Ousted basketball players cry foul
Professional basketball in South Africa is in turmoil following a major falling-out between players and management that climaxed in the disbanding and replacement of the men’s senior team before the recent Four Nations Challenge tournament in Johannesburg.
And the vice-president of Basketball South Africa (BSA), Albert Mokoena, appears to be at the centre of the controversy.
It was Mokoena, players said, who announced the replacement team. He is also accused of being behind the scrapping of an important pre-tournament training camp after players refused to sign an agreement with management on “rules, regulations and benefits”.
At issue was a clause dealing with the payment of stipends, medical insurance, remuneration for unpaid leave and the indemnification of BSA for injuries to players.
Mokoena declined to answer questions this week, saying that only the association could comment.
As the third season of the Basketball National League got under way on Friday, the tensions remained unresolved. The former vice-captain of the men’s side, Tsakani Ngobeni, warned that the frustration of the sidelined players is likely to spill over into the league.
Ngobeni, who plays for Duzi Royals in Pietermaritzburg, said: “When the [league] starts, the cream of the crop is going to rise again.
The guys who represented BSA in the Four Nations are going to have a long day – those who were sidelined are going to take it out on them. They played instead of sitting out and saying: ‘Guys, we’ve been fighting this battle for years; let’s stick together.’”
The Four Nations tournament, which included men’s sides from Nigeria, Kenya and Mozambique, was played at the Wembley Indoor Sports Complex in Springfield, Johannesburg, in March. South Africa fared indifferently, coming in third.
The dispute leading to the replacement of the national men’s squad centred on stipends and reimbursement for players who had taken unpaid leave from their jobs, as well as medical insurance for injuries and legal indemnity.
Left in the cold
It came to a head when a pre-tournament training camp was cancelled and three senior players, Ngobeni, Neo Mothiba and former captain Lindo Sibankulu – who were accused of being the ringleaders of the dispute – were not called to a new camp announced a day later.
But 10 other players refused to return to training when they learned that their teammates had been excluded.
Insisting that they were dismissed unfairly, Ngobeni said he, Mothiba and Sibankulu had met their lawyers to plan a court challenge, after an earlier application to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration was unsuccessful.
They said Mokoena had a “dictatorial style” and interfered with the selection of players to represent the country.
“When we saw the replacement team for the Four Nations tournament on television, Mr Mokoena was there to do the honours, but we did not see the coach. That makes you wonder: Who is doing the coaching; is it the coach or Mr Mokoena?” Ngobeni asked.
Mothiba, who plays for the league’s defending champions, Tshwane Suns, said the problems at BSA are not new. He claimed he was side-lined last year after asking questions about a contract sent to players before a qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe.
He said: “I asked questions about the amount of money we would get, because management never mentioned that in the contract. I also asked about the national team’s programme. Soon after that I found that I was out of the team.”
In an email sent to Mothiba by the national coach, George Makena, in October last year, which amaBhungane has seen, Makena appears to sympathise with the players.
“There are threats of not recalling you because of the correspondence you sent,” it says. “Instead of addressing the issue at hand, they opt to go the other route. I am busy at the moment addressing this issue. Please be patient.”
When amaBhungane contacted Mokoena last week, he would not comment beyond saying that the allegations were directed at his BSA office and had nothing to do with him personally.
He referred amaBhungane’s questions to BSA’s acting secretary general, Tsepo Nyewe, who said the association’s president, Graham Abrahams, is the only official authorised to deal with the media on policy issues.
“Please be advised that our president is currently out of the country … He will be back next week,” Nyewe said.
He did not respond to an amaBhungane request for Abrahams’s mobile phone number and email address, or for an alternative spokesperson to whom questions could be addressed.
However, in a circular to provincial associations and the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, Nyewe said the failure to agree on the “critically important” issue of indemnity, which had major legal implications, left the president no option but to cancel the training camp.
He added that BSA could not afford to pay players taking unpaid leave, a demand he said had “no precedent in basketball nor apparently in other codes of sport”.
BSA has also come under fire for failing to promote the league and attract financial backing for it, with players saying that the number of sponsors has not grown over the past three years and that the sport is not reaching large audiences. This view has been echoed by supporters on the league’s Facebook page.
Current sponsors are understood to include the department of sport, Tsogo Sun and SuperSport.
“Significant and decent money”
Cabby Magongwa, of marketing and events company Darkchild Productions, said he was disappointed that BSA managers had turned down his proposal to bring in sponsorship from fuel company BP on the grounds that they wanted to deal directly with potential sponsors.
“When we were in the final stages of the deal they said: ‘No, we can’t go with this idea.’ I was upset because they let me come and present, and then at the last minute said they didn’t want a third person involved,” Magongwa said.
He added: “As soon as Ali Mokoena and his team took over, I knew that my time with BSA was over. BSA now wants to control everything, while in previous years the game grew organically. If people want to hold events they need BSA’s permission, and when you go to them for permission they refuse.”
BSA did not respond to questions about why the deal fell through.
BP sponsorship manager Kaibe Mollo confirmed that when the basketball league started in 2013, BP had approached it with “significant and decent money”, but would not disclose the amount.
“We were advised by the director general of sport that, there were still things the league was working on, and only once they were comfortable that they had a product worthy of sponsoring would they look at potential sponsors.”
Mollo commented that the sport was growing 10 years ago, but “it has not moved to its full potential”.
“There should be no difference between soccer and rugby and basketball. The teams should be able to find sponsors; they should market themselves. As a fan, I believe BSA is trying to control things too tightly. You can’t hold something so closely and say it will only grow the way we will allow it to grow,” Mollo said.
Scandal dogs Mokoena from one ball game to the next
Basketball South Africa vice-president Albert “Ali” Mokoena offered massive World Cup bonuses to local organising committee officials Danny Jordaan, Irvin Khoza and Molefi Oliphant when he was chief operating officer of the South African Football Association (Safa) – despite the fact that Safa was about R50?million in debt.
An IOL report at the time said that in 2004 Mokoena announced that the three officials would receive bonuses of $1.5?million each.
The online news service quoted him as saying he had “made it clear to the three gentlemen that I will pay them as soon as the money becomes available”. Oliphant reportedly refused his bonus. It is unclear whether Jordaan and Khoza received their bonuses.
Jordaan, Khoza and Oliphant have all been sucked into the current uproar over an alleged $10?million bribe used to secure the 2010 World Cup for South Africa.
The IOL report said that, under his leadership, Safa “lurched from one crisis to the next”. It had paid millions of rands in settlements, including R2.3?million in compensation to sacked Bafana Bafana coach Shakes Mashaba.
The former manager of South Africa’s under-23 football team, Louis Tshakoane – who was awarded R400?000 by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration for unfair dismissal – was quoted as claiming Mokoena “is slowly killing this game … Something has to be done if we are to save this beautiful game from total collapse. This man has cost the association millions.”
Mokoena left Safa in 2004 after two years with the body, telling the media that he had been forced out.
IOL also reported that Mokoena quit as home affairs director general in 1999, days before he was due to be fired by former home affairs minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
This followed allegations that he was running a professional basket-ball club, the Soweto Panthers, from his home affairs office, using state vehicles to transport players and arranging for foreign players to obtain South African identity documents, IOL said. – Mamela Gowa
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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.