A choice between competence or collapse

RW Johnson says rugby and cricket show that it is vital to intervene before it is too late

In the focus groups which I helped conduct for ENCA in the run-up to the last election several Africans spontaneously voiced the wish that “whites could run South Africa again at least for a while, just to get things working again”. There was, of course, no nostalgia for being ruled by a different ethnic group. Instead it was a recognition that South Africa used to be much more competently managed in a technical sense and also of just how much difference that makes to everyone's lives.

The sporting events of the last few months have triggered similar considerations. The Springbok rugby team has had two periods of management by affirmative action appointees - between 2008-2011 under Peter De Villiers and again in 2016-2018 under Allister Coetzee. The head of SARU commented that De Villers' appointment had “taken into account the issue of transformation”.

As Tendai Mtawarira has pointed out, De Villiers was lucky to inherit a World Cup-winning team and was able to rely on the senior players to take charge of the team. Nonetheless, this ended with the Springboks losing in the World Cup quarter-finals in 2011. In 2019 De Villiers announced that he no longer supported the Springboks (he had taken against Eben Etzebeth) which led to angry demands that he should cease parading around in a Springbok blazer and, of course, a complete denouement when the Springboks won the World Cup.

Coetzee courted less outrage than De Villiers but when he had coached Western Province and the Stormers they had never won anything and his record with the Springboks showed what a relevant measure that was. By the time he was sacked they were ranked fifth or sixth in the world. Rassie Erasmus, who was then appointed, had been a notably successful coach ever since 2004 and had been a technical adviser to the Springboks at both the 2007 and 2011 World Cups. If merit alone had counted, by 2019 he should probably have been celebrating his tenth year in charge of the Springboks.

It took Erasmus only eighteen months to transform the Boks into world champions. In a way this was unsurprising. South Africa has now won three World Cups and the sporting talent (of all races) just keeps coming through. With competent management the Boks should always make the finals or semi-finals. Soccer works on the same principle. For years now African soccer players have been the best in the world – think of Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, George Weah, Mohammed Salah, Sadio Mane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Their countries never come close to winning the World Cup but these players all migrated to teams with top management where they won everything. The management of virtually all African soccer teams remains abysmal.

We have now seen something a little similar in cricket. After the atrocious regime of Thabang Moroe had resulted in the nadir of South African cricket, experienced management was drafted in in the shape of Jacques Faul, Graeme Smith, Mark Boucher, Jacques Kallis, Linda Zondi, Justin Ontong and Ashwell Prince. Within a week the Proteas had shown a clear improvement against a strong English team.

This transformation has only just begun and cannot get fully into its stride until the whole CSA board is sacked. It must not be forgotten how atrociously that board treated the previous coach, Ottis Gibson, and how they gave Moroe the final power of team selection without consulting either Gibson, the convenor of selectors or the team captain.

Many South African institutions – the railways, the civil service, the water boards, the SOEs etc-= are failing but without anyone restoring, or even thinking about restoring, the more competent management of yesteryear. (Eskom is no exception. It may now have a white CEO but the whole corps of really competent engineers and administrators which made it so successful in the past are still banished.)

So why are rugby and cricket different? Because these are the only two sports in which South Africa has enjoyed best-in-the-world status and when they win at that level there is national celebration. Secondly, by definition they face very public international competition so that failings cannot be hidden in the way they can be in the civil service or the SOEs. (It is no accident that the sole exception, SAA, which does face international competition, has gone bust ahead of all the other SOEs.) It must be stressed that the race of the coaches and managers is irrelevant: what matters is competence and experience. Linda Zondi, Ottis Gibson, Justin Ontong and Ashwell Prince are not white. But they are experienced and they are competent.

Note too that unlike the civil service or SOEs, cricket and rugby have to enjoy commercial success. There are no state subsidies or bail-outs, they have to fill stadiums and they have to have sponsors – indeed, the withdrawal of Standard Bank's sponsorship was what put paid to Thabang Moroe. In that sense sponsors are rather like the domestic and international investors which the government is so desperate to court. If they don't come to the party, the party's over.

So if the path to success is so obvious why don't SOEs and other government organizations take it? The answer is that they are much more like the South African Football Association (SAFA) – corrupt, incompetent and over-run by crooks and special interests. The result is, of course, that despite plentiful local talent South African soccer is a disaster area: South Africa is regularly beaten by sides from much smaller and poorer African countries. While special interests can keep squeezing money out of the game no one will try to change things, especially since you not only have to put competent management in charge but you have to allow it complete control. That would never do.

So does this mean that the SOEs and, indeed, the government itself, will continue forever like SAFA – corrupt, incompetent and ruining whatever they control? Well no, actually. SAFA depends heavily on its income from sponsors and broadcast rights. As this revenue falls SAFA faces a growing crisis. Doubtless the wrong people will remain in charge until the organization collapses. Already much of the soccer-loving public has lost interest and instead pays to watch foreign teams on TV. In the end economic forces cannot be denied so ultimately SAFA will collapse or fade into insignificance.

Something similar has already happened in many municipalities and it is close to happening to many SOEs. ANC politicians blithely assume that they can promise NHI whether or not there is money for it and force a crazy Mining Charter on the industry but that somehow everything will continue to work in its God-given way. This is delusionary. Such politicians may think they live in a consequence-free zone but in fact no one does.

As public institutions collapse will more competent management take over, as in rugby and cricket? It's unlikely. For example, many small and medium-sized towns are simply going under. Their residents become self-sufficient or, more commonly, they just move away. The means of renewal thus disappears. Even Bloemfontein, the old judicial capital, is under administration now, as is Pietermaritzburg, the capital city of KwaZulu-Natal. Similarly, we will not see SAA in its old form again.

What rugby and cricket show is that it is vital to intervene before a complete collapse takes place and before the means of renewal disappear. Secondly, the talent and potential are there: if honest, competent and experienced management is put in place things can be turned around with remarkable speed. To succeed management has to be chosen on merit and on the basis of a proven track record. It also has to be given full control and to be backed up hard. There is no other way.

This article first appeared in Afrikaans in Rapport newspaper.