Boxing in South Africa is down, but not out

The pugilistic sport has fallen from grace through mismanagement and financial irregularities, but some within boxing say it can be rescued.

On 4 September last year, South African National Boxing Organisation (Sanabo) made the error of missing an important meeting with the parliamentary sport and recreation portfolio committee.

The representative missed the flight to Cape Town that morning and scrambled a profuse apology via email. But committee chairperson Beauty Dlulane and the rest of the committee were not impressed and refused to accept the apology. In boxing parlance, Sanabo had walked into a punch and was in the process of orchestrating its own demise.

Up until then, the committee had been patient with previous no-shows, but that day offered a window into the chaos within Sanabo. The committee was then told that, months earlier, Sanabo president Andile Mofu and secretary Pretty Tsotetsi had suddenly resigned, only to be convinced to withdraw their resignations at an emergency meeting in Welkom. The committee was promised a full report at the time, which has yet to surface.

A month later, Boxing South Africa (BSA) appeared before the same committee and did little to reassure anyone in the room about the state of boxing in South Africa. Board member Gilberto Martins euphemistically admitted that the entity had “gone through difficult times”.

The state of amateur and professional boxing in South Africa has, in past months, shaken the confidence of the Department of Sport and Recreation and, worse, become a sad imitation of a bygone era. Why has a proud sport been pushed into the shadows and left to fend for itself while corporate sponsorship and audiences move in another direction?

Restoration project

With South Africa’s stellar boxing history, it’s important that Boxing SA and others secure the future of the sport. Recent evidence suggests that a much-needed restoration project is in order — and perhaps under way.

The roots of professional boxing in South Africa date back to the latter half of the 19th century. On the gold and diamond fields, among miners, bankers and financiers, boxing’s appeal spread across cultures and hues. Promoters and trainers cashed in on a production line of world-class talent unearthed on home soil.

Between 1927 and 2001, 35 South African fighters won a combined 49 world boxing titles. South Africa had six world champions in 1995, five the following year and six in 1997. In 1998, the number stood at eight and, in 1999, at five world title holders. Names such as Brian Mitchell, Vic Toweel, Dingaan Thobela and Baby Jake Matlala have all graced the world stage. Boxing, with 19, is third on the list of most Olympic medals won for South Africa, after athletics and swimming.

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If the above demonstrates the pinnacle of boxing achievement for a country and the boxing authorities, then the “death” and life story of Martin “Soweto” Botes must stand as a startling reminder of the worst that could happen in life outside the ring.

Botes was reported dead on 9 November 2018, only to be found alive in a Johannesburg hospital the next day. He had been run over by a car and assaulted on the streets. He later ran away from hospital. He lives on the streets.

Botes retired in 1988, decades before Sanabo was founded in 2012, but his downward spiral from “fearless warrior” (as he was often referred to) could serve as a reminder to boxing’s authorities of their mandate in the socioeconomic context within which the sport operates.

BSA vs Qithi

The malaise BSA finds itself in regarding its former chief executive is probably the most concerning development. BSA is in a tempestuous struggle with Moffat Qithi, who won a case of unfair dismissal against Boxing SA in December 2018.

The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) ordered BSA to pay Qithi almost R4 million and allow him to return to work. Predictably, Boxing SA is appealing the CCMA ruling by approaching the labour court, a process that could drag on for months.

Qithi was suspended in 2013 for failing to disclose his criminal record when he applied for the R1 million-a-year job in 2011. A disciplinary tribunal found Qithi guilty of 10 of the 14 charges against him and recommended that he be dismissed.

Director of operations Loyiso Mtya took over as interim chief executive when Qithi was suspended, but resigned in February 2015. Mtya was also serving a suspension on allegations of corruption and abuse of power. Tsholofelo Lejaka was announced as chief executive in 2016 by then sport and recreation minister Fikile Mbalula.

There was one big problem: BSA has very little money and seems incapable of finding solutions. BSA survives on just R15 million a year from the sport department. It’s tasked with finding the rest of the money it needs through licensing, sanction levies, grant funding and sponsorships. The boxing regulator moved into new offices recently, which increased the financial burden on the organisation.

BSA exceeded its budget for the 2017-2018 financial year. One of the problems that plagues the organisation is outstanding fees owed by promoters.

Boxing out of the box

Lejaka acknowledged these circumstances in the organisation’s latest annual report. “Alternative funding streams” was the key phrase in his overview.

“BSA will need to think outside the box and embark on drastic cost-saving measures complemented by aggressive revenue generation measures in order to turn its fortunes around,” Lejaka said.

It’s not an unusual response from a chief executive of an embattled, underfunded organisation mandated to grow a sport rooted in the poor and working classes, and largely ignored by investors.

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And so, in October, BSA conducted its mid-term strategic review. The organisation is meant to stay the course set out by Boxing Indaba 2013 and continue on an upwards trajectory. It is what BSA calls “the unfolding journey to recovery”.

BSA’s media statement reads like a chapter of sacred scripture: “The reflection told a story of an unfolding journey towards a set horizon. The evaluation revealed a journey punctuated by moments of bumpy rides and uphill battles. The assessment showed episodes of downward slides coupled with surges through flat and fast terrains where milestones were reached even ahead of schedule. Be that as it may, this remains an unfolding story of a journey in motion… the unfolding journey to recovery!”

Either this is a truly sound, soul-searching project by Boxing South Africa, or the organisation has employed a yoga instructor as its copywriter.

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The portfolio committee first queried the persistent absence of BSA chairperson Dr Malefetsane Peter Ngatane. It’s a little harsh on the good doctor, who as superintendent of Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, the third-largest hospital in the world, must have more important life and death matters to attend to than a sport in which men throw punches at each other’s craniums.

Committee members then turned their attention to BSA chief financial officer Thabang Moses and asked about his ability to conduct an internal audit. The committee was clearly not buying the sucker punch it was being sold.

BSA is no stranger to misfortune and mismanagement. Year after year it has seemed as if the organisation is frozen in time, strangled by ineptitude while the rest of the global boxing fraternity moves on. It remains financially crippled and starved of decisive leadership.

Irregular expenditure

Lejaka has promised results from his turnaround strategy, but the stark realities on the ground are difficult to navigate. Boxing is steeped in history and rivalry, both personal and political. Its administration is not immune to the scourge of mismanagement and law-bending.

BSA owned up to “irregular expenditure of R1.8 million”, 84% of which was as a result of the organisation overspending its budget. “The rest of the irregular expenditure was in supply chain management,” it said. In layman’s speak, this means procedures were not followed and rules were bent.

For months, the boxing regulator has been battling a breakaway faction of promoters in the Eastern Cape who have gone rogue, according to BSA. It refused to acknowledge the executive of the Eastern Cape Boxing Promoters Association, which in turn called for the dissolution of the BSA board. The promoters association has asked Sport and Recreation Minister Tokozile Xasa to appoint an interim structure. Promoters accuse BSA of not treating all associations equally.

But it’s not all gloom and shadow boxing. There have been some successes in local boxing on either side of the amateur and professional divide.

New champions

Four new champions won world title belts in 2018: Xolisani Ndongeni, Hekkie Budler, Thulani Mbenge and Moruti Mthalane.

Budler rewrote history with his win against Ryoichi Taguchi and brought home three world title belts (IBF, WBA and the elusive Ring magazine belt). Zolani Tete earned himself a spot in the bantamweight division of the World Boxing Super Series. Tete defeated Mikhail Aloyan to reach the semifinals.

To get to the punchline, BSA is losing money because promoters are slow in paying the necessary fees. To combat late payments, the organisation has implemented a stricter, 14-day cut off. All fees must be paid two weeks before a tournament or it will be cancelled. It’s the kind of hard enforcement of processes that BSA hopes will stop the rot.

The Gauteng Boxing Promoters Association has vowed to clean up the sport in the province, focusing its wrath on the cancellation of tournaments and the flouting of rules by promoters.

Gauteng association chair Tshele Kometsi said: “Boxers are still entitled to the 10% and to not be kicked out of that bill as it has become the norm. It is high time that we protect both the integrity of the association, boxers and BSA.”

Together with Sanabo, BSA is beginning to feel the weight of responsibility that comes with promoting boxing as a culture in South Africa.

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BSA reached out to promoters and agreed to work together. Seminars were arranged and workshops held to help its office chase down licensing, tournament application and sanction fees. BSA tightened its processes, resulting in more cancellations, but less angst and confusion.

Lejaka told the sport and recreation portfolio committee: “A general financial review of [BSA] showed that R2.63 million of its budget of R14.66 million had to be raised through licensing, sanctioning levies and grant funding.”

Part of the pinch lies in the fact that promoters have boycotted the sanction levy because of an “opportunistic interpretation of the law, which they misunderstood”.

BSA levied the 5% and 10% they were supposed to pay on “gross” amounts, while according to promoters it was supposed to be calculated on “net” amounts, the committee heard. But BSA assured them the non-payment of sanction levies had been resolved.

BSA’s request for R5 million from the national lottery was declined, leaving it at risk should any more legal challenges or payouts arise. A R4 million payout to Qithi would be disastrous for BSA. Critically, too, cancelled tournaments, which BSA tries to put back together when promoters go AWOL, often result in unhappy and broke boxers.

Xolisani “Nomeva” Ndongeni has seen the worst of boxing in the recent past. Just months ago, the 28-year-old was on the verge of quitting boxing because of non-payment issues with promoters. There was little protection from BSA and Ndongeni was fed up.

Lejaka intervened and Ndongeni continued to box. On 12 January, he took on American Devin Haney in Shreveport, Louisiana, in the United States and lost by unanimous decision after being knocked down in the second round.

He was down, but not out, and Ndongeni returned to South Africa a much more positive man despite the loss. It’s a mood Lejaka and BSA will hope spreads to other boxers as it begins to fight itself off the ropes.

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