Speaking at the Sandton Police Station on Friday morning, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula explained that he was obligated to lay criminal charges against choreographer, reality show star and presenter Somizi Mhlongo for contravening government lockdown regulations.
I did not discuss the lockdown timeline or extension plans with Mr Mhlongo at all whatsoever, my conscience is clear.
I have filed my statement and attested under oath to this at Sandton Police Station. pic.twitter.com/AJCKNhsjC2
— Minister of Transport |Mr Fix (@MbalulaFikile) April 10, 2020
Somizi landed Mbalula in hot water following a “bad joke” that turned out not to be amusing to South Africans or the minister.
His co-host Dineo Ranaka went live on Instagram while she was in studio with him and they were discussing what they thought President Cyril Ramaphosa would announce in his address on Thursday night, when Somizi made a comment that implied he knew what was going to be announced before the rest of the country.
“Today they’re announcing the extension. I was talking to Fikile,” said Somizi, before Dineo went offline after confirming that the Fikile in question was the minister.
Following the backlash, Somizi took to social media to clarify he just made the statement to “scare” Dineo about the extended lockdown. He said he had not spoken to Mbalula about it, and his comment had merely been speculation based on his observations.
He further apologised to Mbalula for the “bad joke”.
Mbalula has said he personally accepted the joke, but it was important that he lay the charge so no one could accuse him of playing favourites, even though Somizi is his friend.
He said the comments could have had dire consequences and it was “no time for jokes” during the state of disaster declared by the president.
He acknowledged that Somizi was known for joking around and that he’d predicted Miss Universe and other things.
“I don’t know whether the guy is a sangoma, or whatever it is. He’s a lovely character. He’s bubbly. But we live in times that cannot be joked about, and that is that.”
Mbalula added that his own bona fides as a minister had been brought into question and it was now important for the police to investigate and determine if he was indeed keeping the state secrets he was meant to keep as a member of cabinet. He also said that anyone spreading fake news was breaking the law.
“The law will do the right thing, I suppose. I am very disappointed by the turn of events.”
He called on Somizi to keep being part of the efforts of social responsibility to preserve life.
A clearly shaken Somizi had said on Thursday night: “I think it was a bad joke because I was scaring her about the lockdown. Later I told her I was joking, I didn’t speak to Fikile. I would like to put it clearly that I never spoke to Fikile about it, I just joked to Dineo and I said it after she went off live, which I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal. I’m just like you, I did not know about it. I was just guessing.
“Again I’m sorry for the bad joke and I apologise to the minister, and I hope you guys accept my apology,” said Somizi.
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Following the apology, Mbalula offered his phones for investigation to prove that Somizi’s name-dropping was unwarranted.
“At no stage did I speak to Somizi about lockdown my phones can be checked or meet with him. Apology accepted,” said Mbalula on Thursday evening.
He said he found himself obligated by the policies and regulations of parliament and government to take action and seek consequence management for implying the minister had divulged information to Somizi that could be regarded as sensitive and embargoed for publication at the time.
“The minister takes a very dim view of the circumstances of the Mhlongo statement which amounts to clear ‘name dropping’ of his name seemingly for clout within his peers,” the transport department said in a statement.
“Even though Mr Mhlongo guessed it right in his speculative discussion – he went further to mislead the public about the source of his information which undermines and is preemptive on government and the president over very sensitive information of a national security calibre of which I am very sensitive to and have adhered to in all my time in the executive.
“Mr Mhlongo acted very recklessly and irresponsibly. Name dropping has caused enough harm in our discourse before and we must now nib it in the bud,” said Mbalula.
Following discussions with Ramaphosa on the issue, Mbalula agreed to report the matter today.
The minister reiterated that at no point did he inform Somizi about the contents of Ramaphosa’s speech before the address on Thursday evening.
“I have noted Mr Mhlongo’s apology, however, I do not view his utterances as a mere joke. The country is going through a serious disaster management period and any misinformation, irregular or unauthorised information being published is both unlawful and not assisting in our cause to manage public affairs carefully,” Mbalula said.
In his address on Thursday evening, Ramaphosa announced a 14-day extension of the national lockdown.