South African has just experienced the most tumultuous cabinet reshuffle in our young democracy’s history, punctuated by two credit downgrades and subsequent days of protest action. One can be forgiven for forgetting that Fikile Mbalula has now vacated his post as Minister of Sports and Recreation, a post he has held for the greater part of the last six years and some change since 2010. And as the manicured blades of the Union Building lawns bow to stomping feet of toyi-toying protesters as they mumble through lyrics of the impromptu struggle songs they have just composed, I have been asking myself the question– How would one evaluate Fikile Mbalula’s tenure as Minister of Sports and Recreation? Let me count the ways.
On the issue of governance. Mbalula has been brilliant. Clean audit after clean Mbalula smoked the audit standards to produce what is now one of most coveted departments in the South African cabinet. I should say though, that a clean audit should be a standard expectation. But such are the governance difficulties in our reality that we actually release a press release to celebrate a clean audit. But having inherited the department is a shambolic state, it was very difficult to do worse than his predecessors. We have to give credit where credit is due. Mbalula was a great success on this score – and that’s important to state categorically.
The nick-name Razmataz, was earned when Mbalula went on a quest to resuscitate the then abandoned National Sports Awards. Which he not only did with a great deal of success, but he managed to make it a glamorous event which is a highlight on the annual sports calendar. He managed to swerve out of the way of the head on collision with public opinion when he met criticisms for going too far with the opulence. A move which demonstrated his acumen as a PR tactician. The event has certainly managed to allow regular South Africans to identify and venerate athletes from obscure sporting codes, which would have otherwise never been recognised or celebrated.
However, I have long argued that the National sports awards in an opportunity lost (click here for that blog post). Largely because I believe it has a greater use in broader society than just bestowing accolades on athletes. Athletes would rather receive support to help them win their respective events than have national accolades conferred, but sadly Mbalula and his administration missed that.
Mbalula will also be remembered for his “bunch of losers” lambasting of Bafana Bafana after they put up an embracing display against Nigeria in a 3-1 loss as they got knocked out of the African Nations Championship tournament back in January 2014. People read that as a lambasting. But in reality knowing that the African Nations Championship tournament is an event limited to players playing on the African continent. Just five weeks before that, Orlando Pirates played in a continental cup final with a 100% South African first eleven, but they were not available for the national team coach to select, and the minister did nothing about that. The bunch of losers’ outburst was a deviation tactic, because he knew the question was coming. And when the papers fell for it, yet again it was another fantastic display of Mbalula’s skills as an escapologist in the PR realms.
Mbalula was probably the most accessible Minister in our young democracy’s history. His willingness to engage people was also evident with the number of Twars he has been able to partake in over the last six to seven years. From Ntsiki Mazwai to Robert Marawa to random people of no public consequence. Mbalula has not shied away from a fight, and that speaks to his nature as person. Thankfully this is a quality he will need as a Minister of Safety and Security.
Mbalula’s time in office was quite often riddled with contradiction. For example, this is the Minister who put the transformation agenda in the forefront of his administration. He put together conferences agreeing targets with the various federations. And then turned around to say “those that want to speak about transformation must wait. This is not the time for that. We must support our team. More hulle. More hulle dood.” This was in a speech delivered as he sent two very untransformed teams to two consecutive world cup tournaments. And then while everybody thought it was not important anymore, Mbalula delivered a crashing blow to Athletics, Netball, Rugby and Cricket in April 2016 when he withdrew funding and their right to attempt hosting upcoming international events because their federations had failed to reach their transformation targets.
It should be mentioned that Mbalula’s administration achieved a few milestones in its time, and in the same breath there are a few cataclysmic faux pas’ as well.
It should also be mentioned that was in his time South Africa went from over five world champions in boxing to not even a single champion today. This was not surprising since South Africa went to the Commonwealth Games where there are no recognised boxing nations like Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Ricco – but we failed to bring back a single boxing medal.
It was in his time as Minister that South Africa’s Bafana Bafana went from two failed qualifications to the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012 and 2017, and FIFA World Cup 2014. To all junior soccer teams qualifying for world championship tournaments, and being the only African nation to qualify both the male and female teams to the Olympic in Rio 2016.
Mbalula has made great strides in expanding the sporting industry. It was in his time that South Africa was able to establish professional Basketball, Netball and Hockey leagues.
It was in his time as Minister of Sports and Recreation that Athletic South Africa went from lights out because they had no money to pay for anything. To the ousting of an interim administrator Zola Majavu, appointed by SASCOC. To seeing multiple sprinters breaking the sub ten seconds barrier at 100 metres, not only 2 gold medals in track and field but a world record at 400 metres.
It was in his time that South Africa went from 3 gold, 2 silver and 1 bronze medals at the London Olympics 2012. To 2 gold medals, 6 silver and 2 bronzes in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Under his watchful eye, South Africa went from 33 medals in Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games to 40 medals in Glasgow 2014.
The Minister led us to put our hand up for hosting 2022 Commonwealth Games. But the South Africa sports minister Fikile Mbalula indicated the government withdrew its financial support because of the cost of staging the multi-sport event, saying “we cannot live beyond our means”. Luckily this epiphany dawned on our honorable Minister just one month before a credit down grade.
I am sure you can think of many other highlights. Including the recrudescence of the school sports campaign. But as you can see his time in office was not smooth sailing. I asked a few people in my circle what they thought, and the general view is that they though he was better than many ministers in the three cabinets he worked in. But my issue with that analysis is that if you are in a class of recognised under-achievers, then being the best performer in that bunch doesn’t mean all that much.
Without a clear policy directive on Sports from the ruling party, it is difficult to define a criteria by which to evaluate the performance of our Minister. For example when the Minister says that “why always us,” when fellow African country request assistance for the hosting AFCON tournament in 2015. And then go on to put your hand up to host 2022 Commonwealth Games, one has to wonder what policy guidance is the Minister taking a que from.
But without laboring points I will say this. Nadia Naki’s verse on Raga Raga Raga by Germinai Major sums it up when she says
Verse 3: Nadia Nakai – Ragga (x4)
I’m a boss, call me Bragga
Rap queen, ain’t no badder
I do not listen to chatter
Heavyweight with our paper
Bust a shot in your section
Shoulda known it’s our era
Poppin’ bottles, no meds
The tempest prognosticator
Themba A Dikgale