Western Province Rugby Football Union (WPRFU) president Zelt Marais could finally have gone too far in an “interview” in which he made outrageous claims in a public relations stunt that has backfired badly.
Marais’ 35-minute video interview with a “self-proclaimed WP fan” on the Rugby365 website was littered with assertions that have previously been debunked, and with massive dollops of factual fantasy.
It was an exercise in the alternative reality of a man hopelessly out of his depth and hugely under pressure after a catalogue of disastrous decisions that have left the WPRFU on the brink of collapse.
Ebrahim Rasool, chairman of the Western Province Professional Rugby (WPPR) board, the professional arm of WPRFU, who has previously publicly backed the struggling Marais, has finally had enough. Rasool issued an extraordinary public rebuke to Marais on Saturday, which was a result of potential legal action and sponsor unhappiness with Marais’ increasingly desperate behaviour.
“Following a Management Committee meeting with Mr Zelt Marais, President of the WPRFU, the Board WPPR (on which Marais still sits), agree and advise that the comments made by the (WPRFU) President during a recent media interview should be withdrawn entirely, with immediate effect, and an apology issued for any offence they might have caused,” Rasool said.
“We do not believe that the comments in question were appropriate, nor do serve the interests of WPPR and rugby in the Western Province in any positive way.”
To add to the chaos, Springbok and Western Province skipper Siya Kolisi announced he was leaving the union after 11 years, just a few hours after Rasool’s statement.
Kolisi’s decision to leave had nothing to do with Marais’ interview, but it had everything to do with the situation at the union over the past 18 months. He will continue his career at the Sharks.
Marais’ position should be untenable after this episode, but the fact that he’s survived despite a catalogue of incompetence is an indictment of the entire WPRFU system. The union’s 70-odd clubs elect the president and have the power to remove him. They did the former and have so far refused to do the latter despite continuous crises at the union.
But the mood has shifted with Rasool’s recent appointment to the board, and the former ambassador and Western Cape premier is emerging as the most powerful voice at the union. That fact that he has so publicly, and rightly, dressed Marais down, indicates that the latter has lost his power base.
In the interview, among many other whoppers, Marais claimed that former board member Andre van der Veen “got his sums wrong” after he brought a potential equity investor MVM to the table. Van der Veen was mandated to find R100-million, which he did.
Marais also tried to “fleece” (in the words of one member of MVM) $10,000 from the head of the consortium Marco Masotti, to tour Cape Town stadium when he was in the Mother City in an attempt to conclude the equity purchase in December 2020.
In last week’s interview, Marais didn’t deny trying to get $10,000 out of MVM for a stadium tour, which the WPRFU does not own, but he claimed it was a “fine” for “breaking every non-closure agreement”. Both claims were outrageous.
Van der Veen briefly considered taking legal action for libel against Marais based on his false accusations in that interview. But having spoken to Rasool, he chose the high road.
“The statements and responses by Mr Marais in the interview contain lies and false accusations that implicate many people,” Van der Veen said in a statement sent to Daily Maverick.
“It is not the first time that Mr Marais has blatantly lied and made self-serving, dishonest statements. I contacted Mr Rasool to address the matter. Importantly, I also wanted to confirm if Mr Marais commented as a WP board member and union representative.
“Mr Rasool undertook to investigate the matter and assist to prevent Mr Marais from continuing to make untruthful statements in public. I have no interest to litigate or pursue any action — it would serve no purpose. I hope WP Rugby is able to secure stable leadership so that the players, coaches and supporters are able to once again see WP achieve its potential.
“Whatever happens from here, at least the explanation by Mr Marais that he wanted to “fine” Mr Masotti and MVM provided some comic relief in trying times and will no doubt continue to do so for many years to come.” Ouch.
With the board publicly calling its president a liar, all that remains now is for the clubs to call for a motion of no confidence in the president. Given that the clubs have sat by and watched the union crumble on Marais’ watch, it would be a significant step if they discovered some backbone now. And even if they did, it may be too late.
“In its own understanding of the negotiations of the transactions referred to, and the records thereof, the WPPR Board does not believe there has been any corruption or malfeasance by anybody mentioned (in the interview), intentionally or not, especially as it relates to financial proposals made to the clubs of WP,” Rasool said.
“The board also refutes any suggestion that Andre van de Veen was not duly appointed or renewed as a member of the board, or that he was not duly mandated, authorised or requested to engage in the search for an equity partner.”
Catalogue of malfeasance
Under Marais’ leadership, the WPRFU walked away from an agreement with Investec Property Development Division to redevelop Newlands stadium and the surrounding precinct. A full reason has never been made public for why that happened. All Marais has ever offered by way of explanation in June 2020 is that there were “suspensive conditions”.
The Investec deal had taken 18 months to finalise. Heads of agreement had been signed in December 2019 and Investec advanced the union R50-million to cover its debts that same month. But in June 2020, hours before signing the final agreement, Marais stepped back.
Subsequently, Marais concluded a deal with Flyt Property Investments ( in less than a month) to take on the Newlands project with the WPRFU as a partner.
In an email to Daily Maverick on 30 June, Marais confirmed careful due diligence on the deal with Flyt had been done, even though negotiations had begun only on 3 June.
Flyt, through a subsidiary company called DreamWorld Investments, advanced the WPRFU a R112-million loan to cover its debt to Investec and R58-million owed to Remgro. WPRFU also signed over the mortgage bonds of 11 properties it owns to Flyt as guarantees for the loan.
Bizarrely, Marais later admitted at a media conference on 14 October 2020 that, in fact, comprehensive due diligence on the Flyt deal had not really been done.
“When the deal was approved by the executive committee and the clubs there were ‘some things’ that had to be put into the long-form agreements,” Marais said.
“So basically, the deal will be proceeded with [sic] when these conditions are all fulfilled… We sincerely hope it will be settled in the next two to three weeks.”
The deal has not been “proceeded with” and late in January 2021 the contract was terminated. Flyt is finalising a damages lawsuit against the WPRFU for as much as R500-million.
All this was preceded by the resignation, or ousting, of six board members that questioned, or stood up to Marais and his craven lust for power.
Kolisi moves on
The celebrated Springbok skipper formally ended an 11-year association with the WPRFU on Sunday. He joined the union after school in 2010 with a quality crop of players such as Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe and Damian de Allende.
It’s an unsurprising move, as Kolisi was a vocal proponent of the WPRFU accepting the MVM equity deal. Kolisi is represented by heavyweight US-based management company Roc Nation, which is part of the MVM consortium. He was contracted at WP until October 2021, but reached an agreement to be released early.
When negotiations between WPRFU and MVM broke down last December, the American consortium moved on to the Sharks where it has taken a 51% equity stake. Roc Nation has done a separate marketing deal with the union.
Kolisi, as Roc Nation’s star rugby client, was never going to play rugby for an opposition franchise, so the minute the Sharks deal was concluded, it became a case of when, not if, Kolisi would leave WP.
He ends his time at Western Province Rugby as the second-most capped Stormers player with 118 caps. Only flank Schalk Burger (123 caps) has more. Kolisi made his debut as a replacement for the injured Burger in the opening game of the 2012 campaign against the Hurricanes.
“Siya Kolisi will always be a Stormers legend, his story is well known throughout the world and everyone here is grateful to have played a role in that,” Stormers coach John Dobson said. “We would have loved for him to stay and finish his career where it started, but we wish him all the best.
“We have always done our best to retain the world-class talent we have at the union before looking elsewhere and we are looking forward to announcing some significant contract extensions with some of our experienced players in the near future.
Kolisi said: “I would like to thank everyone at Western Province Rugby for what has been an incredible time in my life in which I have grown as a rugby player and a person,” he said.
“All of the coaches, management and teammates who had such a big influence on me over the last 11 years and especially the people of Cape Town and beyond who made my time with the union so special.” DM
Che Guevara hailed from an Irish family.
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