SA’s tarnished medal at the Commonwealth Games

William Saunderson-Meyer says the lack of public reaction to the loss of the event is sadly misguided


The awarding of the 2022 Commonwealth Games to Durban, 18 months ago, made hardly a splash on the South African public’s consciousness. The announcement late last week that the Games now are likely to be held elsewhere, was met with a barely suppressed national yawn.

This is partially to be expected in a country where the news platter is determined by a menu set in the two great metropolises of Cape Town and Johannesburg. At best, what happens in Durban, the Cinderella city, is occasionally served up as a tasting portion, of interest mostly for its mildly exotic ingredients. As for the smaller cities and town, and the vast rural hinterland… Well, they barely feature in the national media smorgasbord.

However, the lack of political and public reaction to the loss of an event that draws participants and tourists from 70 countries, is sadly misguided. The loss of a Games that was to be held in Africa for the first time, is one of the most globally embarrassing moments of the post-1994 era.

Correction. It is a sporting misnomer to say SA lost the Games. We threw them away.

Such casual abandonment is a marker of the degree to which President Jacob Zuma’s government is mired, to the point of impotence, by internal factional battles. While the loss of the Games is not as politically important as SA’s intended withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, it nevertheless will be seen internationally as symptomatic of our accelerating decline into Third World insignificance.

Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula’s announcement that SA might not host the Games, ostensibly because of the costs, was strangely low key. The loquacious Mbalula devoted tenfold more tweets to his department winning a minor award for multilingualism than he did to the loss of an event worth R20bn to the national economy.

Mbalula was disingenuous, too, when he identified costs as the sticking point, for the Games initially held little financial downside risk. The 2022 Games was never going to be a replay of the 2010 Football World Cup, where taxpayers ultimately had to foot an exorbitant bill for new, underutilised stadiums, and extensive new road and rail infrastructure.

In fact, the only venue erected in 2010 that has successfully commercialised itself is Durban’s spectacular Moses Mabhida Stadium and this would have been the anchor venue in 2022. Since Durban is also blessed with a range of other top-drawer sporting venues, most of the additional investment needed was already part of the EThekwini’s infrastructural master plan, or could easily be added.

So the problem is not cost, per se. The immediate trigger is the failure of the Treasury to provide the Commonwealth Games Association with the financial guarantees that it pledged, and which legally underpin the bid document.

The non-issue of guarantees stems not from obstructiveness. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has privately articulated the view that it would be “disastrous” to SA’s reputation if it lost the Games.

But the Finance ministry is concerned that the tight organisational schedule for mounting the Games is no longer likely to be met, at least not without huge cost overruns. That is sadly a realistic assessment.

Because of infighting between the various ministries, between national, provincial and local government levels, and between sporting control bodies eager to grab a slice of the Games budgetary bonanza, virtually nothing has been achieved.

Mbalula and his department have not fulfilled the contractual requirements, including paying the required deposit, signing the host city contract, and setting up a local organisational committee. With almost a third of the time available already wasted, there has not even been a chief executive appointed to head the project.

This made the CGA understandably antsy. Behind the scenes, it at first cajoled and chivvied the government to pull finger and get moving, including by offering its vast experience and internal organisational resources. To no avail.

That is why earlier this year the CGA quietly warned the government that it was running out of patience and was poised to pull the plug on SA. Canada and New Zealand are long-shot possibles for hosting. Australia is interested. Liverpool has already offered.

Fikile and his minor-league colleagues are now trying to make the best of a bad situation that is entirely of their own making. Pretending that the SA government is the one calling the shots – the one making a responsible reassessment in the light of costs spiralling up and the economy spiralling down – is just an attempt at saving face.

It is extraordinary that the Democratic Alliance, which initially welcomed the Games, now has done a flip flop and called for them to be abandoned because “prioritising a sporting event over jobless South Africans will simply be a betrayal of the worst kind”. This misses the cardinal reason for us being in this situation.

It’s not the costs. It’s not the economy. It is the inability of the Zuma administration to operate in a competent, orderly fashion.

By the end of next year Zuma will possibly no longer be president of the African National Congress. After the 2019 elections he will certainly no longer be president of the nation.

Time is running out for the state capture battalions. There is no longer much of a pretence at carrying out the real business of government. The closing Zuma years are simply about grabbing as much as possible, as quickly as possible.

Now if only there were a Commonwealth gold medal for that.

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