Newsmaker – Fikile Mbalula pulls no ‘loser’ punches

2014-01-26 14:01

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Play the ball, not the man, says ‘Razzmatazz’ over Bafana comments

In a country where people call even the president “a loser” with no reaction, what’s the big deal about calling the national soccer side the same thing?

That’s what Sports and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula wants to know – once he finally makes it for our interview.

“People might be thinking they are dealing with Mbalula here, but they are not playing the ball, they are playing the man,” is how the man nicknamed “Razzmatazz” by the nation starts the conversation.

Clad in one of his all-time favourite navy blue sport jackets with white stripes, a white linen shirt, black pants and matching shoes, Mbalula finally makes it to the City Press offices on Thursday afternoon.

His support staff moved the goalposts several times during the week, but after some fancy footwork, here we are.

“The doomsayers said I shouldn’t have used the words ‘useless’ and ‘losers’. In South Africa, we call even the president of the country a loser, but nobody has ever stood up and said, ‘How can you call the number one citizen a loser?’”

He used the word in reference to Bafana Bafana’s first-round elimination from the African Nations Championship. A national storm soon erupted. “I am prepared to argue with everybody,” says the famously flamboyant minister.

“What is the appropriate word? I didn’t call them trash. I didn’t call them rubbish. That would have been extreme. I just said they are a bunch of losers?...?and I’m not going to apologise for that. The reason this one created a big storm is because football is the number one sport in the country and it is supported by the ordinary masses who have an opinion about their national team.”

He insists he’s not electioneering, despite allegations to the contrary.

“I am not up to that. In fact, it is cheap politicking for others to suggest that. The ANC will fight the elections and after the elections, there will still be a national team [Bafana].

“What I’m raising is of national interest as our national teams are about nation-building and social cohesion, and not about terrorising their nation.”

He’s an equal opportunity critic, he points out.

“I was harsh on the Proteas after they got knocked out early in the T20 World Cup. I said they were chokers when they came back from Bangladesh. [Captain] Graeme Smith didn’t want to justify their performance, but he became a man after that criticism.”

Some of his detractors say Mbalula is just an armchair critic, the kind of guy who lies on his couch shouting instructions at a sports team that can’t hear him.

So has he ever played sport?

The question’s immaterial, he replies.

“I am a child who grew up in the context of apartheid and I understand sport from a point of being the sports minister.”

After almost an hour of talking, he gets restless, checking his watch almost constantly. He was counting down to his next appointment across the road at the SABC, where he had scheduled a meeting with boxing promoter Branco Milenkovic to discuss broadcasting rights.

“Mbaks” – another monicker he has earned – hardly has any time to relax. He’s busy, smiling and, turning just 43 in April, he doesn’t think of himself as an old man running out of steam.

“I only relax when I am with my family at home,” he says.

“Sport is taking a lot of my time in addition to the political work I do for the ANC. I draw inspiration from serving people, but I occasionally go out with friends and have fun.”

He’s regarded as a pretty cool dude, known for enjoying a good time and spinning the decks. He likes to understand young South Africans, he explains.?“The problem of this country is disengaged youth, and I had to adapt and understand popular culture.”

When his schedule allows it, he becomes a DJ. “Deejaying is a hobby. I do it once in a while. I like music and I mostly play House, kwaito, hip-hop and jazz when I want to relax.”

Bafana may be the talking point of the week, but I have two questions for Mbalula that have nothing to do with soccer.

Firstly, Mr Minister, why do you pronounce “country” as “cowntry”?

He laughs.

“Our language is not a standard English. It’s mixed with revolutionary lingo and political consciousness.”

And seriously, do you like having the nickname “Razzmatazz”?

“I didn’t impose it on myself, It’s priceless. It is the masses who said I’m Razzmatazz because we don’t believe in small things. We go big in everything we do. We revolutionised the face of sport. Who would have taken netball seriously?”

He moves the conversation back to soccer.

“If Bafana were to be called Razzmatazz, it would have defined their character. I am going to attend their next match [against Brazil at FNB Stadium in March]. That is my job.”

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