Sascoc woes impact on SA’s athletes

The body responsible for Olympic sports has been moving from one crisis to another, a state of affairs that has filtered down to their troubled preparations for next year’s Games in Tokyo.

On the morning of 28 August, the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) delegation arrived late for a crucial sport portfolio meeting in Parliament. Here the organisation was meant to explain how it plans to navigate its way out of its current malaise. 

As it turns out, the delegation took a wrong turn or –  more accurately – their Uber driver failed to navigate the Mother City’s congested streets and arrived late to pick them up. It was a minor hiccup in the context of Sascoc’s real challenges, but it was a moment that was quietly symbolic of the committee’s road to redemption: slow, tedious, costly and aimless – and Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa is growing impatient.

Mthethwa met with the Sascoc board on 12 October to express his concern and reassure the federations that, come Tokyo 2020, the mother body of Olympic sports will have its house in order.

“Something has to happen and happen quickly, otherwise it’s going to be difficult to strengthen the relationship, based on the very unhealthy and unhygienic situation‚” Mthethwa said. “Changes have to be seen. Faces have to change‚ first and foremost. You recall that the Zulman commission raises the issue of governance and individuals in some of the instances.”

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In the aftermath of the ministerial committee of inquiry into Sascoc nearly a year ago, the sport governing body and the ministry of sports, arts and culture presented the ministerial inquiry joint report and action plan, a roadmap to recovery and implementation, following revelations of mismanagement and poor leadership. Sascoc and the ministry were meant to present a united front, singing from the same hymn sheet, clear on the path ahead, yet they left their audience with more questions than answers.

The mess at Sascoc 

Sascoc has already missed its April 2019 deadline for implementing the report’s recommendation of a restructure of the organisation from the top down and – Uber rides notwithstanding – Sascoc is in danger of missing the boat when it comes to Olympic Games preparations, too.

In March 2019, then sports minister Tokozile Xasa appointed Mthobi Tyamzashe as a facilitator to make sure the ministerial report’s recommendations were carried out. The first deadline of April 2019 had already been missed because Sascoc dug in its heels and questioned the ministry’s recommendations.

Tyamzashe was the first director general of the sports department and worked under late sports minister Steve Tshwete in 1994.

He said in a recent interview, “Our mandate as the Compliance Task Team is to ensure that Sascoc implements the inquiry recommendations. That involves engagement with Sascoc through their designated person. We have now presented a roadmap, in that regard, to the minister for his comments and we will leave it to him to communicate on this intervention in his capacity as minister of sport, arts and culture, and the person who appointed us.”

With just over seven months to the Olympic Games in Tokyo, there is little evidence to suggest that Sascoc is at all prepared. Team South Africa returned empty-handed from the World Athletics Championships in Doha in September and October. Two years ago in London, South Africa finished third overall with three gold, one silver and two bronze medals.

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Delays in the signing of Olympic selection criteria by various federations have compounded Sascoc’s woes ahead of the Games. Already this has become a public relations nightmare for the organisation.

The Olympic dreams of the kayak and canoe teams are practically over. They met international qualification standards, but fell short of Sascoc’s more stringent targets.

Criteria controversy once again 

Qondisa Ngwenya, a brand and marketing consultant for Sascoc, explained, “There is an agreed selection criteria between Sascoc and SA canoeing federation, which stipulates several levels of qualification and eligibility which has not been met by the respective outlets in canoeing. This agreement was signed before they participated in the World Championships. It was clear to everybody as we went into those competitions what the qualification standards were.”

But the problems at Sascoc have run deep and wide for a number of years, spanning the tenures of at least two sports ministers. The incumbent, Mthethwa, has called for swift and decisive change, which means earlier elections and the addition of two independent directors, as recommended by the task team.

Sascoc elected Barry Hendricks, chairman of both Squash South Africa and the Gauteng Sports Council, as its first vice-president and Netball South Africa president Cecilia Molokwane as a board member at their annual general meeting on 23 November. In all of this, it appears that the elephant, in this case Sascoc president Gideon Sam, is no longer in the room. His race is almost certainly run ahead of elections next year.

When the sports department allocated just R11 million to Sascoc, Sam knew the writing was on the wall as far as Team South Africa’s hopes for Tokyo 2020 were concerned. Years of mismanagement of funds had left the organisation with gaping holes in its bank balance, with little left to fund its Operation Excellence programme for high performance athletes. 

The 2018 inquiry into Sascoc, chaired by Judge Ralph Zulman, exposed factionalism among board members, and found that corporate governance and compliance controls were absent. Money had been wasted on litigation among employees and board members spent lavishly on overseas travel.

Sascoc spent R6 million on legal fees fighting former chief executive Tubby Reddy and two other employees who were dismissed alongside him after an inquiry led by Anton Myburgh, an independent senior advocate, found him guilty of several financial irregularities and maladministration.

To compound Sascoc’s financial woes, its Lottery allocation was slashed to 5% of what it had previously received.

Hendricks advised the sports portfolio committee that the body had embarked on auditing its finances for the past five years to try to recover lost money.

Hendricks has largely toed the line since Mthethwa took the reins at the ministry of sport, so much so that members of the sports portfolio committee questioned whether Sascoc and the department are one and the same thing. They questioned Sascoc’s competency and contribution to its own turnaround strategy.

8 July 2015: It cost Sascoc R6 million in legal fees to fight former chief executive Tubby Reddy and two other employees dismissed alongside him after an inquiry found Reddy guilty of financial irregularities and maladministration. (Photograph by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

‘Leadership must change’ 

DA member of Parliament Tsepo Mhlongo has been a vocal critic of Sascoc in the sports portfolio committee, and has made his frustrations with the organisation’s processes and Mthethwa’s soft diplomacy known. 

“The implementation of the recommendations is not going to happen because we have a minister in charge who listens to individuals, and is not dealing with the total recommendations. I was told that they’re going to come up with a way forward but I still question that. The first ETA was in April this year, they didn’t attain that. Now they are saying November or December to show the way forward,” Mhlongo said.

He said that Sascoc having a president older than 70 is a problem on its own. “The leadership must change first. We must not have deployees there. We must have people who are committed to sport, and have the interests of sport at their heart,” Mhlongo said.

He also highlighted the problems with the selection criteria, which change all the time.

Ngwenya said Sascoc was unable to announce who had already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. He said all qualifiers would be signed off by the technical team and the Sascoc board.

It appears the only thing certain at Sascoc these days is uncertainty in relation to the number of issues plaguing the organisation, from a president sitting in the departure lounge to a compromised board and clear evidence of maladministration. 

So far, the minister of sport’s response has been to show plenty of patience, nearly a year after the recommendations were made public. After his recent meeting with the Sascoc board, it’s clear the organisation is living on borrowed time and needs to start acting in a way that is more receptive to change. Otherwise, it risks jeopardising the future of its federations and the nation’s athletes.

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