Sascoc is defiant in the face of ministerial inquiry

Will the body overseeing South Africa’s Olympics hopes take the road to redemption that it has been offered or will it continue to put off its own transformation?

Gideon Sam and the Sascoc leadership have generously given themselves until the new year to respond to the recommendations contained in the final report of the Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into the Olympic organisation.

Nothing gets in the way of the Christmas break – not even organisational transformation of national importance. Given what the public has learned officially via the ministerial committee’s report about the internal chaos at the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc), who wouldn’t choose roast turkey when it appears your goose is cooked?

Some poolside reading of the report during the holidays ought to prepare board members for a special meeting scheduled for early in 2019 to address the stringent recommendations. These include an overhaul of Sascoc’s management structure, the appointment of independent office bearers, stronger financial controls, and tweaks to the Sport and Recreation Act to allow the minister greater powers of intervention.

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The latter is likely to send chills down Sascoc president Gideon Sam’s spine. The man who for 10 years has run the organisation with an iron fist will now have to surrender more, if not all, control if he can’t play by the new rules. Board members will no longer be allowed to sit on any other sport and recreation bodies while serving Sascoc, a move designed to eradicate the conflicts of interest that have plagued the organisation for years.

According to the report, Sascoc is in a mess. The board is crippled by factionalism – friends of Sam versus the enemies of Sam. The in-fighting has allowed organisational rot to set in, with corporate governance and compliance controls the first to be eroded.

Slap on the wrist

The delay in the release of the final report by Minister of Sport and Recreation Tokozile Xasa had raised hopes that she was preparing to deliver a killer blow to the Sam dynasty, and root out the bad apples that have hindered the smooth running of the organisation. Instead, Xasa accepted the recommendations of the report and then proceeded to tell an organisation that has just been found to be dysfunctional to sort out its own problems. None of that New Dawn decisiveness and intolerance for corruption and mismanagement promised by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration.

Hopefully Xasa and the committee of inquiry won’t come to regret that slap on the wrist for Sascoc’s board, with less than two years to the next Olympic Games.

Sascoc has lost nearly R100 million in funding from the National Lotteries Board. The organisation’s revenue sits at R185 million – an increase of just 0.5% from 2016. Sascoc also owes the City of Johannesburg more than R1.7 million in electricity bills for Olympic House in Houghton, which belongs to Nedbank.

During the hearings earlier this year, Sascoc vice-president Barry Hendricks revealed that former chief executive Tubby Reddy’s personal assistant had flown first class on a business trip in 2016, at a cost of R90 000. Sascoc spent about R6.2 million on legal fees paid to law firm Norton Rose Fulbright to defend cases in which athletes had taken it to court. The organisation has so far spent more than R5.6 million on independent disciplinary hearings for Reddy, former chief financial officer Vinesh Maharaj and senior manager Jean Kelly. Their CCMA hearings are set to continue in January.

Sascoc has until the end of April to implement a set of changes, although it is not clear what the consequences of not meeting this deadline would be. The process will be monitored monthly by an independent administrator, Xasa announced. “We are not here to dictate in terms of what the provisions are. [Sascoc] has an opportunity to put together provisions that would allow that structure to function and function optimally,” said Xasa underwhelmingly at a press briefing last week.

Much talk, no action

When asked about the allegations of corruption against Reddy, Xasa said she couldn’t get involved “as it relates to the termination of the services of an executive member of a sport body, which in any event is a labour matter”.

Former sport administrator and legendary national cricket captain Ali Bacher echoed the conciliatory tone of Xasa’s briefing. “We don’t want to categorise any individual, but I think … it’s about the way forward, because sport in this country is very important to all its people – black, white, young, old. It doesn’t matter where you come from, we are a sport-loving country. And I think what we’ve tried to create is, in essence, good corporate governance, openness, accountability and fair processes. That’s what it’s about.”

All of this “rainbow nation” talk is important for administrators and headline writers, but it’s cold comfort to the scores of hopeful athletes with an eye on qualifying for the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. Many of them will be praying they aren’t subjected to a similar embarrassment as the dreadful oversized “Ninja Turtle” tracksuits of Rio 2016. Those fashion crime days might be behind Team South Africa, but the countdown to Japan has begun, with Sascoc in the worst shape it has been. The delivery of a competitive team to the Games is already in jeopardy.

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To overcome this hurdle, an organisational development task team appointed by the Sascoc board will now consider the report’s recommendations and try to reinvent itself, beginning with its president Sam.

The report was also critical of Sascoc’s handling of sexual harassment claims, and cited board members’ conflict of interest for serving in the leadership of Sascoc affiliates. Despite this, the board will remain in place while it introduces new structural controls and irons out its internal conflicts.

Just how seriously Sascoc takes the recommendations remains to be seen. For the moment, the board is not breaking into cold sweats because its members have been spared the axe – for now.

The more things change…

At its annual general meeting on 8 December, a day after Xasa officially released the committee’s report, Sam delivered his opening address at the Sascoc headquarters in Johannesburg. In response to the report’s proposed process to appoint a new president, Sam said: “We have to sit down and say: ‘Are we going to agree or not on the issue of how a president must be elected.’”

Sam insisted Sascoc had already begun the journey towards change, and continued to lay out the problems facing it. He highlighted the organisation’s critical commitments: high performance, the governance of sport, and team delivery.

“The board resolved that something drastic needed to be done to stop the downward trajectory. Thus, we began to institute a process of organisational renewal and austerity measures, without having to be cajoled by anyone else to do so,” said Sam in his address.

Sam concluded his speech to the executive with these telling, and rather ironic words, considering his decade-long reign: “These are interesting times, the changing times, the times are changing, Tokyo in 2020 is upon us. We must keep up with the changing times. We must renew our organisation. We must modernise,” he said.

A more appropriate saying, by French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, may well be: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Sascoc has been given a roadmap to redemption under the glaring spotlight of public scrutiny and strong recommendations by the ministry of sport and recreation. Just how and when this will happen remains to be seen. Sam assures us that change is coming. But so is Christmas.

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