When the going gets sticky, ANC wheels out joker-in-chief Mbalula
Fourteen years ago, as Robert Mugabe was doing to Zimbabwe what his wife allegedly does to South African models and waitresses, a press conference was called in Pretoria.
At issue was South Africa's policy of "silent diplomacy", a plan dreamed up by Thabo Mbeki to enable Mugabe to steal two elections and effectively end democracy in Zimbabwe.
According to Mbeki and his palace footstools, the policy was well on track: Mugabe would almost definitely cede power within a few years of his death, and then Zimbabwe could look forward to electing either Grace Mugabe or Grace Mugabe. As for the million Zimbabweans heading south, well, they were simply patriots eager to tell South Africans face to face how much they adored King Robert.
The world's journalists, however, wanted clarity; and so, in March of 2003, they asked South Africa's foreign minister for the country's official stance on the deliberate destruction of Zimbabwe.
The reply was succinct.
"The problem with you," the minister said, "is that you are waiting for one word - condemnation of Zimbabwe. You will never hear that. It is not going to happen as long as this government is in power."
The minister's inability to count words aside, this reply is notable for two reasons.
The first is that the minister who delivered this extraordinary defence of fascist kragdadigheid and who, by implication, is in favour of murder squads, the stealing of elections and unlimited terms for despots, was Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. You know, the one who wants to be president in 2019.
The second thing I find memorable about Dlamini-Zuma's statement is its honesty.
We sometimes accuse the government of hiding its malignant intentions behind gobbledygook, but that's not true. For almost 20 years the ANC has been telling us that it will always side with violent power rather than democracy and justice.
"Silent diplomacy" sounded like a euphemism. It wasn't. Mbeki explicitly told us that nobody was going to say anything to anyone. Dlamini-Zuma wasn't fudging either: she told us that the Mugabes have a blank cheque, forever. So let's not pretend that anybody was ever going to arrest Grace.
Still, I understand why some people might cling to the belief that the current ANC is a benevolent uncle who has merely had a few oopsies. The party is very good at diversions and distractions. And they don't get more diverting or distracting than Fikile Mbalula.
Last week, as Pretoria was planning Grace Mugabe's departure, Mbalula declared that police were on "red alert" at South Africa's borders. It sounded like a fantastically stupid thing to say given the existence of heavier-than-air flying machines, suggesting that, in Mbalula's dream-world, international fugitives drive up to border posts, roll down their windows and present their documents.
But I would argue that Mbalula wasn't being moronic. On the contrary, he was doing exactly what was required of him.
Mbalula does his job better than any other minister. That's because his job is to be a clown. Literally. Whenever things get dark, there is a sudden drum roll, a spotlight, and there he is in his comically ill-fitting suit: pouting and puffing, pulling funny faces and shouting catchphrases or bits of popular slang. His fans roar with laughter and slap their thighs. That Mbaks, they say; that guy is a good guy.
When Mbalula was appointed police minister, critics of the government expressed familiar exasperation. Why, they asked, does the ANC keep appointing lightweights to vastly important and difficult portfolios?
They missed the point. Appointing Mbalula as a minister isn't about his ability in a particular ministry. Rather, it is to give him a job, any job, high up in government, so that he can wheel out his routine at press conferences and on Twitter when the party needs a distraction.
There was no red alert at the borders because Grace Mugabe was 9000m above those borders. Instead, there was a clown honking his nose, reassuring the people that he, too, loves Beyonce and blood sports and shooting baddies. Because when you're laughing at a clown, it's hard to believe that the circus owners would feed you to the lions in a heartbeat.