WSM: ‘President’ Mbalula? Self-styled Mr Fixit eyes corner office in Union Buildings

William Saunderson-Meyer, author of SA’s longest-running political column, revisits a kite he first flew six months ago – the potential national presidency of 52-year-old Freestater Fikile Mbalula. In recent weeks. Mbalula has been calling out his ANC colleagues from the councillors at Msunduzi and supposedly powerful cabinet incumbents through to president Cyril Ramaphosa. WSM applies his mind to the question of whether self-proclaimed ‘Mr Fixit’ will ascend from ANC secretary general to the corner office in the Union after the 2024 election. – Alec Hogg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00 – Introductions
  • 01:50 – WSM on Fikile Mbalula vying for the Presidency
  • 04:01 – On Luthuli House
  • 06:07 – On similarities between Mbalula and Ace Magashule
  • 09:57 – On the Royal AM sponsorship fiasco
  • 13:20 – On whether Fikile Mbalula has a real shot at the Presidency
  • 17:42 – On ANC-EFF relations
  • 19:24 – Concludes

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Edited transcript of the interview

Alec Hogg: We always introduce William Sanderson Meyers as the longest-running political columnist in South Africa, a position he holds, and his columns are just getting better and better. Today, we want to talk about ‘Mbaks’, Fikile Mbalula, the man who calls himself Mr. Fix-It, who didn’t perform well as the transport minister but now as the secretary general of the ANC, seems to be ambitious for higher office. There are indications from within the party that he fancies himself as president Cyril Ramaphosa’s successor. William, your recent column shed light on Fikile Mbalula, who may not be a household name for everyone, but is certainly gaining attention. Can you elaborate on his aspirations and motivations for seeking the presidency?

WSM: About six months ago, when I first posited the idea of Mbalula aspiring to the presidency, it was met with skepticism on social media, and I understand why. Despite seeking the limelight on social media, he’s not the most high-profile figure. He often calls himself ‘Mr. Fix-It’, but his detractors prefer to label him as ‘Mr. Fix Vokol’, given his uninspiring record as a minister, particularly in sports and transport. While he postures about fixing things, his actual achievements are lacklustre. Nevertheless, he now holds a powerful position within the ANC as the chief of Luthuli House, which has significant influence. The ANC’s power emanates from two sources: the presidency (Union Buildings) and Luthuli House. Mbalula seems to be flexing his muscles within Luthuli House, which has become more public than before. In the past, such power plays were likely made behind closed doors, but Mbalula enjoys the public stage and thrives on being seen in the spotlight. This change is partly due to President Ramaphosa’s perceived weak leadership, as opposed to his predecessors who tried to maintain firm control.

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Alec Hogg: So, you’re saying that Mbalula’s actions were previously less visible and more concealed when the ANC leadership was stronger. Now, with Ramaphosa in office, who you describe as a weak leader, Mbalula has more space to operate and assert himself publicly?

WSM: Precisely. When former ANC leaders like Thabo Mbeki were in power, they maintained a stranglehold on Luthuli House and kept power plays behind the scenes. However, Ramaphosa’s leadership is perceived as weaker, and he seems uncomfortable in the role. Many speculate that he might step down after the elections. This has created a void, allowing Mbalula to take a more prominent role in the public eye.

Alec Hogg: Mbalula’s background in the Free State and association with Ace Magashule, also from the Free State and a former ANC Secretary General, is interesting. Do you think Mbalula might be making a similar mistake as Magashule did in challenging for higher leadership?

WSM: Fikile is adept at switching allegiances and aligning himself with whichever faction seems most likely to boost his chances of climbing the political ladder. He switched to the Ramaphosa faction just before the December 2017 leadership contest. Prior to that, he was associated with the Zuma camp and was reportedly involved in questionable dealings to secure support for Zuma during conferences. Despite not having a discernible power base, this may not be as critical within the ANC, as we’ve seen with Ramaphosa, who didn’t come from one of the traditional Kosa or Zulu power bases but still rose to the presidency.

There is a strong yearning for leadership in South Africa, and Mbalula seems to have a certain charm and charisma that appeals to some people. He speaks out on certain issues, like criticising wasteful spending on statues and football club sponsorships by government entities. This outspokenness may be attractive to some, especially those who feel frustrated with ANC failures.

Alec Hogg: Indeed, it’s quite interesting to see the difference in reactions between Mbalula and Ramaphosa regarding the Msunduzi (Pietermaritzburg) football sponsorship issue.

WSM: The issue involves a Durban club called Royal AM and its sponsorship for an amount of R27m by the Msunduzi municipality, which is bankrupt. Ramaphosa seemed out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people in that failing city, while Mbalula took a different stance and called out such wasteful spending. It’s indeed puzzling how Ramaphosa seems disconnected from the experiences and concerns of ANC voters. As president, his responsibilities include dealing with national and international issues, but it’s concerning that he appears out of touch with the depth of antipathy towards ANC failures among ANC voters. Perhaps his focus has been on other matters, such as his close relationship with Putin, rather than the pressing issues on the ground. However, during a pre-election period, such disconnection can be dangerous for an ANC leader.

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Alec Hogg: Looking ahead, does Mbalula stand a chance at beating other front-runners like Paul Mashatile to succeed Ramaphosa?

WSM: Honestly, I can’t say for certain if Mbalula has a realistic shot at the presidency. In our unpredictable political landscape, stranger things have happened. We’ve witnessed surprising outcomes in other countries, like Liz Truss briefly becoming Prime Minister of the UK. In today’s dynamic world, anyone can be moulded into a president under the right circumstances, with enough pressure and support. Mbalula doesn’t have a natural power base, but he could be a compromise candidate or an attractive choice for deputy president in a coalition deal. Corruption allegations have tainted many ANC figures, but it seems that being implicated in corruption is not necessarily a disqualification for aspiring to the presidency within the ANC. Mbalula’s political astuteness and ability to navigate these complexities might work in his favour.

South Africa is yearning for strong leadership, with a sense of drifting towards uncertainty and a lack of control over the nation’s direction. Mbalula, as a skilled political operator, appears to recognise this yearning and may present himself as a leader who can address pressing issues like wasteful spending on statues and sponsorships. While a president of the ANC may not have direct authority over such matters, Mbalula’s vocal stance on them might resonate with the public.

Regarding the EFF, there’s currently a visible distancing from the party by the ANC due to recent inflammatory statements made by Julius Malema. However, when it comes to forming coalitions in 2024, the ANC would likely be open to deal with various parties, including the EFF. The ANC has members who lean towards black nationalism and might find common ground with the EFF. Therefore, any public stance against the EFF by Mbalula or other ANC leaders should be taken with caution, as the ANC is known for making pragmatic decisions to remain in power.

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