Our masked avengers

Andrew Donaldson on the political superheroes managing our response to Covid-19


FIKILE Mbalula, the small transport minister, is our own Imelda Marcos. Throughout his public careering, he has provided ample evidence that, when it comes to a personal style, his appetite for the overblown and vulgar is in robust health. 

If, as the designer Miuccia Prada once observed, fashion is “instant language”, then here is the Tower of Babel. Not a very tall tower, admittedly, but one that nonetheless shouts well above its weight.

His Twitter feed suggests a wardrobe unfettered by geographical constraints. This week, for example, he celebrated Africa Day by posting snaps of himself in a dashiki and kufi, the traditional West African brimless cap. 

And who can ever forget the Miami gogo-styled spectacle frames he sported for a while before common sense prevailed? Or the gaudy narcoterrorist leisure wear he favours in his down time?

Lately, though, Mbalula has shown much flair in the face mask department. In addition to those usually worn by health workers, which suggest a certain utilitarian chic, especially when complemented by matching disposable nitrile gloves, Mr Fix appears to have acquired an impressive array of bespoke vizards.

I’ve noticed a natty one in a grey check which matches a formal, Maoist-styled designer suit, a jaunty Pop Art affair that wouldn’t be out of place in an empty pavilion overlooking a deserted polo field and, sinfully, a racy black number that resembles an over-stuffed codpiece for the face. Mbalula has helpfully, if unintentionally suggested of this last item: “Musk all the time when you are in spaces that attract many people.” 

The masks are, of course, the coronaccessories du jour and it is unsurprising that the style mavens are blogging furiously about them. As a Vogue writer helpfully explains, “[They] do take up a fair amount of real estate on your face, so it’s not surprising that people are looking for aesthetically pleasing ones… Given the prevalence of mask selfies, it’s likely that masks will start to become fashion items, rather than merely functional.”

Say what you will about him, there’s no denying then that Mr Fix is ahead of the trends curve. And it is not surprising that many of Mbalula’s colleagues in government have also taken up the designer face mask. There is perhaps a certain vanity here. Ours, after all, is a leadership that first and foremost chooses to look good rather than actually do good.


And there is a fair bit of woo-woo with masks. A paradox of sorts. Behaviourists suggest that, through evolutionary pressure, we are genetically hardwired to look at the faces of those around us and, analysing their expressions, process their mental state. According to a Psychology Today report, “There is clear survival value in noticing from a frown that someone is getting angry with us, long before they throw a spear, or dump us as lovers.” 

Yet this same report, on the psychological impact of wearing a mask during the pandemic, also suggests that hiding half the face “significantly increased its attractiveness to observers”. This, according to the authors of one study, could explain why women throughout history have worn veils or allowed their hair to partially obscure their faces to increase allure. 

There is apparently even a mathematical equation: showing 50 per cent less face produces 40 percent more “attractiveness”. Women like former Vogue editor Anna Wintour understood this, hence Wintour’s trademark supersized dark sunglasses which she wore to obscure her face, even in nightclubs. 

Sadly, there is little sign that wearing a face mask, designer or otherwise, has added much “come hither” value to, let’s just say, the police minister, Cheek Bile. There are a number of reasons for this.

There are those who unkindly suggest that Bile is pug ugly, and that a 40 per cent increase in pulchritude from such a low benchmark is statistically insignificant. This is not the case. Bile does have a certain well-worn charm. 

Granted, the General is rough around the edges, and in the middle bits as well, much like Charles Bronson, the film star whose action movies have formed the basis of his policing know-how. But then some people have a thing for that sort of thing, and they do love an orc in uniform.

No, Bile’s problem is that he’s not wearing the mask properly. The nose must be covered along with the mouth and should not hang out over the top of the mask like some braai boep. This is not rocket science. If you’re infected with the coronavirus you could spread it just by breathing on people. So all breathing holes must be covered. Obvs.

The problem, though, is that it’s difficult to wear the mask properly and talk rubbish at the same time. All that phlegmy guff and hot air gets trapped in the mask and even few seconds of barking at people can feel like wearing a face diaper. One that is quite full and ought to have been changed several nyum-nyums back.

And, speaking of which, Bile has certainly churned out the stuff. He has revealed a longing for a return to the sheet-sniffing days of the old Immorality Act, and warned that he would be enforcing the lockdown even in the nation’s bedrooms. “When you get time to stay in, stay in,” he warned in Mpumalanga last month. “Maintain social distancing, even at night. Don’t come close to each other, no kissing, nothing.”

Bottom line, then: the mask, worn properly, inhibits speech. The less Bile speaks, the more attractive he could be. To some people. Maybe. In a dimly lit nightclub. During load-shedding. 

Then there are the problems with his ears. He remains notoriously tone-deaf to charges of heavy-handed police abuses. “I hear them (people) crying that cops and soldiers are brutal,” he has said. “Not listening to us is brutality. It’s our duty. If you don’t want to protect yourself and the rest of us, we must start by protecting you ... so we need to push a little bit.”

Even as the lockdown eased a bit this week, Bile was peaking at eleven on the Plod Psycho-meter, warning of increased roadblocks to ensure regulations were being observed. Tobacco products, it seems, remain a concern. 

“Police have the right to seek the receipt of where you bought the cigarettes,” he warned. Yet again.  “It will help us to know who’s selling the cigarettes. The onus is on you to tell us where did you buy the cigarettes. If you smoke cigarettes at your home we don’t have an issue with that. But be prepared to tell the police where did you buy. If you have the evidence, show it.”

I don’t know if things have changed much since I last bought street drugs. But asking your dealer for a receipt was really not part of the scene back then. But then Bile really is doing the bidding of his boss, uncooperative affairs minister Nkosazana Nanny-Zuma, who apparently believes that her ban on the sale of tobacco products will result in waves of youth and poor people giving up the habit.

The last time she had such a jones for this sort of thing was back when she was batting for the industrial solvent miracle Aids cure that was going to make the ruling party a whack of money.

Like crap politics, smoking really is unhealthy, and smokers should be encouraged to stop, be provided with advice, support, and pharmacotherapy, if available. This is according to The Lancet, the British medical journal, which has commented on Destruction-Zuma’s embargo by suggesting that it is, in fact, quite useless.

“Banning tobacco sales might not be wholly effective if people are still able to access cigarettes and so other measures need to be implemented to discourage tobacco use,” the journal drily noted. “In South Africa, before the pandemic, the illegal cigarette trade was thriving and according to news reports, virtually all smokers have ready access to cigarettes, provided they can afford the inflated prices.”

According to a recent study, about 30 per cent of all cigarettes consumed in South Africa in 2017 were illicit. Photographs of the cigarette “trader” Adriano Mazzotti and Apron Strings-Zuma that have circulated on social media recently add much fuel to speculation that there is more to the tobacco sales ban than meets the eye.

Which brings us to the real masks the ruling party wears, those of democrats who have sworn to uphold the values of the Constitution.

Sarafina-Zuma has for some time now been simpering on about how the pandemic has presented the ANC with an ideal opportunity for a spell of rabid Pol Potted reconstruction: a millenarian razing of what’s left of the economy so that a new order will emerge dreamily from its ashes, and everyone will chase after rainbows riding unicorns. She is not alone in this la-la fantasy.

Last month, she told a press briefing that the coronavirus “offers us an opportunity to accelerate the implementation of some long agreed-upon structural changes to enable reconstruction, development and growth. These opportunities call for more sacrifices and — if needs be — what Amilcar Cabral called ‘class suicide’, wherein we must rally behind the common cause. The coronavirus knows no class, race, gender or geographical location.”

This was all too much for DA MP George Michalakis. During a National Council of the Provinces session on Tuesday, he demanded that Powers Behind the Throne-Zuma disclose exactly which class it was that should be committing this suicide.

In her response, she insisted the economy be “reset” after the pandemic. “Indeed,” she said, “we mustn’t waste this crisis. We must look at the economy, the structure of the economy, the ownership of the economy, the decentralisation of the economy, and that is why we are more and more talking about districts, so that every district must have a vibrant economy. 

“The decentralisation of the economy, the broadening of the economy, the transformation of the structure of the economy, has to take place and, in the process, address some of the glaring needs that were very much exposed.”

When the DA’s Willie Aucamp tried to suggest that Great Leap Forward-Zuma had not answered Michalakis’s question, he was ruled out of order by NCOP chair Sylvia Lucas, who considered the question not to be a question at all, but a “political statement”.

All very ugly, with or without the masks. But here’s a thought. Alcohol goes back on sale on Monday. On Tuesday, the whole country will be in bed with a massive hangover. Five will get you ten that’s when the Radical Economic Transformation bunch will want to try this “class suicide” stuff.