After the bluster of Fikile Mbalula’s farewell speech to those members of the South African Olympic team at the farewell banquet on Wednesday night, an old man who has seen more than most, turned to the journalists sitting with him.
“What the minister forgets, is that the Olympics is a symbol of peace, not of war,” said George Bizos. Except that the sports minister didn’t forget. That’s his default theme when it comes to public speaking. He’s a rabble rouser who keeps Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” beside his bed and whose speechwriter has committed “The Boys’ Book of Military Quotations” to memory.
Mbalula started off gently on Wednesday, warming up before hitting his stride with his first “we must marshal the forces”, references to “battalions” and a line from the aforementioned “Art of War”. War talk demands an enemy, and Mbalula quickly identified more than one: “To the media and other detractors of this capable team …” There were no details as to whom these “other detractors” might be, but one suspects that they are part of the third force, those counter-revolutionary tokoloshes that have replaced the reds under beds.
The minister was at odds with the charm offensive Sascoc have been on, with Gideon Sam, the president, and Tubby Reddy, the CEO, praising the South African media for their coverage of the team. There was a lovely warm and fuzzy feeling in the air, which was disturbed somewhat by Mbalula’s military militancy. Patience Shikwambana is a lovely woman, but even she got a little carried away by Mbalula during her speech. “The media …,” she said, hesitating, then addressing the minister, “are difficult … but they have supported us.” Sigh. Do make up your mind. Oh, and we’re watching you.
Mbalula ended by speaking in Afrikaans, instructing the hall to support the team, stopping short of his plea to the Springboks at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, when he told them to “moer hulle”. Bizos might have agreed with that sentiment. Rugby is a sport in which you need to do some “moering” to get ahead. The Olympics is as much about the competing as the winning. Well, it has been for South Africans.
There will be South African Olympians who will have read “The Art of War”. There will be others who struggle through FHM and Cosmo, and others whose Kindles croak under the weight of a thousand books. All will have forgotten Wednesday night’s speech by the time they got off the plane in London this morning. War. Huh. What is it good for?