The former head of the ANC Youth League, Fikile Mbalula, is beating a path that may lead right to the top using sport to help unite a nation still scarred by apartheid.
While the league’s current leader has played the race card hard and faces charges that could derail his career, Mbalula is by contrast a rising star in the African National Congress practising “controllable ambitions”.
Analysts believe that 40-year-old Mbalula, now South Africa’s Sports and Recreation Minister, is in line for a prime post in any Cabinet reshuffle and for a senior ANC job when the party elects its leaders next year.
Mbalula, who dresses in casual chic and peppers his comments with self-deprecating humour, has stood out in the government of President Jacob Zuma for rallying the ANC at the grassroots level and pushing sports as a way to bring social cohesion in a country still trying to heal the racial wounds of apartheid.
Blunt-speaking Mbalula made a failed grab for power at an ANC meeting last year, drawing a sharp rebuke from party leaders. However, he has since turned around the sleepy sports ministry and ran a successful campaign in local elections this year when the ANC swept to victory.
Mbalula quotes the father of post-apartheid South Africa to show he has learned it’s best not to speak about aspirations in a party where openly campaigning for posts can be political suicide.
“In the ANC, as much as you can have ambitions, Nelson Mandela used to say that you have to have controllable ambitions,” he told Reuters in an interview at the weekend.
A gauge of Mbalula’s power will be whether he can convince the cabinet to reverse a decision not to bid for the 2020 Olympics following South Africa’s successful staging of the Soccer World Cup — before he took the sports portfolio.
Mbalula has not said much about his policy priorities for Africa’s largest economy, although the ANC Youth League pushed for a sharp turn to the left while he was president in 2004-08.
However, Mbalula was named in one of the country’s best-selling books this year, Killing Kebble, as being supported by questionable businessmen and has been criticised for moving the party away from idealism of ANC giants and Youth League co-founders including Mandela and Walter Sisulu.
“He brings a populist razzmatazz, which is an effective campaign mechanism, but it is also part of the ANC’s less principled appeal,” said independent political analyst Nic Borain.
In November, just a few days into the job as sports minister, Mbalula said he wanted to end racial quotas in sports set up after the end of white minority rule.
This decision was one of the first by the party, which is widely supported by the black majority, to roll back an affirmative action programme.
“The quotas have served their time and they generally have been counterproductive of late,” he said.
Current league leader Julius Malema has alarmed investors by playing the race card, calling for seizure of assets from white capitalists that would include nationalising mines and expropriating white-owned farmland.
Last weekend, a local daily said in an article vetted by a Johannesburg judge that Malema had a trust fund to collect kickbacks in return for using his influence to help donors win lucrative government contracts. Another newspaper reported on Sunday that police were investigating the fund.
Malema has denied wrongdoing, with the league saying the fund was for charity work and accusing white capitalists of a conspiracy to bring him down.
Mbalula backed his successor. “Malema is a victim of forces who are basically against him because of his political beliefs and [agitation] on behalf of the youth league,” Mbalula said.
Mbalula’s fortunes remain tied to the youth league, which has been hinting it could try to oust Zuma. He already played the role of a kingmaker when the youth league under his leadership joined forces that ousted former president Thabo Mbeki and allowed Zuma to rise to the top post.
“I have gone through that as [league] president. All the vibrant presidents of the youth league have gone through that patch. Let the bad times roll, because the good ones are still coming,” he said. – Reuters