The buffoonish windbaggery of Fikile Mbalula

Andrew Donaldson on the sports minister's curious understanding of bribery, and other FIFA related matters

THE hero of the hour is, of course, Andrew Jennings, the investigative reporter whose 2006 book, Foul! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals, set in motion the FBI investigation that has caused all the trouble.

The book, according to a profile of the journalist that appeared in the Washington Post, earned Jennings a following in law enforcement and in 2009 an “ex-spook” set up a meeting with American investigators who wanted to take matters a little further. 

“They’ve got government-style haircuts,” Jennings recalled. “They introduce themselves as FBI special agents and give me their business cards, which say ‘organised crime squad’. Bliss. The European police forces will do nothing [about FIFA] so it was damn good to see professional investigators get involved.”

It is a great pity that our child-like sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, does not share Jennings’s enthusiasm in this regard. “Don’t be the first to chase us about bribes,” Mbalula told a press conference on Wednesday. “There is sovereignty and there is patriotism. Nobody wants to see his country is corrupt. We can’t be the first on the march to attack your own country.”

It was Samuel Johnson who famously noted that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. With Mbalula it appears to be the first. That, and a blind faith in the ability of his buffoonish windbaggery to distract us from the issue at hand. 

“Criminals can explain a bribe very well,” Mbalula noted in another of jaw-dropping moment of lunatic bluster. “I don’t know how bribes worked. Bribes is like a ghost, you can never touch it.”

Here at the Mahogany Ridge we struggled to interpret that choice nugget. Was this a credible defence of the $10-million paid to the sleazy Caribbean football boss Jack Warner in exchange, allegedly, for votes for the South African 2010 World Cup bid? In what is now officially referred to as “a voluntary contribution towards the development of an African diaspora programme”?

Mbalula seemed to think so. “It was explained that . . . money would support other projects in the diaspora,” he said. “Some people somewhere, they don’t even allege, they state as fact we bribed.” He added, rather unhelpfully, that South Africa had no control over what happened to the money after it had been handed over the Warner.

The world of bribery is rich with euphemism. No-one actually demands a “bribe”. It’s too embarrassing an admission of hopelessly corrupt and recidivist sociopathy. 

It is unsurprising, then, that there are reports that FIFA president Sepp Blatter had “hinted” to the South African government about the need to “gratify” Warner, suggesting that South Africa would lose the 2010 bid if Warner’s Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football voted against them. And so the “diaspora programme” came into being.

Unfortunately for Mbalula – and perhaps SAFA’s Danny Jordaan and Molefi Oliphant – one individual who is calling it for what it is, is Chuck Blazer, the former FIFA official turned supergrass. This is how he put it to the US District Court in 2013, when he pleaded guilty to various charges, including bribery, racketeering and tax evasion:

“Beginning in or around 2004 and continuing through 2011, I and others on the FIFA executive committee agreed to accept bribes in conjunction with the selection of South Africa as the host nation for the 2010 World Cup.”

There is no doubt that Blazer is trying to cut a deal for himself here. He doesn’t want to do hard time. He’s in no condition to. He is in poor health, battling with prostrate cancer and type II diabetes. By cooperating fully with investigators, and protecting no-one, he’s hoping to cop a bit of leniency from the court.

And he’s spilling his considerable guts – Blazer’s so overweight, one of the Ridge regulars noted, it could just be that he ate the diaspora programme, if not the diaspora itself – and the results are certainly evident.

The South African police, for what it’s worth, are now investigating the matter. The Australians are looking into their bid for the 2022 World Cup, and the small matter of a $500 000 “inducement” that seems to have dropped off the books. In Venezuela, police have raided the offices of the football association there looking for evidence against an official who is being held in the scandal. 

And in Trinidad and Tobago, the embattled Warner, a man who knows where the money went, has vowed he will not go down alone in this sordid mess. He’ll be naming names and revealing an “avalanche” of secrets about what goes on behind the scenes in football. 

Bring it on, we say.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.