Mbalula: 'I'm a genius when it comes to sport'

Fikile's winds of fortune: Sports and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula has put his foot down: 'It's time to shape up or ship out.' (Oupa Nkosi, MG)

Fikile's winds of fortune: Sports and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula has put his foot down: 'It's time to shape up or ship out.' (Oupa Nkosi, MG)

Fikile Mbalula wants fish. Snoek, to be precise. He has been sequestered in Parliament for hours because he’s been presenting his budget, and he hasn’t had a chance to eat.

These have been busy days for the sports minister.
Mbalula is never far from the headlines, but he caused a particular stir recently by announcing that he was withdrawing the right of certain sporting bodies to host international tournaments due to their failure to meet transformation targets.

In Parliament, subsequently, he was adamant that he had no intention of backing down on the matter. Mbalula told journalists that sporting federations would face further punitive measures if they failed to comply with the transformation imperative.

One on one, he is even more resolute on the topic, punctuating his words by banging the table. 

“Movement has got to be seen,” he says. “You can’t say to me you will produce — as an example — two swimmers in the year under review who are black and then I don’t see any, and then it’s business as usual. And then you expect me still to basically continue in the same vein like it has happened in the past. No! Now, it is not the case. People: shape up or ship out. It has got to happen.”

Mbalula has faced volleys of racist hostility since announcing his decision. Most infamously, Capetonian Matthew Theunissen took to Facebook in response to call the government “a bunch of k*ffirs”. 

But the minister says he was unsurprised by the levels of public anger from certain quarters. 

“I knew there will be [fury], because I hit a nerve in terms of this matter. But equally, it’s important to act, to educate and conscientise society about the obligation we have to transform.”

While the image Mbalula presents on social media is often that of someone not taking life too seriously, he is extremely earnest in discussing his Cabinet post — which, he says, was offered to him by President Jacob Zuma and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, rather than the Guptas.

“When I came to sports [ministry], people said that this is the ministry where there are no headaches,” he says. “All that you do is just come to the office [and] enjoy the party of attending events, because it’s always a party in sports, every day … And in terms of my road map, I redefined that. I said it’s not only [about] the party.”

And yet Mbalula’s social media posts often depict him — literally — at the party. He is the unchallenged Cabinet king of selfies. He brushes aside the idea that people expect more restraint online from ministers, however.

“What I know about myself: I’m not fake,” he says. “By the time I joined Twitter, people told me what to tweet, what not to tweet, I must not respond to people, I must just put on shock absorbers and accept that people swear at me, I must not retaliate. I must be this numb person who doesn’t think. And if that is a politician, sorry – that’s not the space I belong.” 

In January, however, Mbalula appeared to seriously overstep the mark when a picture of a young woman in her underwear appeared on his Twitter account. He claimed that his account had been hacked.

If so, by whom?

“Well, I don’t know,” Mbalula replies. “You know, people are very sophisticated. I raised this thing with the minister of state security. He’s not come back to me about it, so I’m still waiting for the report in that regard.”

Accidental nudes aside, he is insistent that it is important for South Africans to see the more human side of politicians. “We must never, ever embrace mediocrity in the name of embracing plastic people, who are not real about how they feel, who don’t cry. When it’s time to cry, for moments of joy or sadness, we must be allowed to cry.” 

Does he remember when last he cried?

“The last time I cried was when the Springboks lost to New Zealand [in the Rugby World Cup 2015 semifinal],” Mbalula says. “In my own space.” 

You don’t have to spend a long time with Mbalula to get the sense of an individual with very high levels of self-belief. 

“I play golf, and my handicap is 16,” Mbalula mentions at one point (16 is reportedly the average golf handicap for American men). He says he taught himself how to play golf in an extraordinarily short time. “I’m a genius when it comes to the sport of golf,” he says without a hint of modesty.

He also identifies with James Bond, which is why he enjoys the 007 movie franchise. “I belonged to the spy world at some point, so I like the phenomenon of secrecy and all of that. I’m a man of action.” 

This man of action seems genuinely unruffled by criticism. 

One area where he has faced fire in the past is in the allocation of funds to the South African Sports Awards, which have in the past cost upwards of R65-million. But here, too, Mbalula will concede no errors. 

“We’ve been transparent; we’ve never hidden it from the onset,” he says. “It’s about our industry. And I will await the day when we get a sponsor. But the sports awards have been attacked by those who run out of ideas to attack me.”

In 2012 it was widely reported that Mbalula was in negotiations to bring Beyoncé to South Africa for the awards. Ever since, Mbalula’s love for Beyoncé has been a running joke. Now, Mbalula says, he plays it up for public amusement.

“I can’t leave my wife for Beyoncé,” he says. “I’m not a fanatic. I don’t dream of her, because I’ve found my Beyoncé. It’s my wife.”

Mbalula prides himself on keeping things healthy these days. He cycles for exercise. 

He says he gave up Coca-Cola after being advised how much sugar it contains. He claims to rarely drink alcohol any more. 

The minister’s former predilection for whisky was laid bare in journalist Mandy Wiener’s 2011 book Killing Kebble

There, she recorded the late Brett Kebble’s butler as saying: “Fikile was here often. He’d come here and in like an hour he’d finish a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue. Flat. Flat.”

If true, those days are behind him. “I like wine, red wine,” Mbalula says. “I used to drink whisky but it’s not good for me, so I don’t like it.”

Perhaps one reason for putting aside the Johnnie Walker is that Mbalula harbours presidential aspirations. 

He is coy on the topic when asked — “anything is possible in life,” he says — but immediately rattles off a list of world presidents elected at a similar age to his 44. 

“I’m worried I will reach 50 before I am president,” he jokes. Or is he joking? With Mbalula, it’s sometimes hard to tell.

Asked for the five people he would invite to his dream dinner party, Mbalula ticks them off on his fingers: “Chris Hani. Robert Mugabe. Winnie Mandela. De Klerk.” He pauses. “I need another woman,” he murmurs.

“Always with the quotas,” I comment.

“There has to be a quota,” the sports minister nods — before settling on Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu as his final guest.

Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis

Rebecca Davis has a master’s in English literature from Rhodes and a master’s in linguistics from Oxford University, UK. After a stint at the Oxford English Dictionary, she returned to South Africa, where she has been writing stories and columns for various publications, including the M&G. Her first book, Best White (And Other Anxious Delusions), came out in 2015. Read more from Rebecca Davis

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