Is Mbalula’s fire sustainable at ANC’s most powerful office?

After more than 100 days into his tenure as ANC secretary-general, does the firebrand former ANC Youth League president Fikile Mbalula have anything to offer except the populism that has defined him so far?

More than three months since his election in what was called a push for a generational mix at the Nasrec conference on December 19, Mbalula has been faced with the tumultuous task of putting off the fires at Luthuli House as the party’s chief communicator.

From the mess found in Mangaung, where the ANC hosted its anniversary celebrations in January, to questions about the delay in the cabinet reshuffle, and the recent fallout over alleged widespread corruption at Eskom by its former CEO Andre de Ruyter, it was a baptism of fire for the man nicknamed “Vutha” (Fire).

In keeping with his nickname, Mbalula emerged from the conference burning with fire, talking of instilling discipline in ANC municipal caucuses, where it has largely been an open season with party councilors, including in his hometown of Mangaung where voting against party lines has become normalised.

Armed with revived talk of so-called renewal, the ANC descended on one of the country’s worst-run metropolitan cities characterised by crippling infrastructure and appalling service delivery.

But Mbalula’s tough talk seemed to have landed on deaf ears because just last month, a DA councilor was elected as speaker thanks to ANC councilors who turned rogue.

This forced the ANC in Mangaung to terminate the membership of eight of its members who are believed to have backed the opposition candidate for the powerful position on the council.

But Mbalula’s first daunting task was one he created himself, which was the hype he helped sponsor about an imminent cabinet reshuffle.

In his first press briefing at Luthuli House, Mbalula told media personnel that President Cyril Ramaphosa “has to ring changes” to his executive, failing which “he would be reckless”.

The media feasted for weeks on this, as Mbalula later changed his tune saying “there is no rush” to reshuffle. By then, the country’s former deputy president David Mabuza had already vacated his office at the Union Buildings.

In fact, the controversy surrounding the delayed confirmation of ANC’s second-in-command Paul Mashatile as the country’s deputy president is in part to be blamed on Mbalula himself.

Quizzed about this matter on January 5 in Mangaung, Mbalula said: “In the next two weeks, not five years, we will be able to give you an answer.”

Alas, the confusion continued for more than two months despite an undertaking from the party’s nerve centre office. It was grand populism at play, and it backfired badly.

The heightening of this populism was seen during the rushed reaction to missiles fired by De Ruyter at the ANC and its leaders.

Without much consideration, the following day after the airing of the controversial interview the former Eskom boss conducted with, Mbalula was out in full force promising all sorts of actions Luthuli House would take to save its muddied image.

It was in this wave of populist rhetoric that he publicly claimed that the ANC had served De Ruyter with summonses.

It was this newspaper that exposed this for what it was. A lie.

Vutha, moving right along from being on fire in one political event to the next, was in his best element during the days and after the national shutdown organised by the EFF, who also thrive on populism just like Mbalula.

It became a wrestling match of pigs inside the mud with Mbalula belittling the EFF offensive.

The populism he employed in that political development left many confused as to whether this was the conduct expected from a boss at Pixley ka Seme Street or Douglas Ngobeni, a product of Cosas who specialises in making appearances and unthinkable statements at all ANC events as his strategy to build a political profile?

But as it becomes apparent, he is not one to learn from his blunders.

Flying high from “victory” in the opposition to the EFF protest, his attempt to embark on a media tour was canned without explanation. This appeared to be the realisation that there was too much media presence for someone occupying such an office.

But because old habits die hard, it was barely a week later when Mbalula, again, instead of issuing a media statement via ANC communication platforms, called yet another press briefing to announce the reconfiguration of the party’s National Youth Task Team.

His saving grace was that the day coincided with a major political development in the form of the leakage of the letter by former ANC president Thabo Mbeki to incumbent party leaders, where he lashed out at the state of leadership decay at Luthuli House and everything it controls.

In a response uncharacteristic of Mbalula’s “let it burn” approach, he handled that one with meticulous caution fitting for the office he occupies.

He called for all ANC leaders and members not to engage in the letter until top leadership engages with its aggrieved former president.

With that, he refused to fuel the fire, as always, and Mbeki’s letter failed to provoke internal responses in the manner that those behind the leak might have anticipated.

There was too much to learn for Mbalula, who some may argue has given life to the ANC secretary-general office, while some may counter by saying he has too often compromised the dignity the office had come to be known for – speaking only when it is absolutely necessary to do so and setting the example for not only the rank and file members, but fellow erratic leaders at the national level.

The only other ANC secretary-general to deviate from the diplomatic and calm tradition that defines the office, Mbalula’s predecessor Ace Magashule, who emerged from the 2017 Nasrec conference talking war against his own party president, did not finish his term in office.

The next 200 days toward Mbalula completing a year in the hot seat and leading the ANC’s toughest election campaign since 1994 will be telling.

They will probably decide his fate in office and his ambition to graduate to the party’s presidency.

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