Opinionista Judith February 23 March 2021

Power play: Cricket SA Members’ Council stands in the way of preserving a national game

It is time once again for all of those who love South African cricket and care about its future to make their voices heard, thus ensuring that the game is preserved for future generations. Perhaps that will bring the cricket’s Members’ Council to think beyond its narrow interests?

Judith February

Judith February is a lawyer and author of ‘Turning and Turning: Exploring the Complexities of South Africa’s Democracy’ (PanMacmillan)

‘Hard things are hard’
Plaque on former President Barack Obama’s Resolute desk in the Oval Office.

When the Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa intervened in cricket at the end of October 2020, he did so as a last resort. His intervention represented the final opportunity for Cricket South Africa (CSA) to fix governance or risk complete decline. 

At the time, cricket was beset by what is now familiar in most of South Africa’s institutions; dysfunction, maladministration and self-interest. It is fair to say that the game had been captured by a small group of individuals on cricket’s Members’ Council (the game’s highest authority) and its board which presided over significant governance failures. All this happened as cricket withered on the vine, sponsors became agitated and threatened to withdraw given the chaotic state of administration. Internationally, South Africa’s status has been eroded both on and off the field. 

Cricket’s present governing structure does not lend itself to accountability. The Members’ Council, consisting of the presidents of the 14 affiliate unions, appoints the board. It is a “strange legal animal” given that the board has the task of overseeing all executive functions. What it has created is two centres of power that continually clash.

The situation has become even more untenable given the failure of the Members’ Council to course correct and implement the recommendations of Judge Chris Nicholson eight years ago. In 2013, the game had hit a crisis with the so-called “Majola bonus scandal” and Judge Nicholson was assigned to make recommendations regarding a governance clean-up. His “Nicholson Report” is clear that this can only happen if there is a majority independent board running the game.

The current Memorandum of Incorporation (MOI) allows for the Members’ Council president to also chair the board. The Members’ Council then becomes player and umpire in its own matter and has no incentive to ensure accountability in cricket’s governance structures. In addition, most of the Members’ Council simply do not have the skill and nous to run cricket. It is a multibillion-rand enterprise that needs commercial insight and the ability to display innovative leadership if South Africa is to again take its place at the top table of international cricket. 

When Mthethwa intervened, he mandated the interim board to sort out the dysfunction. The key to saving the game would be a board composed of skilled individuals, the majority of whom would be independent.  

Mthethwa is not the first minister who has tried to save cricket from its ruinous ways. Former minister of sport Fikile Mbalula could not get the Members’ Council to agree to implementing the Nicholson report either.

It is the old adage: turkeys will not vote for Christmas. Presidents of unions will simply not give up what they deem to be status and access to resources and prestige and hand over their power to an independent board. Instead, the Members’ Council prefers the status quo while simultaneously hoping for different governance outcomes. They hide behind the notion that “cricket should be run by cricketing people”. On their watch, cricket has been run into the ground, yet there is also an unhealthy denialism within the council about the current state of cricket and how deep the rot truly is. 

From the start, the relationship between the Members’ Council and the interim board was precarious. 

It was therefore no surprise when in October 2020, the Members’ Council held up the process of appointing the interim board for 15 days. This was a bad faith gesture, having earlier told the country that they accepted Mthethwa’s intervention. By acquiescing to Mthethwa’s intervention, the Members’ Council did not fully understand that while legally the current CSA MOI gave them the power to appoint the board, their powers were merely technical. De facto, they could not stop the process. The train had left the station without them. 

After a back and forth which saw them raise every filibustering point in the book, the inevitable happened and the interim board was appointed on 15 November 2020. It is worth noting that this happened only after extreme pressure from Mthethwa, the public, media, sponsors and the players’ association. 

It seems as if the Members’ Council is capable of doing the right thing only when staring down the barrel of a gun. 

The interim board continued its work, yet the relationship has always been a complex power play by those both within the Members’ Council and some within the organisation itself who hedged their bets and worked actively to undermine the work of the interim board in trying to clean things up. 

It is time once again for all of those who love cricket and care about its future to make their voices heard, thus ensuring that the game is preserved for future generations. Perhaps that will bring the Members’ Council to think beyond its narrow interests? 

But this was to be expected. “Hard things are hard” and the capture of organisations in our country all happen in similar ways with individuals operating from a very similar playbook of disinformation, lies and obfuscation. 

 Once the Members’ Council had accepted the mandate of the interim board, the board itself worked towards issues including cleaning up the game; suspending certain executives, dealing with several outstanding legal matters which were draining the organisation’s resources and time and confirming a new domestic structure for cricket. In addition, it had to provide comfort to sponsors that the game was on a new governance trajectory. On an international level, there has been much to do to restore the reputation of South African cricket. That has included providing our international stakeholders rational actors to deal with while strategising about ways to leverage developing world relationships as a response to the increasing influence of the “Big Three’ in world cricket. 

It was always understood that the amendment of the MOI would be the salient part of the puzzle to ensure good governance of the game and to secure its very future. 

After considerable engagement between the Members’ Council and the interim board, and lengthy consultations with company law and governance expert Professor Michael Katz, eight of the 14 affiliate unions have decided — yet again — that an independent board would be a bridge too far. Clearly, they are hedging their bets and attempting to run down the clock on the interim board’s tenure. In doing so they have mocked the process put in place last year and have again displayed bad faith.

Unfortunately too, the Members’ Council has provided no coherent reasons for opposing a majority independent board. It hopes simply to stonewall the process and turf out the interim board. Perhaps it hopes to undo what the interim board has done by appointing a new board which is a “soft touch”? 

By doing so the Members’ Council has placed cricket in jeopardy, even while claiming to do so in the best interests of the game.  

It begs the question whether the Members’ Council ever had the intention of implementing Nicholson or working with the interim board to change the governance structure of cricket? Its claim that “cricketing people” should run the game makes no sense since the composition of any new board would of necessity include “cricketing people” and members of the Members’ Council. The challenge for the Members’ Council, however, seems to be that most of a new board would be independent. In doing so it would reduce the opportunity for the board to be hijacked by those with vested interests and who have as their sole purpose preserving self-interest. 

Cricket is a national good, yet as is so often the case in our country, a minority of individuals are undermining the common good. Their interests cannot be allowed to trump the interests of 60 million South Africans whom the minister represented when he intervened in appointing the interim board.

Over the past few months, hundreds of hours of hard work has gone into dealing with the dysfunction within cricket administration. This interim board has not been perfect — no board is — but it has worked with integrity to restore the game. There are some green shoots of stability. The Proteas men’s team has its first black captain in the white-ball game and a fine new Test captain in Dean Elgar. The Protea women’s team is showing us what winning can do to lift the spirits of a cricket-loving country. 

South African cricket needs board members who are able to navigate complexity and who understand what is at stake for the future. Cricket, its sponsorship and broadcast structures are perhaps the most complex in South African sport. It cannot be left to the inexperienced and the unskilled. 

Also, key to that is the role of Director of Cricket Graeme Smith. His phonebook of global contacts and his passion for South African cricket are worth more than one imagines. Of course, it is worth noting that Smith took on the position with the caveat that cricket’s governance would improve. 

It is time once again for all of those who love cricket and care about its future to make their voices heard, thus ensuring that the game is preserved for future generations. Perhaps that will bring the Members’ Council to think beyond its narrow interests? 

The Members’ Council seems determined to face either a legal challenge or the minister’s inevitable intervention. Unfortunately for it, tempting fate in this way places it on the wrong side of history. DM

Judith February is a member of CricketSA’a Interim Board

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All Comments 7

  • In America there is or was a saying”Men in overalls,jeans, built this country,men in suits ,destroyed it”CSA is following the same path as Western Province rugby,down the drain!!!Non accountability by men in suits, self serving individuals are a dime a dollar.Your deal of the century vaporises!!!

  • Very good commentary Ms February, at one time South Africa was part of World Cricket’s Big 4, but it has now joined the ranks of West Indies , Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the Championship c/w the Premier League.
    Modern times require a more financial and commercial reality from the tea and cucumber sandwiches club committee of ex-players.
    Thankyou once again, I just hope SA cricket can pull itself around, The Protea Ladies were stunning in India.

  • an interesting article however what transparency obligations exist in relation to decisions made by the members council? which members voted against implementing Nicholson and why? presumably sponsors and the wider cricketing public have a right to know the rationale for decisions that impact the game. the faceless and nameless members council need to be held accountable for their decisions. perhaps Judith can help us understand what obligations the MC have in this regard.

    • I guess there’s the mouthpieces to consider, ie. the lawyers and legal action, but I agree, who voted for and against, names please.

    • Transparency . What you are allowed to see ? When did Standard Bank pull out ?As a tax payer , I demand full disclosure from my employees !

  • Good read , thanks .
    So where to from now ?
    Back to basics , unite ! Take control , ‘Unitate ex vires ‘
    Or go the way of another SOE !
    I like a good game drove 300kms to see the Aussies in PE

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