This week I got blocked on Twitter by South Africa’s sports minister, Fikile Mbalula. That doesn’t make me special. Mbalula aka Fiks aka Mbaks aka Razzmatazz aka Beyoncé Please Call Me blocks people faster than a jammer having a “glitch” in the media gallery at Parliament.
And to be honest, he’s actually been pretty restrained with me. I’ve been heckling him on Twitter for months, wondering aloud what a Sports Minister is actually for, or why he is paid 2.2 million of our tax rands every year, or how his ministry spends the billion tax rands it is handed annually. I mean, after you’ve signed off on your latest campaign to get South Africans interested in basketball (Because Americans! And Americans!) and then headed out for lunch in Camps Bay, there’s quite a lot of change left.
Mbalula, however, has not been idle since taking office. (You will recall he was once our deputy minister of police, in which role he urged cops to “shoot the bastards”, a policy which came to fruition at Marikana.) Oh yes, he’s been a busy little bee, and in the process has become famous for four things:
- a public crush on Beyoncé which made him overlook the local musicians he’s supposed to support as he tried to get his dream date to come and perform at…
- an awards dinner costing R21-million
- calling Bafana Bafana a “bunch of losers”, and…
- overseeing said losers’ progress in the global rankings from about 50th to about 50th
The numbers don’t lie. This is a FIFA graph showing how our football team has fared compared to the football teams of the moderately fucked Democratic Republic of Congo, the mostly fucked Haiti, and the completely fucked Iraq. Say what you like about Mbalula but you can’t deny that under his administration we’ve performed much better than one country destroyed by war and another destroyed by an earthquake. Yes, we’re currently lagging another country being destroyed by civil war, but Mbaks surely has a plan. Perhaps involving lunch in Camps Bay.
But of course Mbalula’s biggest claim to fame is his addiction to social media. His instagram account is a selfie-encrusted altar to narcissism. It’s so startlingly self-obsessed it’s even had two articles written about it in proper newspapers. (Here’s one. And here’s the other.) And Twitter, ah, Twitter: it’s the padded cell in which Fiks can get his fix.
Now, Mbaks has always had a way with words. Not a good way, mind you, but still a way. His tweets are always memorable, in the same sort of way that a glimpse of a hillbilly dragging a bloody sack into the trees is memorable when you see it from a speeding train.
On Tuesday afternoon, though, things got very strange, very quickly…
As the tweets rolled out, Fiks seemed to be going from DEFCON Loveable Babbler to DEFCON Oh Wow He’s Been Hacked to DEFCON Oh Fuck He’s Having A Nationally Broadcast Mental Breakdown.
A concerned nation weighed in. Some phoned the number he’d tweeted…
And then, just when it seemed that the Sports Minister had redeployed himself to Groendakkies…
Now here’s the thing.If you’re having to explain to people that you were doing comedy, then you’re a bad comedian. But if you’re the Sports Minister and you’re having to explain to people that you were doing comedy, THEN YOU’RE AN UTTERLY SHIT SPORTS MINISTER. I was unimpressed.
Something that’s always fascinated me about politicians is how they have two kinds of skin on their bodies. The one kind is incredibly thick. They can take astonishing abuse from each other. They can survive the kind of pressure that would kill you and me. They can be found guilty of fraud, of stealing our money; they can be shamed before an entire nation and be back in Parliament a few months later without even a hint of a blush. But the other kind of skin…that’s tissue-paper thin. The faintest, flimsiest film. Anything can get under it: a dandelion seed, a kitten’s sneeze…or perhaps a tweet about fucking around on Twitter.
Suddenly the jovial, I’m-Still-Mbaks-From-The-Block banter was gone, and the Honourable Fikile Mbalula, MP, stood up to wag the finger of state at me…
Oooo! Look at all the properly-spelled words! Look at the Capital Letters! Somebody was piiiiiiissed! But there was more…
I had no idea that asinine jokes about Wifi grants were a way for Public Reps around the World to engage, but he did have a point: if I didn’t like what I was reading, I was welcome to unfollow him.
Except, before I could unfollow him, this happened…
“You’re going to break up with me? Not if I break up with you first!” And bam! it was all over.
It was tempting to see a bigger picture; to imagine that this was yet another example of the ANC’s pathological inability to tolerate dissent. After all, Mbalula is an integral part of a corporation (because that’s what the government is) that brought us the proposed Media Tribunal, non-commissions of non-inquiry into the arms deal and Marikana, signal jammers, and a Speaker who fails to recognize people depending on how thick her political cataracts are that day.
But of course this wasn’t government or the ANC or even politics in general. This was just Mbaks being Mbaks. This is how he rolls. Scrambling up onto his moth-eaten high horse, wagging his little cyber-finger at me, he declared that Twitter was a way of engaging with people. And yet his reputation as someone who blocks first and asks questions later suggests that when it comes to Twitter, the only engagement he’s interested in involves a ring and Beyoncé.
Oh well. That was that. It was all over. Or was it?
Seconds after being cast into the outer darkness my Twitter mentions started lighting up.
Could Fikile have said something about me after blocking me? No. No adult, let alone an adult public servant, could be that petulant or juvenile. It would be like walking away from an argument, claiming it was beneath you, and then, once your opponent was out of earshot, turning around and yelling “And yo mamma too!” Not only would it be childish, it would be desperately weak. Pathetic, even. No, it was impossible.
But in Mbaks, all things are possible. This is what I found.
Because the only possible reason taxpayers would tell you to do your job is white supremacy. Obvies.
His fans were cross. What they hell was I on about? What kind of Calvinist slave-driving buzz-killing arsehole was I to criticise Razzmatazz for spreading joy on Twitter?
She raised an interesting question, though: how much time was he spending on Twitter? At which point, as if reading my mind, the number crunchers at SA By Numbers weighed in:
More analysis revealed that most of Fiks’s tweets are sent during working hours. So how much of our money is he pissing down the urinal of social media? *turns on overhead projector, licks finger, rubs off last remnants of yesterday’s lecture, wipes blue fingers on trousers*
Let’s assume the following:
1. Razzmatazz works 5 days a week, 49 weeks a year.
2. He works 12 hours a day. (MPs and Ministers pull long hours. What they actually do in those hours is debatable, but you can’t deny they arrive early and leave late.)
3. 12 hours a day, 5 days a week, 49 weeks a year = 2,940 hours a year.
4. For working those 2,940 hours he is paid R2,211,937, or R12.50 per minute.
OK. We know Fiks tweets around 22 times a day and that most of those happen during school hours. So let’s assume he’s tweeting on the job 18 times a day. Some of those are brain-farts. Some are imperious slap-downs to uppity columnists. Some or just re-tweets of things he’s liked. Some take 5 seconds to compose, others might take up to 20 seconds. So let’s go with about 15 seconds per tweet – which covers reading his timeline, replying to some tweets, getting annoyed by others, and generally trawling for stuff to re-tweet.
18 tweets x 15 seconds? Fiks is spending just 4 and a half minutes of his working day tweeting. We’re paying him R12.50 a minute, so his Twitter addiction is really only costing us R56 per day. Or R280 per week. Or R13,700 per yea – actually, fuck that. That’s social grants for three children living in hunger and poverty
Emotive? Manipulative? Perhaps. But I admit, I’m pissed off – at watching so much potential squandered by untouchable politicians, at being associated with Verwoerd when I demand that my public representatives work harder – so maybe I’m overreacting. After all, Twitter is an important tool for politicians. It gives them a direct link to the voters and allows them to communicate their policies, plans and success without all the red tape of press releases or speeches. If Mbaks is using Twitter to promote South African sport, to keep us informed of the successes of his ministry and his progress in transforming rugby and cricket (his biggest policy promise to date), then perhaps that’s R13,000 a year well spent.
So what does Fiks tweet about?
Life is far too short to read his Twitter feed for too long, but I thought 10 days would give a fair sample of content. And so I waded through his tweets from 1 March until lunchtime on 11 March. And here’s what I found.
- Religious messages: 1
- Comments on local music: 3
- Lobbying for Durban to host the Commonwealth Games: 5
- “Comedy” tweets: 8
- Pictures of himself supporting sports events. Or playing golf. Or just of himself: 14
- Messages of congratulations to sportspeople or musicians: 14
- Messages of good luck to sportspeople (including re-tweets from others): 15
- Zinging slap-downs of his critics: 16
- Updates on current or upcoming sports events: 26
- Various official-ish tweets on topics ranging from sports development to gender violence to Ebola to the sentencing of the Ivory Coast’s First Lady: 33
- Informal banter with his followers, about sport, Twitter, the price of gold teeth, etc: 37
And what topic did Fiks fixate on most of all? What essential subject dominated his social media time? What could be important enough to keep those three kids hungry?
Fikile Mbalula, of course.
Between 1 March and the middle of 11 March, Razzmatazz re-tweeted or commented on a total of 41 tweets that were compliments to him by his fans.
Actually, “compliments” is too restrained a word. Rather think teenage girls at a Bieber concert.
Reading through the endless self-congratulation, I began to realize that I had completely misunderstood Mbaks. I had thought he was a public servant, working to uplift South Africans through sport. I hadn’t realized that he isn’t a Sports Minister at all. He’s not even a minister. He’s a celebrity comedian. He’s a marketing tool for the ANC.
These two tweets in particular helped me realize the error of my ways.
He’s hilarious. And he does what we pay him to do. In short, we pay him to be hilarious.
On Wednesday and Thursday, as sports writer Antoinette Muller took to Twitter to try to raise R8,500 to send two promising Khayelitsha touch-rugby stars to national trials, some might have wondered where Mbaks was. After all R8,500 is what he “earns” in a single day at the office.
But of course Fiks has nothing to do with sending those boys to trials. That’s not his job. His job is Razzmatazz, an endless song-and-dance routine, keeping the voters laughing so they don’t ask why his colleagues aren’t doing their jobs. No wonder his fans were angry with me: suggesting that he actually do his job was like me grumpily telling Beyoncé to get an office job.
His portfolio isn’t Sport and Recreation. It’s Hearts and Minds. Largely unqualified to win minds, he’s turned all his skill as a comedian and showman to winning hearts – and if Twitter is anything to go by, he’s doing his job superbly well.
Maybe it’s all a joke that this Caucasian isn’t getting. But I can’t help feeling that if voters are happy to hand over a billion rand a year to a joke ministry run by a joker, the joke’s very much on them. And Fikile Mbalula is having the last laugh.