Sport

SPORT OP-ED

Sascoc: A time for leadership, not rulers

Barry Hendricks, president of Sascoc, and Nathi Mthethwa, Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture. (Photos: Wessel Oosthuizen / Gallo Images | Photo: Gallo Images / Jeffrey Abrahams)

The effective functioning and performance of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee have come under increasing scrutiny in recent months, which raises questions about its relevance in a desperate time for sporting federations both locally and globally.

The past 15 months have been the season of highest discontent in the governance of sport in our country, since the readmission of South Africa into international sport.

The South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) is in law the recognised confederation of all sport in South Africa, and yet it is at them that the discontent has been squarely directed. 

Sascoc was established through an amalgamation of the National Olympic Committee of South Africa (Nocsa) and the South African Sports Commission in an effort to create an all-encompassing institution to oversee all matters related to sport outside of government and to be the single overall partner to the national Department of Sport and Recreation. 

This amalgamation was borne out of lessons learnt from various sports governance models around the world. It was designed, among other things, to eliminate the duplication of efforts in the delivery of high-performance sport and the presentation of Team South Africa to international events such as the Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games and African Games. And it was created as a civic society-based organisation as required by the statutes of the international sports bodies to which it is now affiliated. 

If it ever was, Sascoc is no longer the vanguard mother body of sport in South Africa. It is neither the purposeful guardian for the governance and management of sport, nor is it the defining figure of the role of sport in our society. 

It has been ravaged by a lack of leadership, factionalism and the consequent trust deficiency. Even the Ministry of Sport (Sascoc’s major stakeholder) has lost faith in it. The organisation has been deteriorating for over five years and is now bankrupt, not just financially but in every respect. Consequently, its affiliates have suffered, so have the athletes and sport in general.

This situation was confirmed in a damning statement from Minister Nathi Mthethwa in April 2020. “We wish to reiterate that as government we remain unconvinced that Sascoc has demonstrated the necessary will to deal decisively with their internal problems, particularly those relating to governance, as spelt out in the Ministerial Inquiry Report,” he said. 

“The appeal to the IOC and IPC was therefore aimed at enlisting the help of the sports movement to address sports problems to avoid the perception that government was being heavy-handed through alternative ways of bringing back stability to Sascoc, in the interests of the struggling athletes.” 

Sascoc has long ceased to be the leader of sport, in a manner reminiscent of its predecessors such as the National Sports Council (NSC) and Nocsa.

Those organisations, despite their limitations, led with clarity of purpose and with institutional trust, punching way above their weight. Instead, Sascoc has placated and positioned itself as a “ruler of its members” rather than a leader of sport. It is driven by self-interest resulting in internal board divisions and factionalism rather than cohesion. It has sought to solve its problems by apportioning blame on others and outside factors rather than its own failings. 

It is an organisation disconnected from its purpose and is led by a board that is not interested in what the organisation was set to do, but in preserving the status quo as long as they are at the helm.

The organisation has been haemorrhaging money and skills, yet its board believes it can self-correct. The system is broken, that is why it can’t send full teams to international games, cannot pay its high-performance athletes their allowances, has lost one of Africa’s top Sports Scientists, Ezera Tshabangu, and has been unable to replace her, has not had a budget approved by the council over the past few years, been investigated by the government, held controversial elections, had board members resigning and some being put on special leave, and is led by an unelected acting president. 

The reality is that we need to look at the problem in its totality – it is no longer just the board that needs fixing, the whole organisation needs a revamp. It is incapable of self-correcting. There is a huge trust deficit between Sascoc and all its stakeholders (including its members), the government and the South African public. 

The organisation is failing to rally all those who matter to its existence around its purpose and when that happens, you become irrelevant and frankly, an irritant and a nuisance. As Mthethwa once lamented in one of his addresses to them in 2019, “no one will touch you when you are like this.” Not much has changed since. For several years, Sascoc has been ravaged by a divisive culture, as patently demonstrated by its last elective general council four years ago. Just before then and throughout the last four years, the board was divided along factional lines. 

Gideon Sam and the board were warned in August 2019 that if he didn’t make sure the early elections were held before his departure, there would be chaos. History has shown that when authoritarian leaders abruptly depart, anarchy is always the dangerous substitute lurking to fill the gap. Self-serving substitutes step in and navigate the road towards misrule, re-interpret the rules and regulations as they go along, bullying and abusing anything and anyone that stands in their way.

The lesson is you can change the leaders of the organisation, but if you do not change the organisational culture, the same modus operandi is set to simply continue, that is why dictators are nearly always overthrown by other dictators, until people rise from the ground up. 

As Steven Schuster in ​The Art of Thinking in Systems,​ correctly asserts, removing a leader from power without addressing and changing the system that was in place during their rule will only mean that the same patterns will continue to repeat themselves, and a very similar leader will step in to fill the position.

The divisive unprofessional culture needs to change, and be replaced with a purpose-driven professional inclusive culture with a clear vision and strategy.

It has created apathy among the members of the organisation, mostly from fear of being aligned with the wrong side, with the possible result of being deprived of financial and resource support.

We grew up in an organisational culture of inclusivity and consultation.  Going forward, we need a system with non-negotiable principles and values, that no matter who is in power remains sacrosanct, and be consistent in the implementation of those principles.   

When was the last time the members of Sascoc gathered to do a strategic review of the organisation? To review the state of sport in our country and chart a path forward about where sport should go and what sort of Sascoc we need to have to drive that agenda? The last National Sport Indaba (called by the Department of Sport and Recreation) was in 2011 and there is no record of Sascoc having reviewed or assessed progress on this since then. 

Members are no longer central to shaping the vision of the organisation, consequently, there is no collective buy-in on where the organisation should be going and what its role is. 

This is exemplified by the fallout between the board and members around the country’s participation in the African Games in Morocco and the selection criteria for the now postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where the board was seen by members as obstructing them from participating in these events, as opposed to assisting them to participate, which is what they believe is the main role for Sascoc.

We grew up in an organisational culture of inclusivity and consultation.  Going forward, we need a system with non-negotiable principles and values, that no matter who is in power remains sacrosanct, and be consistent in the implementation of those principles.   

As an example, when Team South Africa came back from the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, the late Minister Steve Tshwete was so appalled by the underrepresentation of women in high-performance sport that he ordered that swift action be taken fix the problem, resulting in the formation of Women and Sport South Africa (WASSA). The formation of this body was a consultative process. Consequently, a decision was made (in 1997) for 50% representation of women at all levels in sport. It’s absurd that the same decision (the 50% representation of women at all levels), was again made on 25 January 2020, an indication that sport has regressed and has been inconsistent if not whimsical in its implementation.

Diversity is a hallmark of any successful organisation, it’s not about favours or tokenism. Organisations that don’t embrace, encourage and exploit a diversity of experiences, values and capabilities will be unable to generate a rich variety of ideas, options and experiments – the essential ingredients of strategic renewal. 

Reforms needed

Sascoc needs a new decision-making process that captures a variety of views, exploits the organisation’s collective wisdom and is free of position-influenced biases. Leaders play a crucial role in driving this.

Sascoc needs servant leaders cultured in inclusive decision-making, capable of self-introspection​.​ The organisation needs leaders (not rulers) who embrace diversity of thought, a fresh leadership that is people-centred and is capable of listening to its stakeholders and acts consistently with the non-negotiable values of the organisation. This leadership style must also reflect in the federations and other stakeholders of Sascoc. They must continue to use their newfound voice to hold Sascoc accountable so that it serves its members as stated in the constitution. 

It is also important that we relook at the compensation system of the board – the current system is simply wrong. Board members continue to draw “salaries” from a bankrupt organisation with no accountability or responsibility for its demise over the last four years. The present set up does not encourage individual or collective accountability and must change to be linked to individual and organisational performance. Doing this will ensure that the system attracts the right calibre of people. 

The organisation also needs a near full-time president given the time obligations and commitments that come with the role. This involves attending local and international meetings of the IOC; Commonwealth Games Association; World Games; the Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture; the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Sport, with the Sascoc General Council and Board Meetings, attending to the requests and issues of the National Federation and various other stakeholders. 

As it stands, only those who are retired and/or have no full-time business obligations outside sport can do the job which means it limits the pool of talent. In other words, if one is in full-time employment elsewhere and/or running their own business outside of sport, they may find it arduous to run for the presidency of Sascoc.  

Therefore, the remuneration of the president needs to change in order to increase the pool from which to draw. There is a need to restore institutional trust in the organisation, and that means Sascoc needs to mend its relations with all its stakeholders, and focus on rebuilding its brand reputation. It must define what is its best value offering to the country and athletes at all levels and backgrounds.

Eric Hoffer, the American writer on social and political philosophy, once said, “every great ​cause​ begins as a ​movement​, becomes a ​business​ and eventually degenerates into a ​racket​”.

That is how far we have come. We need to reverse the tide. DM

 Qondisa Ngwenya is an international Sports Business Executive. He is also a former sports administrator and was a member of the Ministerial Compliance Task Team assisting in the implementation of the Ministerial Inquiry Report into Affairs of South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc). ​

Joanna Wade Ngwenya is Business and Personal Development Coach, and served as the National Women’s Development Coordinator at the National Sports Council.

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