Mr Fixit’s truth bombs

William Saunderson-Meyer says the ANC SG is stepping in where President Ramaphosa fears to tread


Mr Fixit defies Aristotle

It was Greek thinker Aristotle who first concluded that nature abhors a vacuum. 

It’s a scientific axiom that’s survived intact for almost 2,500 years, only to be now challenged in South Africa.  

Here, in the endless scrabble to be king of the African National Congress dunghill, we have the fascinating phenomenon of one vacuum seeking to replace another. Improbable though it might seem, the party’s voluble but vacuous Secretary-General, Fikile Mbalula, seemingly has set his sights on the position currently occupied by our very own hollow man, President Cyril Ramaphosa. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Mbalula is endlessly mocked by his critics for his towering ego, which is out of any proportion to his diminutive stature and negligible ministerial talents. In the upwards slither to the top party position that he now occupies, he has switched factional coattails with such shameless alacrity and regularity that it’s difficult to say whether he is a Ramaphosa camp reformist or a Zuma camp hardliner.

But whatever his true ideology, if any, he is undoubtedly a relentless and successful self-promoter. And given that we have an administration that has drifted listlessly for over five years, headed by a timid and disengaged president, there’s a definite opportunity here for someone who can play the role of decisive, forthright leader.

Mbalula, despite probably lacking the skills, has his hand up. In fact, he thinks he already has the job. He behaves not as the party functionary that he is but as if Luthuli House were the seat of government and he de facto president — issuing government directives, making foreign policy pronouncements, questioning officials and elected representatives, and rapping former ministerial colleagues over the knuckles. 

Earlier this week, he justifiably chided ANC-controlled municipalities for erecting statues and sponsoring football teams, instead of using state resources to uplift communities. Mbalula was referring to the unveiling of Nelson Mandela statues in Mthatha and Madiba’s birthplace village of Qunu, as well as the sponsorship by the bankrupt Msunduzi municipality of the Royal AM football team. 

The criticisms met with popular approval and are also not-so-veiled rebukes of Ramaphosa. He is setting out a stall for himself as the no-nonsense, shirtsleeves-rolled action man — Mr Fixit, as he styles himself on social media — who is willing to tackle the heavy lifting that his pansy president is disinclined or unable to handle.

The announcement of the R27-million football sponsorship came a few days before a visit by Ramaphosa to Msunduzi. Angry residents flocked to complain to the president about conditions in the municipality, which is centred on Pietermaritzburg— “city of choice” is the laughable slogan of the crumbling provincial capital — and beseeched him to address the hunger, crime and unemployment that they have to endure.

In typical Ramaphosa fashion, the president diplomatically avoided criticising the ANC municipal leaders for their extravagance. Instead, he told residents that they should count their blessings, since there was “no government on this continent that takes better care of its people”, than does the ANC.

"Priority one is people must get water. Priority two is employment. Another priority is ending criminality. Others want land." The government, said Ramaphosa, was committed to delivering these, although he conceded that some "would take time" to come to fruition.

In contrast to such tone-deaf arrogance, Mbalula’s unvarnished sentiments will resonate with the gatvol residents: “Why do you spend the money of the municipality when it is impoverished on sponsoring teams? From the point of PR and image, you portray the ANC as a government that just doesn’t care.”

Similarly, the Mandela statues — grotesque creations of play-dough sophistication — which cost R3m, with another R11-million one yet to come. At the unveiling, Ramaphosa enthused that they were “beacons of hope to individuals and communities that are still suffering from the evils of marginalisation and the scourges of poverty, inequality and underdevelopment.” 

Mbalula, however, rubbished the prioritisation of “expensive” statues over people’s needs. “Every council,” he told reporters, “when they run out of ideas, they produce a statue.” 

“We must be reminded by social media and our critics that we are doing something wrong. We must stop ourselves. We can't complain to somebody else. We are in charge.”

It is of course true that a party official has more freedom to be outspoken than the head of government. It may also at times suit Ramaphosa, conflict-averse consensus builder that he is, to have Mbalula stomping on toes at a safely disavowable distance. 

This conceivably might be a calculated and scripted pre-election double act, were it not for the degree to which Mbalula's turns on stage directly challenge Ramaphosa’s authority and powers. The supporting actor is eyeing the main role.

Several incidents spring to mind.

In March, when the Economic Freedom Fighters ordered a “national shutdown” that would be violently enforced, Ramaphosa for weeks said not a word in response. It was Mbalula who eventually took the lead, warning that the EFF’s militancy was intolerable and that its leaders would be held “personally responsible” by the courts for any havoc.

Since Mbalula is a party functionary and no longer even a parliamentarian, this was a bold usurpation not only of executive responsibilities but of judicial functions, too. Ramaphosa belatedly but obediently took Mbalula’s cue and a few days later warned that the security forces would act against any EFF acts of destabilisation. 

More recently, while Ramaphosa was doing an elaborate diplomatic egg-dance on whether South Africa would execute an international arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin, eventually confirming that it would, Mbalula was unambiguous. Russia was a benefactor of the ANC during the struggle years, Putin was “warmly welcome” and would not be arrested.

While the ANC as a party and government admittedly have a pathologically schizophrenic relationship — where else in the world does the party regularly launch violent protest marches against its own government? — these actions far exceed Mbalula's notional remit as secretary-general. Even more personally challenging to Ramaphosa has been Mbalula’s interference in the president’s personal fiefdom, Cabinet matters.

A few months back, Ramaphosa unveiled rare and long-awaited ministerial changes. When the new ministers started squabbling about how to divvy up responsibilities, Mbalula was quick to weigh in. In essence, he said that Ramaphosa didn’t seem to have a grip on the job and that he was putting him on notice.

“There are territorial battles as if this country is leaderless. We expect the president to run his Cabinet. Not his Cabinet running itself. If he's got a problem with that, we will have a problem with him.”

Then, last week, he went for one of the most senior people in Cabinet, Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan. Speaking about collapsing road and port infrastructure at a Women’s League conference, he warned, “Comrade Pravin, move faster or we will move you.” 

“We do not want ministers who do not know what they are doing. We do not want premiers who do not know what they are doing.”

This time Mbalula somewhat overreached. While Ramaphosa failed to defend his minister publicly and Gordhan didn’t deign to respond publicly, Gordhan’s allies were outraged. 

Former Tourism minister Derek Hanekom pertinently asked Mbalula whether he was personally satisfied with his own performance during his dismal tenure as Transport minister. The ANC issued a statement saying that contrary to Mbalula’s remarks, Gordhan’s job was safe.

The rebuked Mbalula issued a masterful apology-but-not. Speaking in Xhosa at an ANC local government workshop, he said: “[Gordhan] complained to the president. Why am I singling him out? The minister cried so much, I had to change my position and issue a statement.” The attendees appreciatively roared with laughter.

His words had not been “an attack on Gordhan as a person”, Mbalula explained. It was simply “an illustration that we need to move with speed”.

Neither Gordhan nor Ramaphosa will be mollified by Mbalula's cheeky response but there’s not much that they can do. Luthuli House has always been a powerful player — that’s where presidential recalls are hatched — and it’s especially true in the run-up to next year’s general election. Mbalula, for now, is pretty much free to indulge his presidential daydreams. 

And what about Ramaphosa’s invisible presidency? As the estate agent sign has it, “Vacant space for sale or rent”.

Aristotle, from beyond the grave, is watching with bated breath.

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