Long Read | Part three: The start of CSA’s downfall

An embattled Cricket South Africa has been shooting itself in the foot whenever it tried to take a step in the right direction. Can the organisation be saved from itself?

By late 2019, Cricket South Africa (CSA) was in such a mess that there were fewer and fewer people willing to risk their reputation trying to salvage it. Those well informed spoke of puppet masters inside the organisation – largely unseen but power-besotted suits in the highest offices running and ruining reputations and futures at the flip of a coin. Cricket Capture, it was dubbed. The game was held to ransom by a growing group whose priority was power and influence. As the 19th-century British politician John Dalberg-Acton said, “… absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

One name has kept popping up in conversations about who the most influential person in the employ of CSA actually is. It is a name that is sprinkled lavishly over the Fundudzi forensic report’s executive summary. Claims are that this person is significantly more powerful than the acting chief executive and plays the role of puppet master, the one who is essentially in charge of any sensitive company information. It is an astonishing claim, but one that New Frame continues to investigate because it is a consistent narrative told by several sources close to the organisation. 

Internally, staff who are seen to be on the right side of the clique have been rewarded with acting positions, while those who are deemed to be resistant or “too clever” have watched lesser-qualified colleagues take on bigger responsibilities – and receive heftier pay cheques. One can only imagine what that does for office relations.

But, as with all things, even this game of corporate checkmate has to come to an end. And, often, those in cahoots end up at odds with each other, as has happened with the positions of acting head of communications and acting chief commercial officer. Internally, the communications job has chopped and changed like bowlers in the midst of a powerplay.

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It is telling that the influence in the present CSA administration lies with people who were hired at the height of Thabang Moroe’s tenure. For all the charges laid at his roughly R300 000-a-month chief executive door, Moroe must be credited for some key changes. For one, he started the conversation with Indian broadcasters that eventually led to an agreement in November 2020. 

Most pertinently, before his December 2019 suspension, he had paved the way for a director of cricket to take office. Little did he know, of course, that the new direction of cricket in South Africa would be forged without him as the net closed in on his administrative shortcomings and a rescue team was desperately sought by an organisation now on its knees.

The Mzansi Super League had endured a second season with far better attendances, but there was still no prime sponsor to take the financial weight off CSA’s creaking shoulders. CSA had got into bed with Global Sports Commerce (GSC), making the company the official broadcast and digital rights holder outside of South Africa in 2018. In fact, CSA then extended the broadcast rights agreement for another four years in 2019, which was an incredible show of faith.

It is no surprise that the GSC deal is also under the forensic microscope. Millions were spent, and not all those payments have been accounted for. Perhaps the one concern around the Fundudzi report is that it only goes back to skeletons from 2019. Anyone close to the game knows that the investigation must probe deeper than that and revisit dealings as far back as 2016 and 2017. That is when the rot started and CSA started eroding the trust it once held so surely with its sponsors and key stakeholders. 

A ‘whitewash’ rescue team called up 

Standard Bank’s 2019 sponsorship departure left another R100 million hole to fill, and the long winter sparked in Wuhan, China, would soon pile on even more misery. Once Moroe was suspended, the rescue team was rapidly assembled to re-establish some trust and bring stability to the game. The team centred on Jacques Faul, who was in charge of the cash and credibility-flush Titans, the most successful franchise in the country.

The other key addition was the director of cricket position handed to former Proteas captain Graeme Smith. Added to that, Mark Boucher was rapidly given a coaching deal until the 2023 ICC World Cup, with previous interim team director Enoch Nkwe demoted to assistant. Former Proteas Jacques Kallis and Paul Harris were inserted as specialist consultants.

A whitewash, as some sections of the public bemoaned.

CSA could have explained itself a bit better and doused some of the noise. Instead of clarifying that Kallis was only a batting specialist until the end of the England series – specifically tasked with restoring the confidence of young batters who had been tortured by Indian spin and speed – and Harris had been requested specifically by Keshav Maharaj as a fellow left-arm spin bowler, CSA’s silence allowed the media and the public to speculate.

Thus, the reunion of the old boys’ club and claims of the game going back into white hands were all topics of awkward conversations. At the centre of all this was Smith, who was suddenly caught up in a public relations minefield. Over the course of a well-documented playing career, Smith had learnt to endure barbs and banter, reconciled weighty decisions to leave legends behind as his team went in a new direction and faced up to series-defining visits to the crease with relish.

The “Biff” moniker he was handed early in his career was an abbreviation of the Cape buffalo, the most dangerous wild animal on the mother continent. Stubborn, to the point of being obstinate. Loyal, to the point of being obsessive. And resolute, to the point of being defiant.

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These hallmarks, however, were simply no preparation for the absolute chaos he found inside the walls of CSA when he eventually became the director of cricket. It took months of negotiation and procrastination, speed-bumped by the 2019 tour of India, where Smith continued his regular work with Indian broadcasters.

His outspoken nature combined with his playing pedigree made him an irresistible outside voice around the world. Ironically, because that international standing meant he quoted in dollars rather than rands, the size of his pay packet was an immediate bone of contention inside CSA.

That initial chagrin perhaps makes it easier to understand why there was a collective silence from CSA when he was publicly accused of being a racist by former teammate Thami Tsolekile, after Makhaya Ntini had spoken of a career spent in isolation off the field as Smith and company went out for dinners and drinks without him. There are few more damaging accusations in South Africa than that of being a racist, and Smith even faced death threats when the revelations came at him from everywhere. 

Nenzani batting for Smith 

Extensive airplay on the influential Robert Marawa’s radio talk shows, on which Tsolekile was a regular feature, meant the allegations were at the top of the agenda at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. Even in spite of revisiting the still-unchallenged quotes attributed to Tsolekile late in 2012, when he painted a completely different picture of his place in the Proteas, the racist roast on Smith raged more rampantly than any #ProteaFire campaign.

A caller on national radio accused him of bribing journalists with drinks at the ICC World Cup 2011 on the night before the “semifinal” defeat to New Zealand in Dhaka, despite the fact that South Africa’s last semifinal up to that point was in 1999. The narrative and atmosphere that existed meant it was a free-for-all of potshots aimed at the director of cricket.

Smith sought to respond but the CSA did not initially give him a platform from which to do so, despite the very apparent damage it was doing to his person. A response would only fan the flames, the powers that be reasoned. It is a simple stance to take when you are not in the line of ferocious fire.

From the unlikeliest of corners, Smith found support in the form of previously stone-like president Chris Nenzani. While the organisation told Smith to remain tight-lipped, it was Nenzani who gave him the go-ahead to hold a press conference. When the process surrounding Smith’s appointment was questioned by candidates who had lost the race for the director of cricket post, it was Nenzani, again, who batted for Smith.

As the rumours and racial recollections rattled on, Smith drafted a statement in his personal capacity and shared it on his social media platforms. The response from the global cricket community was emphatic. Former international captains, rivals and fans heaped praise on his legacy and his current position. With a lucrative broadcasting career, a young family and an increasingly untenable work situation, the smart money was on an early Smith declaration.

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“If there are people out there who think they can better serve the game, then they should come forward. I am simply trying to restore South African cricket to its rightful place, and I am committed to that process,” Smith said at the height of the furore.

Away from prying eyes, Smith was fighting other wars at CSA. The media storm around his playing career had given those in the executive committee a stick with which to beat him, and his opinion on sensitive matters in the game, including transformation at franchise level, was given short shrift.

Blackwashing the racism allegation 

The woeful stance to hire only Black consultants for the foreseeable future was a case in point. Smith suggested that it was too blunt, too limiting. But, after legal advice from the company secretary, the decision was set in stone and relayed to the world with disastrous consequences, including a raised eyebrow from the International Cricket Council. The decision smacked of a ploy to show the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture that cricket was transforming, but it was shallow and way too obvious, never mind divisive. Yet again. 

As cricket tried to stay relevant amid the global coronavirus pandemic, Smith unveiled plans for the 3TC Solidarity Cup, brainstormed during a family dinner at businessman Paul Harris’ house. The concept of three teams playing against each other in the same game was somewhat confusing, but definitely intriguing.

It was also a great distraction from what was becoming a heated debate among former players and teammates as more and more stories of previous exclusion came to the surface. The game was suffering from everywhere, and the plan was for the 3TC Solidarity Cup to be a temporary balm.

It was also going to fall on 18 July, Nelson Mandela Day, and there were funds that would be distributed to organisations in desperate need of assistance. Lest we forget, the country and the world were still in the grip of the pandemic. Smith asked for R250 000 to start setting up and promoting the cup, but was told that money was an issue, even though the event was going to raise significant funds and provide positive news about the organisation.

The salt in the wound was a R500 000 full-page advert in the Sunday Times newspaper, taken out by CSA in the lead-up to the 3TC event, but the content had nothing to do with the tournament. The advert was then independent board director and transformation chair Eugenia Kula-Ameyaw’s idea, and the decision wasn’t cleared through the proper permission channels.

It flew in the face of cost-cutting talk and was another indication of the power games that were at play. Kula-Ameyaw’s influence was growing by the week, even as she brazenly admitted at a media conference that the game of cricket simply takes too long for her liking. She watches highlights, she explained, because she prefers sports that don’t take all day to reach their conclusion.

As she took to her role with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Kula-Ameyaw even queried why Test cricketers earn match fees that are significantly larger than T20 cricketers. It is common knowledge that one format takes up to five days to complete while the other is over in a matter of hours. One would assume that a position of such authority in a national sport would require at least a basic understanding of the game, but this has never been the case with cricket. 

It has led to more and more influential positions being taken up by casual observers who nevertheless feel emboldened enough to cast aspersions and suggest solutions to issues as deeply seated as transformation targets and pay scales.

Briefly talking about cricket 

As it was, the 3TC event raised R3 million for charity, provided cricketers the opportunity to lend their voice to the Black Lives Matter movement, and allowed the country to talk briefly about bat and ball again. It was also the most-watched broadcast in India since the ICC World Cup 2019 final, for a match not involving the most powerful cricket country in the world.

CSA was desperate to solidify the relationship with India, and the pandemic twice thwarted plans for T20 series that were worth upwards of R200 million to South Africa, along with the prospect of many more gestures of goodwill. But that wasn’t enough for some. What has become apparent at CSA, for years now, is that credit from the organisation doesn’t come easily for employees who are seen to be doing too much. It is as if people excelling at their jobs is a crime.

7 January 2009: Graeme Smith and Makhaya Ntini after a Test defeat against Australia. Smith, now director of cricket, was accused of racism by former player Thami Tsolekile, after Ntini revealed a career spent in isolation off the field. (Photograph by Tim Clayton/ Corbis via Getty Images)

The practice of doing just enough ensures safety, comfort even. Standing out and challenging others to do more represents almost a threat. And so, often, nothing gets done. This is perhaps how CSA came to be facing the South African Cricketers’ Association in court over unpaid fees. And why sponsorship deals that were all but secured were put on ice when the top brass tried to come in at the last minute to claim credit for their brokering.

It smacks of insecurity, which has been common for several years now. Blame is filtered down, but credit always goes to the top. A month after the 3TC cup’s success, and with the Black Lives Matter narrative still smouldering, CSA launched its Cricket for Social Justice and Nation Building project under the command of Kula-Ameyaw. She initially asked that CSA make available R20 million for reparations for those cricketers who had been hard done by in the past, though getting an answer out of her on how these reparations would be determined was another matter.

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The request was not met, but Kula-Ameyaw was handed a R10 million war chest. Dumisa Ntsebeza, a lawyer and anti-apartheid activist, was named as the ombudsman. At the time of publishing, there had been no further action regarding the restoration fund, but there are nine former players who have been named as ambassadors for the project.

Kula-Ameyaw was becoming increasingly outspoken, especially on social media, and no one was willing to bring her to book, in line with the guidelines stipulated by CSA’s media policy. It was bound to end badly, but again the organisation chose to ignore the signs. It saw her as fearless, not shy of speaking her mind and calling out whatever she felt the need for.

Nenzani’s legacy 

Interim chief executive Faul, worn down by the colluding atmosphere around him, resigned on a seismic Monday, 17 August. It was on the back of Nenzani suddenly calling time on his tenure that day, too, leaving many wondering what had been the point of his extra year of indulgence at the helm.

Nenzani had overseen a period of absolute negligence by his board, whose members simply sat by and watched different factions take charge, leaving the game on the brink of junk status. His silence since then is unsurprising, because it was on his watch that the game crumbled, the bank coffers ran dry and long-standing alliances withered to naught. What story of legacy could he possibly tell?

One of the key changes to the running of the game was the remuneration structure for board directors. Previously, the annual figure hovered between R150 000 and about R200 000, depending on seniority. This has swelled, however, to nearer to R400 000 a year.

Naturally, the greater rewards have been like a fresh carcass in the bush. As one former cricket administrator explained, the financial security that comes with a sizeable board appearance fee is difficult to walk away from after a few years, because you start thinking it’s a way of life.

“R8 000 a month might not initially seem like a lot of money to a person at that level of expertise, but once it swells, to maybe R20 000 or R30 000 a month, your lifestyle adjusts to that income always being there,” the administrator pointed out. “So, when you are being asked to walk away from that, some people will find it hard to do so, because that also means adjusting your lifestyle again. I think that explains the level of resistance that we have seen from some who have sat on that board for years.”

It is an interesting point, and one that perhaps explains how the CSA board members eventually became so thick-skinned, oblivious to the shambles that they were overlooking, and, indeed, in which they were complicit. Money corrupts, we can absolutely say. Kugandrie Govender became the organisation’s first female chief executive and was handed probably the biggest turnaround challenge in its history. 

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She claimed that “cricket was in her DNA” and resolved to ensure that CSA was a federation of which South Africans could be proud. It wasn’t long before she was at odds with the media, claiming that critical reporting of her organisation was from journalists who were vexed because they had been unsuccessful in applying for jobs at CSA. It is another extraordinary claim. 

In the wake of Nenzani leaving, Beresford Williams of Western Province was handed the interim presidency of the board. Yet another actor on the stage. Despite vehement calls for the board members to resign as a collective, they remained rooted, like outdated furniture in a room desperately needing refurbishing. Kula-Ameyaw continued her ranting. Her Twitter volley at long-term key sponsor Momentum forced CSA into an embarrassing apology.

But there was still no censure for her reckless media interactions. So, she kept pushing the envelope, kept snapping back at journalists who dared question her utterances. Several enquiries regarding any action being taken internally went unanswered. By industry standards, she could have been disciplined formally for any one of her transgressions. But nothing happened, as if the rest of the board was too scared to dare take her on. Power corrupts? Absolutely.

Sports department steps in

It eventually took someone even more powerful than the board or the members’ council to get the CSA board out the door. After an unsuccessful intervention by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa threatened government intervention if CSA didn’t get its house in order by 5pm on 27 October. The ultimatum gave the organisation a few weeks to make some difficult decisions. At long last, after five months of procrastinating, the members’ council agreed and recommended that the entire board be removed, which came to pass a day before the minister’s intervention.

A major stumbling block was the fact that some people on the members’ council are also on the CSA board. To call it a conflict of interest is a savage understatement, and it is one blurred line that future administrations have to remove. Not that the board went quietly.

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Even in parting, some members were incandescent, with Kula-Ameyaw saying they were being punished for a crisis they hadn’t played a part in creating. Handed a supposedly clean slate, an interim board, headed by retired justice Zak Yacoob, was tasked with three months of extensive repair work to CSA’s affairs. 

The rest of the board membership featured some fascinating names, not least that of Haroon Lorgat. The same Lorgat who was weeks away from delivering the T20 Global League and the bright future it promised. The same Lorgat who was investigated for wrongdoing by Nenzani, and cleared. And then paid a handsome settlement.

Indeed, this was the same Lorgat who was pushed out of his chief executive post by internal factions, for reasons still difficult to comprehend and at a cost to the game that is still being felt to this day. The deep, deplorable irony was not lost on anyone who cares about cricket. Lorgat had now been asked to help save the organisation that spat him out, while the individuals who were only too happy to see the back of him had left that same organisation in silence or in shame, their professional reputations in tatters.

But no one had reckoned with the obduracy of the members’ council. For the good of the game, the council had told key stakeholders, the contents of the Fundudzi report were being kept under wraps. The reputational damage to the organisation, the most powerful body in the game added, would be too vast if the report was published.

The mind boggles as to how the reputation of cricket in South Africa can plunge any lower. Indeed, many are adamant that revealing all that has gone wrong, including funds spent inappropriately, is the only way to cleanse the game and halt the trend of the corrupt getting their fingers slathered in gravy.

Members’ council fights back 

Within two weeks of the clean-up supposedly starting in earnest, the members’ council, in its infinite wisdom, made it known that it didn’t recognise the interim board. The members dug in their heels and sought legal counsel – including from the aforementioned puppet master – regarding how far Mthethwa’s office could wade into their affairs. Through their stand-in president, Rihaan Richards of Griquas, they told the media they were not happy with the manner in which the interim board was operating.

They spoke of conflicts of interest for Lorgat and his history in the organisation, and stood resolutely at the crease, daring the minister to call for a review of their unwelcome innings. This is the essence of power absolutely corrupting, and people forgetting that they are not there to serve themselves but the game.

The members’ council is meant to have the best interests of the game at heart, as well as those of an organisation whose reputation remains precarious and whose commercial clout hangs by the barest thread of hope for eventual change. Thus the defiance is extraordinary.

Under a ton of pressure from stakeholders and social media, including posts from players, the members’ council eventually relented and ratified the interim board that aims to clean up the game in three intensive months. 

The interim board, to its credit, had resolved to forge ahead with the task the minister of sports, arts and culture had set for it, with or without the blessing of the members’ council. Hopefully its brush sweeps cleanly. The game, so often let down by the administration of late, depends on these board members. They should be looking at rooting out any trace of collusion that still exists inside CSA. And those in positions of authority, acting or otherwise, should reapply formally for their roles and that process handled independently.

When you remove a virus from the body, the vaccine seeks to clean out any trace of it. That has to be the approach, if only to serve as a lesson and, perhaps, a deterrent to those who still see the game as a field for potential plunder.

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