/ 10 July 2009

Titanic battle for Safa

While presidents near and far are desperately, even violently, clinging to power, Molefi Oliphant, is meekly relinquishing his position as South African Football Association (Safa) president.

This comes despite him being constitutionally eligible to take part in Safa’s presidential polls set for September. Chief executive Raymond Hack this week told the Mail & Guardian that there are no limits to the number of terms an individual can serve as president.

‘If a Safa president lives to be a hundred years, he could stand for re-election as many times as he wants,” said Hack.

Oliphant’s exit has given rise to a battle between Irvin ‘The Iron Duke” Khoza and Danny Jordaan, both prospective candidates for the post. The two most influential figures in South African football are becoming increasingly embroiled in an ugly, no-holds-barred battle for greater power.

The power struggle aside, Oliphant’s decision not to stand for another term, with the crowning moment of his career beckoning, is curious. He could proudly be head of South African football during next year’s World Cup, proving wrong those who have suggested he has been a ‘puppet president” for the past 12 years.

The timing of his resignation begets a thousand questions, foremost of which is: why?

Football analyst Mark Gleeson is one of those who believe the Safa boss has been a ceremonial figurehead.

‘It would be folly to give Oliphant more credit than he deserves. He was vice-president when [ex-Safa boss Solomon] ‘Stix’ Morewa was forced out after being found with his hands in the till. Strong forces in the form of Khoza allowed him to continue as a puppet president so that they could influence the game in the country,” said Gleeson.

The reasons for the Safa boss’ exit may be murky, but one thing is certain, this abdication has Fifa worried as it threatens to leave the sport in turmoil on the eve of the World Cup.

Behind the scenes there has been a great deal of guerrilla warfare and sniping as Khoza and Jordaan openly campaign to replace Oliphant as Safa’s president.

It’s a situation that has horrified Fifa president Sepp Blatter, who enjoys close ties with South African football.

‘I told the Three Musketeers [Oliphant, Khoza and Jordaan] they should not have elections before the World Cup,” Blatter was recently quoted as saying in the City Press. ‘They must oversee the World Cup process together and then they can have elections afterwards.”

His pleas fell on deaf ears.

‘I told Blatter we had discussed the issue. We have to follow the Safa constitution which states that elections be held every four years,” Oliphant said.

Asked why he was encouraging the conflict, Oliphant lamely espoused the view that he was ‘not stepping down” but simply not standing for re-election.

Maybe a question worth pondering is whether Oliphant is finally being told to step down by those who spared him 12 years ago when Morewa got the boot. Delving into Safa’s history might cast some light on the situation.

Oliphant was a little more than an over-shadowed corporal to his late predecessor, Morewa.

Whereas Morewa was unceremoniously toppled from his pedestal at the height of his career by a group of unlikely allies headed by Khoza, Jomo Sono and the then minister of sport, Steve Tshwete, Oliphant remained. The allies’ feuding with and dislike of Morewa was an open secret.

Tshwete instigated a commission of inquiry to investigate irregularities in Safa under retired Judge Benjamin Pickard, whose knowledge of football would have fitted comfortably into a thimble.

The outcome, not surprisingly, was damning of Morewa, entrepreneur Brian Mahon and Kaizer Chiefs’ Kaizer Motaung, who then formed a controlling triumvirate at the helm of football.

The Pickard Commission recommended that Safa officials should not benefit financially for what must be regarded as services to the country. But this has not been implemented.

The supposed indiscretions of Morewa have since been unashamedly increased tenfold.

Morewa was castigated for benefiting from an expensive car that had been donated by a sponsor and accepting gratuities for services rendered when elected Safa officials should have been operating on an honorary basis.

But these were nothing compared to the R7,5-million designated by Safa to Oliphant, Jordaan and Khoza for the roles they played in securing the hosting of the 2010 World Cup, as well as the fleet of sponsored cars are now available to Safa officials.

The truth is that Morewa’s toppling was a power struggle. Jordaan and Oliphant were frontbenchers in the Morewa constituency at the time and the new power bloc of Khoza, Sono and Tshwete that emerged could have crushed them as well.

Instead, as a tactical manoeuvre, Jordaan and Oliphant were entrusted with positions of relative power, but with an underlying, veiled proviso about who was boss.

From these questionable seeds sprouted the Khoza, Jordaan and Oliphant axis that has controlled Safa in one way or another since the late 1990s. And with Oliphant little more than a sleeping partner, Khoza and Jordaan navigated the course to securing the 2010 World Cup.

Ironically, it was not Khoza or Jordaan but Morewa who came up with what seemed at the time an unrealistic brainwave to bring the World Cup to South Africa.

But the Iron Duke latched on to the idea and even financed cash-strapped Safa from his own pocket.
Signs of the inherent dangers to the World Cup if the current Khoza-Jordaan feud escalates out of control are slowly emerging.

This is no exaggeration when you take into account that members of the media, including this writer, have been offered thinly veiled bribes to influence the course of the elections.

A high-ranking 2010 organising committee official recently offered me a handsome fee to write favourably about one of the candidates.

Even politicians are said to be divided on the issue. The Pretoria News last month quoted ANC MP Chief Mwelo Nonkonyana as saying: ‘South Africa is in the eyes and ears of the world because of the World Cup and we do not want a vicious race like this. I will ask him [Khoza] to step aside to prevent chaos.”

Ironically, the MP added that he was backing Jordaan.

But, like the Fifa president’s, Nonkonyana’s plan has not succeeded.

So what is going to happen if Oli­phant does stand down before the World Cup?

Well, Khoza’s group is horrified at the thought of Jordaan becoming the leading light in South African football and vice versa. Khoza is currently 2010 organising committee chairperson, Safa vice-president, businessperson, Premier Soccer League and Orlando Pirates chairperson. It is on this point that the Jordaan canvassers emphasise the need to halt the Khoza caravan.

Former Safa general manager and head of the FNB Stadium, Dennis Mumble, is among this group. ‘How can the chairperson of Orlando Pirates, chairperson of the PSL and top businessman have time to attend to the needs of Safa?” they ask.

To which Khoza replies ‘that he has never taken on a task that he could not handle”. He also points to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, who not only holds powerful positions in the football set-up, but is also the country’s prime minister.

The Jordaan bandwagon could be halted in its tracks early in the race because he is a paid official and is therefore currently ineligible to become Safa president, according to the country’s football laws.

Could this be the real reason for Oliphant’s impending departure: that the scales will ultimately tilt in favour of Khoza?

Jordaan would prefer that a temporary Safa president be installed until the end of the World Cup — then he could have a chance to take over. But this would mean an artificial president in charge during the World Cup.

Fifa might view this as disrespectful if not downright farcical. And all this to aid someone who may not be eligible for the election in any case?

Be that as it may, one hopes this does not become a case of the gods driving their victims mad before destroying them — and the World Cup as well.

  • Additional reporting by Phathisani Moyo