Osasu Obayiuwana: Intrigue in South Africa

When Lord Palmerston, the 19th century British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, made the oft-quoted comment that there are no “permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests”, in the cold-blooded pursuit of agendas, he certainly wasn’t thinking about the South African Football Association (SAFA).

But he jolly well could have been.

With barely eight weeks to the election of SAFA’s president and executive committee on September 28, the impending polls have reawakened old enmities, engineered new ones, as well as destroyed, surprisingly, the political partnership between Kirsten Nematandani, the incumbent president and Danny Jordaan, the high-profile CEO of the 2010 World Cup Local Organising Committee (LOC).

Nematandani, once a close political associate of Danny Jordaan, ended up as the compromise SAFA president in September 2009, following a rather nasty battle between Jordaan and Irvin Khoza, who chaired the LOC.

Bitter rivals for the SAFA presidency four years ago, whilst both were, ironically, supposed to be working together, to perfect arrangements for the World Cup finals, Jordaan and Khoza’s ambitions cast a dark, negative shadow over preparations for the historic event.

Things got so bad between the two that even FIFA officials suggested that SAFA postpone the elections until July 2010, when the World Cup finals would be over, in order to concentrate on the bigger picture. That idea was turned down by the South Africans, who insisted the elections must take place, in accordance with their laid-down statutes.

As it was obvious neither Jordaan or Khoza could, if they won the election, preside over SAFA as well as organise a World Cup finals at the same time, both men had no choice but to withdraw from the contest, opening up the pathway for Nematandani, a political associate of Jordaan, to emerge as the unexpected president.

The tacit understanding between Jordaan and Nematandani, as many within the South African football understood it, was that the latter would serve a single four-year term and then step down, clearing the way for Jordaan to realise his long-held ambition of becoming SAFA president.

But the political bond between both men was finally broken, once Nematandani publicly declared that he was seeking a second four-year term, which will put him in direct competition with his former associate.

Whilst Jordaan, one of SAFA vice-presidents, is yet to formally declare his intention to contest the presidency, it is only a matter of time, in the opinion of informed people, before he does so.

Mandla Mazibuko and Mwelo Nonkonyana – two other SAFA vice-presidents – are expected to make up the quartet of those contesting for the position.

Despite Jordaan’s well-earned reputation as one of the continent’s most intelligent and articulate administrators, even seen by many people as the right man to ascend the presidency of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), he has been unable to make the ascension to the top table of the African game.

Comprehensively beaten at the 2011 CAF elective congress in Sudan, where he sought a place on the CAF and FIFA executive committees, Jordaan failed in a subsequent quest to become the president of COSAFA, the Southern African regional football grouping.

And his second attempt at winning a place on the CAF executive committee, at the 2013 Congress in Morocco, also ended in failure, where he was surprisingly beaten by Ahmad, the president of the Football Federation of Madagascar.

The defeat to Ahmad, who, ordinarily, ought to have had no chance of beating Jordaan, was particularly humiliating.

Contesting the SAFA presidency could be the last throw of the political dice for Jordaan, who knows that a defeat, in what could be a tough poll, will be one too many.

But a source with good knowledge of South African football believes he might be in with a decent chance of turning around his electoral fortunes.

Even though Nematandani had barely taken over the SAFA presidency, when the match-fixing scandal, involving the national team occurred – in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup finals – and has not been found guilty of any involvement in the mess, the SAFA boss has been compelled to take some public hits that have done his image no favours.

He, alongside Denis Mumble, the incumbent SAFA CEO, as well as three other officials, were suspended from their posts late last year, when the match-fixing scandal broke.

It took the intervention of Fikile Mbalula, South Africa’s Sport Minister, before they were reinstated, with just weeks to the last Africa Cup of Nations.

Allegations over the use of SAFA’s resources, after a loss of nearly US$6m in the last financial year, not to mention the unimpressive state of Bafana-Bafana in international competitions, have only added fuel to the fire.

The country had failed to qualify for the Cup of Nations since 2008, missing out on the two subsequent tournaments, in 2010 and 2012, before returning to the competition, courtesy of being hosts in 2013.

Regardless of who wins next September’s elections, real and sustained progress in the South African game, even at the domestic level, where match-fixing is also a problem, will only take place if the political will exists to make the needed ‘root and branch’ reforms, right across the board, in order to clean up what is generally acknowledged to be a system in need of a thorough clean-up.

In the meantime, the unfolding drama that is the SAFA elections roll on.

There will certainly be a twist in the tale if the ‘fit and proper persons’ test, which will be conducted, before candidates are cleared to contest the presidency, uncovers dirt.

It certainly wouldn’t be going against the grain of what has happened so far.

Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at moc.l1634535797labto1634535797ofdlr1634535797owedi1634535797sni@a1634535797nawui1634535797yabo.1634535797usaso1634535797

Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s newly convened anti-racism task force.