As Fikile Mbalula grows politically, we should give him room to make some mistakes, says Abe Mokoena.
Although I profess myself to be a citizen of the world, I remain a genuine patriot. I am, as they say, proudly South African. I am proud of South Africa’s people. I am proud of its stories of unsurpassable courage, dedication and love for achievement. I am proud of its fertile space of public discourse where a razor-sharp pen never lands one behind bars.
What a country!
I always tell those who are close to me that my love of this country is as strong as that of the anonymous soldier in the Crimean War who upon seeing Florence Nightingale, the beautiful Lady of the Lamp on her frequent visits to inspire them in battle, said: “What a comfort it was to see her pass. She would speak to one, and nod and smile to as many more… we lay there by the hundreds, but we could kiss her shadow as it fell and lay our heads on the pillow again, content.”
It is in this context that I survey the national rip-roaring emotional reaction to Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula’s tongue-lashing of the Bafana Bafana team. Surely, no one foresaw that an ugly reality would intercept the national expectation, leading to the South African team’s loss to Nigeria in the African Nations Championship (Chan).
Everyone was saying Bafana Bafana would lift the cup with their eyes closed, especially after a series of demoralising losses. They lost the battle. And the national mood turned bitter and foul. Everyone was distressed. But it came as a complete shock to many when Mbalula erupted in a savage verbal attack. It was like piling horror on horror in that highly charged atmosphere. And the public did not take kindly to that. In turn they rained blows upon Mbalula.
A chilly current still freezes my heart every time my mind drifts back to that Monday morning media briefing. I can still feel the searing pain that coursed through the players. I can still hear them letting out some touching, weak yells. Mbalula is a national leader and the public and players look up to him for inspiration during such trying times. But that was tantalisingly elusive.
He reminded me of when Napoleon Bonaparte humiliated Prince Talleyrand, the French grandmaster of diplomacy, when he publicly described him as “excrement in a silk stocking”. Talleyrand was so hurt that from then on he worked hard to undermine Napoleon. He did everything in his power to assist Tsar Alexander to overthrow him, and on Napoleon’s fall in 1814, supervised the capitulation of Paris and welcomed the conquering Alexander into his house. He also fostered the restoration of the Bourbon King Louis XVIII and formed a liberal ministry as premier. That is what can happen when a leader decides to humiliate another human being before the public.
However, I think that a note of caution is worth sounding here. Mbalula does not deserve eternal condemnation for monstrous cruelty on two grounds. Politically speaking he is still of a tender age. Yes, he is still standing at the political pool of time, watching his own reflection as if it too were vitally alive.
And secondly, he is still inexperienced in the fabric of government, especially on the diplomatic landscape. So, to expect him to be a complete leadership package at this stage is like expecting an ordinary person to stretch the limits of the possible.
To me the ANC did very well by enrolling him in the school of practical politics – in the cabinet. It is clear that he is still being groomed for bigger roles in the future when the old guard of the ANC will have called it quits. That is what we call vision. And for the vision to be ultimately realised, I expect him to be included in the next cabinet after the elections.
So, as Mbalula grows politically, we should in this light give him room to make some mistakes. Even Aristotle, the political giant who laid the principal foundations of Western thought, spent 20 years studying under Plato at his academy in Athens.
Aristotle’s book, The History of Animals, which he began writing after Plato’s death, and in which is a complete record of every species of animal known to the Greek world, he did make some errors. For example, he said that a bison was likely to defend itself by projectile excretion. And even when this was found to be erroneous, he was not pilloried the way Mbalula has been and his work went on to be revered and it paved the way to the science of zoology.
We will recall that Mbalula hit the South African political landscape like a hurricane as a youth leader. To me he has always shown great leadership potential. He has never lacked courage, confidence and political brilliance. And when he speaks, he has the talent to induce every emotion in people except boredom.
But some people see him with different eyes. They see him as someone who swaggers through a life that seems to have sprung from the pages of his own book. It is their choice and we should respect that.
But there is no doubt that he is a potential political gem and revelation. And if he can be patiently and properly nurtured, he will ultimately graduate into a prominent statesman and start to exhibit an amazing spirit of balance, tact, diplomacy and a dignified calmness even if the going is tough.
There is no child who was born with the ability to talk. Mbalula has the potential to be part of a matchless collection of political leaders to wonder at, and to be the origin of marvellous stories to tell our great- grandchildren.
As I picture him now, I see a face marked by wide-eyed innocence rather than the hollow sunken eyes of national betrayal.
I wish good fortune to smile on him and the entire Bafana Bafana team. They should all rise and shine for our country.
And to both Mbalula and the Bafana Bafana team I say, character is power and never get broken in the mire of despair.
Together with them, we are all of us fellow South Africans. Together with them, we are all of us fellow terrestrial travellers in this cosmic journey of humanity.
And so as a nation, our sense of unity should be like that of the colourful butterflies of the savannah when they take the time to dance on the open stretch of land, dancing in tune with Mother Nature’s special musical composition of enchantment.
* Abe Mokoena is an independent commentator based in Polokwane.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.