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4 December 2016 18:12 (South Africa)
Sport

Exorcising ghosts: Defiant Mbalula swings at Fifa, but questions remain unanswered

  • Antoinette Muller
    still-a-boy copy.jpg
    Antoinette Muller

    Antoinette thinks of the world and the people who live in it as a bear with a sore paw. She has a stick covered in thorns and she’s poking the bear. When she’s not doing that, she’s watching cricket and longing for the days of the boring, boring Arsenal.

  • Sport
Photo: South African Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula speaks during a press conference at the Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, 17 March 2016. Mbalula came on record saying South Africa did not run a corrupt 2010 Soccer World Cup campaign and called on FIFA to retract its bribery accusations around a 10 million US dollar (8,8 million euro) payment. EPA/SUMAYA HISHAM

Fikile Mbalula was as defiant as ever on Thursday when answering questions about Fifa’s Request for Restitution surrounding that $10-million to the “African Diaspora Legacy Programme”. Mbalula might be throwing punches, but there are a number of questions surrounding the payment that remain unanswered and some circumstantial evidence that is deeply troubling. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

Almost nine months ago, when the whole house of cards at Fifa started to tumble down, South Africa’s Minister of Sport and Recreation took a firm stance. His brief was to deny everything and tell everyone that a bribe is “like a ghost, it’s untouchable; you’ll never find it”.

On Thursday, he was back in the hot seat. This time, Mbalula was responding to Fifa which on Wednesday launched a Request for Restitution to the US Attorney’s Office and the US Probation Office for the Eastern District of New York. They are claiming damages from 41 former Fifa officials and other football organisations, including Chuck Blazer, Jack Warner, Jeffrey Webb and others who have been indicted in the investigation by the US Department of Justice.

The document makes specific mention of the allegedly dubious $10-million payment made to the so-called “African Diaspora” which eventually ended up in the grubby paws of Warner. It specifically uses the word “bribe” and was reported as such, something Mbalula took issue with.

It has inflicted reputational damage of monumental proportions on this country. The ideas propounded by both the local and international press are loaded with dangerous insinuations," he said when addressing the media on the Request for Restitution on Thursday.

He added: “South Africa refuses to drown itself in the blame-victim mentality game. The FBI indictment and Fifa-orchestrated investigations are littered with explosive contradictions.”

Mbalula would know about “explosive contradictions”. The denial around this alleged bribe is full of it and the circumstantial and anecdotal evidence that surrounds the case leaves several questions unanswered and no matter what rebuttal the sport ministry throws out there, it is clear that the local organising committee and the South African Football Association (SAFA) almost certainly failed on at least one count of good governance.

Whenever Mbalula has been asked about why there was never any follow-up on how the $10-million was spent, he has had no answer and has always said that it’s not their problem that good-intentioned donations ended up in the hands of crooks. But good corporate governance requires audited reporting and financial statements and considering just how blatantly Warner was in his funnelling of these funds, there is plenty of reason to be deeply troubled by the lack of reporting requested from SAFA. Why was nobody held accountable for the spending of what is the single biggest donation in SAFA’s history?

Not only was there seemingly no financial accountability, but SAFA, and the South African government, also never trumpeted their ventures. Considering their fondness for backslapping, isn’t it surprising that the only public reference we have is a completely random remark by Thabo Mbeki from 2011?

Mbalula and Co have never denied the payment of $10-million took place. Mbalula’s defence is “how can it be a bribe if it happened after the vote?”.

Quite simply, actually. Chuck Blazer, who was secretary-general of the American-Caribbean football association when all of this canoodling was going on, has already pleaded guilty and told a New York judge: “Beginning in or around 2004 … I and others on the Fifa executive committee agreed to accept bribes in conjunction with the selection of South Africa as the host nation for the 2010 World Cup.”

The perception from Blazer and Warner that the funds were indeed a bribe won't be enough to make the implicated South Africans guilty of a bribe, though; intent will have to be proven and this is where, if Shadow Minister of Sport Solly Malatsi has his way, SAFA could be in for a few problems.

On Thursday, Malatasi called for the allegations to be investigated by South African law enforcement, saying in a statement, “Appreciating the seriousness of this [the allegations] we implore South Africans law enforcement to finally act in this regard and provide a progress report on these charges. To date they have shown little interest in holding the relevant individuals to account despite the pressing need to establish the truth about this matter.”

While the US Justice Department will have their own interpretation of intent, South Africa’s Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act has a pretty broad interpretation and plays verbal hopscotch, but does note that “a person ought reasonably to have known or suspected a fact” if a “reasonably diligent and vigilant” person would have done so, and that knowing a fact includes a belief “that there is a reasonable possibility of the fact”.

This interpretation essentially means that if something appears to be dodgy for a “reasonable” person, then you’re in trouble, and the dubious circumstantial evidence leading up to the vote is where all those involved will have some serious questions to answer.

What was Warner doing at Thabo Mbeki's inauguration three weeks before the Fifa vote? Why did Blazer then join Danny Jordaan, Tokyo Sexwale, Desmond Tutu and an ailing Nelson Mandela for a trip to Warner's home? According to newspaper reports Tutu and Mandela were invited to the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (Concacaf) Congress by Warner himself where he is quoted as saying: “The South African bid committee asked for Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela to meet with me and to address the congress in Grenada and I agreed to this.

I have since requested that they both visit Trinidad to meet at a dinner with several top local dignitaries and businessmen at the Dr Joao Havelange Centre of Excellence.”

But Mandela’s presence was curious and of concern, considering his doctors had advised against him travelling. Some sources suggest that Warner had insisted on the visit to strengthen his political position in the Caribbean and the congress was but a convenient ruse.

Following the congress, The Star reported that it had seen Mbeki and Mandela meeting with Warner and Blazer a day before the vote. In Mihir Bose’s book The Spirit of the Game: How Sport Made the Modern World, the encounter is also noted, with Bose writing:

What these men discussed has never been revealed, but I caught up with Warner in the corridor immediately after the meeting. When I asked him who was going to win, Morocco or South Africa, he said, 'who knows, anything can happen'. Then he gave a big smile, suggesting that the Mandela trump card had worked.”

Warner was a prominent figure in all of this because he controlled three votes on the 24-man executive, the votes which would probably swing the decision of who hosts it, and South Africa knew it all too well.

Danny Jordaan told KickOff Magazine in an interview: “By April (2004) a consensus emerged that the contest would be won in North and Central America. I agreed. We needed to secure three votes from Concacaf, the swing region, to win.”

Of course, there is nothing wrong with lobbying and Safa might very well shrug their shoulders and say all the circumstantial evidence simply shows how serious they were about the vote. However, all of that eventually will not be for them to decide, and when that day comes, Mbalula might have to face the ghost he’s been trying to exorcise since the scandal hit last year. DM

Photo: South African Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula speaks during a press conference at the Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, 17 March 2016. Mbalula came on record saying South Africa did not run a corrupt 2010 Soccer World Cup campaign and called on FIFA to retract its bribery accusations around a 10 million US dollar (8,8 million euro) payment. EPA/SUMAYA HISHAM.

  • Antoinette Muller
    still-a-boy copy.jpg
    Antoinette Muller

    Antoinette thinks of the world and the people who live in it as a bear with a sore paw. She has a stick covered in thorns and she’s poking the bear. When she’s not doing that, she’s watching cricket and longing for the days of the boring, boring Arsenal.

  • Sport

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