campaign to install Zuma as party president.

With SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande and Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, Mbalula was vocal in Zuma’s defence during his rape trial and when he faced corruption charges.

Considered a keen strategist, he was instrumental in modernising the ANC’s approach to electioneering and mobilising crowds.

He was crucial in orchestrating the youth league demonstrations outside the court during Zuma’s appearances, when the mood was often a mixture of political rally and rock concert, with traditional music, house tunes and fiery political ­rhetoric coalescing.

These techniques were transferred to the ANC’s 2009 election campaign, which Mbalula headed. Notable was the glitzy touch that had the use of celebrity performances, roaring Harley Davidsons and township braais to capture the imagination of young voters.

But recent political shifts suggest that Mbalula is the visible front of ANC factions looking to replace Zuma as president. In recent years he has been less prone to controversy, but in the past his public outbursts sparked angry reactions, such as when he called the ANC Women’s League “a bunch of holy cows” who would be judged by “the march of history about the correctness of their views” on Zuma’s future in the party.