Mr Mbalula's bad language: being civil does not mean being soft

Police Minister Fikile Mbalula. (Jan Gerber, News24)
Police Minister Fikile Mbalula. (Jan Gerber, News24)

Police Minister Fikile Mbalula is at it again, issuing public statements littered with profanity and bad language.

Since taking over as police minister, Mr Mbalula has gained a reputation for being a tough talking top cop, often resorting to colourful language to explain and define government programmes against crime.

Frustrated with high levels of crime and wanting to prove he is worthy of his position as a police minister, Mbalula initiated a programme called “Operation Wanya Tsotsi” which is aimed at intensifying the fight against crime.

Using the word “Wanya” to define a government programme would make anyone who understands the Sotho language cringe. The word has something to do with people pooing themselves under stress.

Couldn’t someone advise the minister to consider an alternative word that would convey his stern attitude towards crime? The minister did not have to use words that bring to mind a picture like sewerage. 

The seemingly rap music inspired Mbalula upped the ante last week when he publicly stated that criminals will have their “balls” crushed. Returning to the toilet lane where he excels, he further stated that criminals should be forced to drink their own urine.

The public outrage about this pushed Mbalula to explain himself. He put matters into perspective and argued that by using the word “balls”, all he meant was that he will crush the spirit of criminals, while leaving their testicles intact.

The police minister also enjoys mentioning criminals that are sought by the police, doing the job that should better be left to the police commissioner. There is no doubt that the minister wants to lead from the front, but is he doing it the right way?

Some months ago he said that those who intended to vote against President Jacob Zuma in a parliamentary motion of no confidence were “suicide bombers.” He issued the threat against rebel ANC MPs who publicly vowed to unseat Zuma through the motion. Mbalula got away with it and was never sanctioned for using such harsh words.

Mbalula’s leadership style and language use brings to mind an interesting book I read titled Mr Bligh’s Bad Language, written by Greg Dening.

The story is about Captain Bligh who led an expedition that resulted in a revolt on the ship, the Bounty. Captain Bligh was known for using harsh language with his crew and meting out disproportionately harsh punishment.

This ended up being one of the reasons the crew revolted against him at high seas.

Captain Bligh was tough, yet he could not lead and he eventually lost control of the ship to mutineers.

I think Mr. Mbalula should take heed of this story. It is a story about leadership, communication and decision-making.

Crime is a serious problem in South Africa and the SAPS requires stern leadership to match the resolve of criminals. But this message can be conveyed without having to denigrate anyone in society by using bad language.

Mr. Mbalula is at high seas leading a voyage against crime. He should learn to discharge his responsibilities without lowering the moral standards of the country.

The choice should not be between being vulgar and effective in deterring criminals on the one hand, and being civilised and letting criminals go, on the other hand. Crime can be fought successfully while retaining some level of civility. Being civil does not mean being soft. 

If the minister continues with his bad language, his fate will be similar to that of Captain Bligh, who lost control of his ship at high seas.

It is important for Mbalula to be seen as courteous and following procedure when fighting crime. Trolling criminals on Twitter is not an anti-crime strategy, it’s mere posturing.

It would also be advisable for Mbalula to note that trending on Twitter is not always good. President Donald Trump is always trending, despite presiding upon the worst administration in the US history.

There is no doubt that Mbalula is an over-communicator who seems unable to take a minute to give it a thought before speaking. If one finds oneself unable to fight the urge to say something, despite not having anything substantive to say, one must at least avoid bad language. 

- Ralph Mathekga is a Fellow at the SARChI Chair: African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at the University of Johannesburg and author of When Zuma Goes. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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