Out of our Wits: Should more be done to block club sales?

There could have been no way more humiliating for players, staff and fans of Bidvest Wits to hear the news. Earlier this month, they learned through the media that the club had been sold and its PSL status would move to Limpopo. Wits as we perceive them today, a professional football club a few months away from its centenary, would cease to exist.

The 99-year history of the top-flight’s oldest team would amount to naught overnight. Bradley Carnell’s thrilling brace against Kaizer Chiefs in the 1996 Coca-Cola Cup final; Gavin Hunt holding a maiden league trophy aloft in 2017; and countless other memories reduced to mere stories instead of seminal moments in a team’s development.

Even for those uninterested in the Wits’s legacy, the sale has, and should, cause great concern. In many respects the move puts a fine point on the struggles football in the country is already facing. Despite the PSL itself being able to boast R1-billion in revenue last year, the broader South African game has, arguably, not been in robust shape for a while — a reality exacerbated by Covid-19 and the loss of sponsorship mainstay Absa from next season.   

We thus find ourselves in a classic Catch-22: the sport craves investment but it’s arrival often threatens the integrity we believe should be a cornerstone of the game. 

Worrying circumstances

First things first, it is imperative that the Wits deal is concluded in a manner that is fair to all parties, particularly the players.

New owner Lawrence Mulaudzi was quick to announce that Wits will become Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila (TTM) next season — a club currently in the GladAfrica Championship. (TTM’s own status was, in fact, sold days before the Bidvest deal was announced.)

Mulaudzi, a controversial Public Investment Corporation beneficiary and favourite of tabloid headlines, Mulaudzi stoked the already tense apprehensions about the move by hastily revealing that the club would not have the money to pay Hunt and the other top Wits earners. On the back of that revelation, it appeared most of the squad would be left jobless and out in the cold. 

Naturally, this piqued the concern of the South African Football Players Union (Safpu), which arranged a sit-down with Mulaudzi and insisted on various guarantees.

“He assured us that he is buying the team. He wrote a letter and confirmed that it would be bought and sold under section 197 [of the Labour Relations Act],” Safpu president Thulaganyo Gaoshubelwe tells the Mail & Guardian. Section 197 is intended to protect the rights of employees after a business is transferred.

“We wanted this simply because we know from experience … normally when clubs sell their status, the people who suffer are players. We want to at least guarantee that players’ contracts be taken along. Should the players get on the other side and the club then begins to say: ‘we’re no longer interested in your services because you are surplus to requirements’, we know what would be the next step.”

That next step would be to go through the PSL’s Dispute Resolution Chamber — an arena that Safpu and TTM have duelled in on multiple occasions over unpaid salaries.

To this day, Gaoshubelwe says, at least four players are owed money by TTM. Indeed, he was initially shocked to hear that Mulaudzi had acquired Wits when he was apparently struggling to pay those on his current payroll. In their meeting, Mulaudzi reportedly promised that all outstanding money would be paid before the deal was ratified by the PSL. He also promised that any player who wishes to get out of his contract would be granted an audience to discuss a compensation package.

“For us, it is important to have investors in the game and people who are going to ensure that football goes to another level,” Gaoshubelwe continued. “We do need resources and positive investment so that we can go forward. Without any investment we will not be able to achieve our developmental goals of football as a country. However, we believe that any investment must not undermine the development of the game. Now, if there are people that want to invest, let them invest; however, there must be rules. There’s a discussion we need to have as a country and stakeholders.”

Old ways aren’t working

That discussion is arguably long overdue. Only the executive committee of the National Soccer League (NSL) has the power to sanction, and override, a club’s ambitions to transfer ownership and change its identity and/or location. The NSL handbook specifically states that for such moves to be approved “the acquirer must satisfy the executive committee of the future financial stability and sustainability of the member club”.

The general sentiment in the football community, however, is that the role of the league authorities tends to amount to that of a rubber stamp instead of a discerning source of oversight.

“The league has a responsibility of making sure these things make sense. And they don’t always make sense,” Sgwili Gumede, the founder and owner of finance research company Sport Boardroom, told the South African Football Journalists Association in an online discussion. “The league must take more responsibility for ensuring these things are better managed. Perhaps the structure of our league, and the fact that our league is run by club officials, makes this even more difficult. 

“It must be hard to move clubs just willy-nilly and better financial oversight as part of club licencing is probably one of the ways of managing this better. New money is important for the sport but we need to find better protocols of how it comes in and how it is managed. I think we, as a sport, need to understand better what it means to put the fans first, at the centre of what we do.”

Among backroom aficionados, South Africa generally ranks poorly in its protection of clubs and fans from potential malicious investment. Libertarian or laissez-faire ideologies are rarely considered a good thing in football, because strict regulations help to preserve both sporting integrity and culture. The German Bundesliga and its “50+1” rule, for example, is often cited as the gold standard — the clause states that all clubs must hold a majority of their voting rights.

Although the selling, and even dissolution, of clubs is nothing new in the country, what adds an extra dimension to the Wits case in particular is that it’s highly unlikely that the footballing product will improve with the sale.

Mulaudzi has already indicated that it will be unsustainable to keep the team’s best players, and the new training facilities are unlikely to match the excellent ones in Braamfontein. 

There is also the suggestion that Limpopo is a far from ideal location to build a flourishing football club if precedent is anything to go by — Baroka FC, Polokwane City and Black Leopards occupied three of the bottom four spots on the log before lockdown began.

“Limpopo is probably the last place I would put a football club,” Gumede said, as he compared the demand for a new top-flight football club across the nine provinces. “I think Limpopo is over-indexed and perhaps one could argue that no one has built a strong enough local football team to really build a formidable business. Black Leopards in some ways have done that, but I don’t know if the region itself can sustain [four PSL teams].”

Ultimately, South African football cannot afford to turn away new money. It shouldn’t be something we frown on either — everyone agrees that new investment must be welcomed as an opportunity to  grow and develop further. But it’s also clear that cold hard cash currently has few limitations on what it can buy. It’s up to our stakeholders to get together and ensure that does not include our soul.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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