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Basketball Bully Boys

Basketball may be a million-dollar sport but in Africa it’s not. Just ask the players in the inaugural Four Nations Challenge in Johannesburg, in March.
They couldn’t even afford to swap vests at the end.

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Hardship was clear before a shot was aimed at a basket at Wembley Arena in Johannesburg. This should have been a great day for basketball in Africa. The pride of four nations battling it out in bright-colored kit. As they trained, the South African players, who hoped the game would pay their way, were not happy. Aside from a lack of money, they were told to play at their own risk.

Contracts said players would be liable for their own medical expenses, or death, or loss of property. Each was to get a $336 package for the camp, an extra $168 if they reach the final and $168 for winning. The money was not in the contract and the players had to ask.

But, after two days of negotiations, the management failed to broker an agreement. They sent aggrieved players home and scrambled for a second-string team.

Neo Mothiba, one of the senior players with more than 10 years in the national team, was among those sent home. Only three, out of 15, returned.

“We were emailed contracts on March 13 at around 4PM and we were to sign and hand them in upon our arrival on Saturday (March 14). I went through the contract and I was obviously not happy with the clause that says there was no medical insurance and there was no clarity how much we (were to) get paid,” says Mothiba.

He denies the players asked for more money.

Ali Mokoena, the Deputy President of Basketball South Africa (BSA), after long deliberations, agreed to modify the medical aid clause, scratching it out and writing ‘full paid’, in pen.

“But I wouldn’t sign a contract written by hand, I work with contracts all the time. And even worse, they wanted us to sign there and then,” says Mothiba.

Mothiba, whose mother is a lawyer, says his contractual battles with the organization dates back more than a decade. He says he’s fed up.

“Last year November, the team went to Bulawayo for All Africa Games qualifiers but unfortunately I was left out because I questioned the contract and how much I was going to get paid. I work and I have a business on the side, I can’t leave everything behind for something I don’t know. I need to be clear with what I commit myself to,” says Mothiba.

Mothiba says BSA merely tweeted that the players were suspended. He is concerned this dispute could hurt his day job playing for Tshwane Suns and his training of youth in Pretoria.

Solomzi Ngonelo, a manager of the Duzi Royals club in South Africa’s Basketball National League (BNL) and who also runs an amateur team in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, was one of negotiators for the players. He corroborates Mothiba’s claims.

Ngonelo says in a separate meeting, on the second day of the camp, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula promised to get to the bottom of the problem and admitted the players were being treated unfairly. Despite this, Mokoena went ahead and called off the camp the next day.

“A player, Lucky Loate, was a victim when he was injured at the All Africa Games qualifiers in Madagascar in 2011. He needed an operation on his ankle but was given the run around by BSA until he gave in… basketball players need to stand together. This is bigger than basketball, it is a matter of principle,” says Ngonelo.

BSA does not offer long term contracts, players sign up per event. There has never been a fulltime coach. George Makena of Tshwane Suns was appointed coach for this tournament.

The furore ignited when players went to a national radio station to air their grievance.

Solly Malatsi, a member of parliament who is in the sports and recreation portfolio, listened and contacted the players. He wrote to his chairperson, Beauty Dlulane, and South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) executive officer, Tubby Reddy.

“Young professional athletes have been victimized and bullied for simply asking to be treated fairly… It is totally unacceptable the national team players are (treated) this way by their own federation. The risk of injury is a serious threat to the career of athletes. The federation should at all times cover this. It is common practice in other sport codes,” Malatsi wrote in the letter.

Reddy, in a reply, says Sascoc was investigating. BSA was restructuring, after Sascoc placed it under administration, because it was found to have financial mismanagement, he says.

“It would appear that as a result of this, the current executive of BSA was not prepared to place the association at financial risk again, and thereafter withdrew the selection of the individual members concerned, and re-selected a further group of players to represent the association and the country in this tournament,” says Reddy.

This dispute is a small part of a bigger and more depressing picture for basketball in Africa’s second biggest economy.

Graeme Joffe, a senior commentator in South Africa and former CNN sports presenter, also weighed in.

“Surely, the players had every right to ask for those amendments. Why should any athlete have to pay out of their pocket if injured when representing the country? But the bully boys of South Africa basketball didn’t like to be challenged,” he says.

Sibongile Fondini, a BSA executive council member and provincial administrator in Port Elizabeth, a city in the east coast of South Africa, argues the sport in his province is still amateur and lacks sponsorship.

“The fact that we managed to host the event is a sign we are progressing but there are so many challenges in our way. A SuperSport program Siyadlala is piloting a basketball broadcasting program in the Western Cape and Gauteng provinces. I hope that reaches out to other provinces and the sport will surely grow as well,” says Fondini.

Joffe disagrees.

“Just drive through Port Elizabeth and see what most of the basketball courts are used for these days. Certainly not basketball. Sunsport (a basketball training program) reported, as of March 31, BSA had accumulated losses amounting to R5.7 million (around $482,000) and the association’s total liabilities exceeded to the tune of the same amount. Sascoc were left to probe the missing funds,” says Joffe.

A former BSA president and politician, Malesela Maleka, admitted in 2012 that the association was bankrupt but complained that the national lottery – which funds many South African sports – did not respond to a BSA application for money two years before.

In June 2013, before the sports and recreation portfolio committee in parliament, BSA said a lack of credibility, poor leadership, low morale among players and dysfunctional provinces were among their problems. It was then $500,000 in the red.

All four teams in Johannesburg admitted their fair share of financial problems. Nigeria’s coach, Sani Ahmed, and his captain, Olumide Oyedeji, lamented the lack of money but did not want to say more. At least the South African players are free to speak.

Nigeria, called D’Tigers, won the tournament, beating Mozambique 72-59 in the final. South Africa was third and Kenya last. If it was an administration tournament maybe South Africa would have come last.

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‘The Boys Club Is Being Infiltrated Slowly’

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Women’s football in the southern African region has picked up pace in recent years, benefiting from some ground-breaking work across all spheres of the sport. Sue Destombes is a key figure driving it.

The Council of Southern African Football Associations (COSAFA) is leading the charge in women’s football, and particularly so, its Secretary General Sue Destombes, who has overseen the introduction of women’s competitions at Under-17 and Under-20 level, to go with a senior championship, in the last year.

COSAFA has 14 member nations across the region, and industry veteran Destombes is a key figure in driving an ambitious expansion of its operations that last year saw them host six international tournaments in four different countries – South Africa, Mauritius, Malawi and Zambia.

Destombes was recently recognized for her contribution to football with a Lifetime Achievement honor at the 2019 Hollard Sport Industry Awards.

She has been involved with the organization since the first men’s senior COSAFA Cup was played in 1997, and leads a team that has a heavy female influence, along with the head of the COSAFA media office, Lynda Greeff, and long-serving office manager, Nobuhle Masuku, among others.

Sue Destombes COSAFA General Secretary with Janine Van Wyk South Africa Team Captain and Amanda Dlamini Former South Africa Captain help conduct the Draw during the 2019 COSAFA Women Championship Draw on the 03 July 2019 COSAFA House Pic Sydney Mahlangu/ BackpagePix

In what has been typically a male-dominated industry, Destombes has managed to leave her mark not only on COSAFA, but also the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and global governing body FIFA.

“I have never found being a women a barrier to entry in football, and cannot remember any situation where I felt excluded because I am a woman, but that does not mean there is not a ‘boys’ club’ environment,” Destombes tells FORBES AFRICA.

“It is not a problem in the business of football, but maybe on a social level, yes, there can be some exclusion. But I don’t work in football for the social gatherings, so it does not bother me.”

Sue Destombes, Cosafa General Secretary during the 2019 COSAFA U17 Boys draw at COSAFA House, Johannesburg, on 28 August 2019 ©Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

Destombes says she is pleased that women are starting to play a greater role in football administration, but says there is a long way to go.

“In the 54 African member associations of FIFA, we only have one female president in Isha Johansen from Sierra Leone. But we are slowly starting to see a change in terms of female representation on executive committees and even within the CAF secretariat.

“FIFA, for the first time in their 116-year history, have a female Secretary General in Fatma Samoura (from Senegal), so maybe the boys’ club is being infiltrated slowly.”

Destombes has been determined to help grow the women’s game in the COSAFA region – but not just for players.

COSAFA’s mandate includes upskilling coaches, match officials and even administrators, who all gain valuable experience, not only from the tournaments that are played, but also from targeted workshops that leave behind a lasting imprint in host cities across the region.

“We don’t just pitch up, play games and say goodbye,” Destombes says. “We always leave a legacy in whichever country we are in.

“We have done incredible work to develop male and female referees across the region, many of who have gone on to make the FIFA panel. We have put aspiring male and female coaches through courses to get their D-License, which is really the first step in a coaching career.”

Women’s football has been increasing in focus, with South Africa making the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France in 2019. Their coach, Desiree Ellis, has spoken multiple times of how COSAFA helped her mould her squad, and her own skills, by providing quality competition at tournaments.

Nelson Mandela Bay Mayor Mongameli Bobani, Sue Destombes (Cosafa General Secretary) and Nelson Mandela Bay Mayor Deputy Mayor Thsonono Buyeye during the 2018 Cosafa Women’s Championship Zambia team arrival at Port Elizabeth International Airport on 9 September 2018 © Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

“It has long been COSAFA’s wish to grow women’s football and we have made great strides in recent times. Last year was the first in which we held three women’s competitions in the various age-groups, and we will do that again in 2020,” Destombes confirms.

“It is about providing opportunity to girls to both play the game, or be involved in another capacity such as coaching and administration.”

The senior COSAFA Women’s Championship that was held in South Africa’s Port Elizabeth last year drew bumper crowds, suggesting there is plenty of interest in the female game from fans.

But finding commercial partners is more challenging, admits Destombes.

“One of the new tournaments we want to implement is a women’s club Champions League, for teams across the region. That would truly catapult the development of the game. But it is dependent on finding commercial partners.”

That is true for much of the work done by COSAFA. While they do get funding from FIFA for tournaments, it is a finite amount and does not come close to covering the expense.

“Our number one challenge is the financial aspect,” Destombes says. “We are the biggest of the six CAF zones that make up the continent, with the most members, and we would like to include everybody.

“For example, our women’s Under-17 and Under-20 competitions had eight teams competing last year, and we would love to expand that to at least 12 to provide greater opportunity.

“But that is a huge leap in the budget, so we need commercial partners and bullish broadcasters who want this type of content.

Nick Said

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Get Set Mo!

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Morongoa Mahope feeds her love for extreme biking with petrol and adrenaline. The funds for her pet passion come from her nine-to-five accounting job.

About 10kms north of the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit in South Africa is another racetrack, where superbikes and sports cars are noisily revving up their engines, getting ready for a practice run on a cold Wednesday afternoon in Johannesburg.

At first glance at the Zwartkops racetrack is a melange of male drivers and mechanics.

But also revving up a superbike, the one numbered 83, is Morongoa Mahope from Mahwelereng in the Limpopo province of South Africa.

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She is about to clock 270kmph on her black bike, tagged #Mo83 in pink.

When she is not burning rubber on the racetrack, Mahope is an accountant working for an advertising agency in the city.

“When I started [superbiking], it was mainly only for leisure because I love the sound bikes and cars make. I’m a petrol head and just wanted it to commute to work,” she says.

Morongoa Mahope

Her journey started in 2013 when she convinced her husband and family about buying a superbike. Her family was initially apprehensive and viewed superbike racing as dangerous.

Her husband finally relented and Mahope went for a day’s training to see if she really would be interested in the bike before investing in it. The 36-year-old sports fanatic succumbed, and indeed pursued her wish.

“I still have my first bike; it’s a green and black Kawasaki Ninja 250cc. I was just using it to [go to] work until I met a biking club, the Eagle Bikers Club Limpopo,” she recalls.

Mahope was riding with the club, doing breakfast runs between Johannesburg and Limpopo; but, in 2015, they took a trip to Nelspruit in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.

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Navigating the mountainous, curvy roads, Mahope was overtaking men with her small 250cc bike at the bends.

She was then goaded by her fellow riders to try the racing circuit.

“I went to the track and met a superbike racer; Themba Khumalo, and I started following his journey. I spent more time on the track, practising so I could start racing in 2016. The love for the sport was getting deeper and deeper,” says Mahope.

Khumalo, a professional superbike rider who has raced in the European Championships, says he met Mahope at Zwartkops and it was her first time at the track, and she was quite fast at the corners.

He went up to her to introduce himself because it was rare to see a black woman on a racetrack.

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“I then took her through the fundamentals of racing and the basics; the type of bike she would need and the equipment. I could see how committed she was and how quick she was learning, and her lack of fear. She was going farther than where she was,” says Khumalo.  

However, her male counterparts were not impressed with her pace on the track; they remarked negatively about her. But Mahope didn’t let the minimizing comments derail her mission.

Unfortunately, Mahope was involved in an accident during training on Valentine’s Day in 2017 and fractured her clavicle before her first race. That took her off the bike for six months.

She joked about the incident with friends, but they persisted and told her it’s an unsafe sport. That encouraged her even more; she wore her helmet and gloves, clocking higher speeds than ever before on her superbike.

Indeed, it was a learning curve. A few months later, she was invited to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe to race.

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Her first official race was the same year as the injury; it was a club race in Delmas, Mpumalanga, at the Red Star Raceway. She had never been on the grid nor practised how to stud, but for her, it was more about the experience despite the shivers and nerves.

“I finished the race and I was second last. It’s part of how you start but you will improve to be better. And now, I have lost count of the races I have competed in,” she says.

Mahope is racing in the short circuit series for women who use the 250cc, being the only black woman to participate. She also participated in the Extreme Festival tour series, a regional race in which she used her Kawasaki Ninja ZX600cc, racing men with bigger and louder bikes.

“I am the first black woman to be in the grand prix and the challenges that I faced were having to teach myself a lot of things. I had to learn how to ride on the track, the speed, the decelerating, all was new to me. I wasn’t helped.”

Mahope started at a late stage with the sport, and had to put in more time and effort in a short period to get to where she is currently.

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Today, she assists women who are starting with the sport.  

Sadly, in South Africa, there is no national league for women to race and represent the country despite finishing in the top three in the 2019 races.

With all her achievements thus far, Mahope’s salary sustains her motorsport passion.

“Racing is very expensive; the more you practise, the more you get better and the more you spend money. On practice day, I spend about R3,000 ($206) and would practise twice a week at different tracks. In total, I would spend R18,000 ($1,235) a month for the track excluding the travel costs to the track and race day,” she explains.These costs cover tyres, fuel and entrance to the tracks.

A sum of about R40,000 ($2,744) can get you geared up for the bike and track.

It just shows this daredevil accountant can balance both the books and the bike.

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Playing Two Shots Ahead

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The 16-year-old dreams of lifting the French Open title in the future, but also hopes to inspire a generation of black players to take up tennis.

Khololwam Montsi, 16, a rising star of South African tennis, recently broke into the list of top 20 junior tennis players in the world after an excellent year that has seen him take part in tournaments in Australia, Paraguay, Brazil, Italy, Belgium and Japan, as well as take the South African circuit by storm.

The young prodigy trains at the Anthony Harris Tennis Academy in Cape Town, the same facility that developed Lloyd Harris into a top 100 player on the men’s senior ATP circuit.

Montsi was not actually all that interested in tennis until his older brother, Sipho, took up the game.

“I was focussed on karate and squash, those were my two main sports,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.

“But when I saw my brother playing tennis, I also wanted to join in. You know what it is like when you have an older brother, you want to follow him and impress him.

“At that time, I was representing South Africa in karate, but I decided to drop the sport for tennis because I started to enjoy it more, was getting better and doing well in tournaments. It motivated me a lot.

“I come from a very sporty background, my father, Xolani, played rugby and soccer; my mother, Phumla, was a sprinter. When I was younger, I did everything – rugby, soccer, cricket, swimming, athletics, the lot. I just love to compete.”

Montsi has developed quickly and, despite his relatively short frame, excelled with racquet in hand to emerge as arguably South Africa’s leading young talent.

“For me, since I am usually always playing against guys bigger than me, my game is not all about power,” he says. “My strength comes from my mind, I feel like I’m smarter than everybody else on court. I can pull off any shot.

“I read the game really well for someone of this age. I play two shots ahead of my opponents and can hit the ball into areas where I know where they will return it to me. That gives me an advantage to be ready. It is the big strength in my game.

“I would love to win the French Open, I’m a big fan of clay courts, you get more time to play. It is better for me at my height.”

And as for his personal role model?

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“I would take a few players and combine that. I love Rafa Nadal, he never gives up. I love [Novak] Djokovic, the way he moves across court and is super flexible. Then someone like [Gael] Monfils for the way he can pull off amazing shots.”

South Africa has lacked a black player on the singles circuit and Montsi is hopeful he will break the mould, saying he takes great satisfaction from being a pioneer.

“I want to lift up tennis as a black boy. We do not see tennis as a big sport in South Africa, barely any black kids play. I don’t want to put pressure on myself, but I do feel a responsibility to help black tennis players get opportunities.

“I play for myself, my family, my coaches and for black people. I would like to help grow the game in South Africa for them. It would be cool if I could help get more people to start playing tennis.”

The obvious question is how he juggles traveling the world and his school work, but Montsi has found a solution.

“I do online home-schooling, which means I can do all my work at tournaments, anywhere in the world as long as I have my laptop. It is tough to balance the two, it takes a lot of discipline.

“I do sometimes think, ‘I’m tired today, I won’t do it’ and I was behind for quite a while, but with the home-schooling system, it is perfect, I have caught up quickly.”

Montsi is preparing for the Australian Junior Open in January, the start of a busy year that will hopefully also see him take part in the senior ATP Tour at some stage.

“To be the first black African to win a Junior Grand Slam would be amazing for me,” he says, adding his future success may depend on funding.

“To become a successful tennis player, you need financial support to get to tournaments. I am being helped a lot, but things can change quickly. I do see myself playing on the pro-circuit, that is my dream. I feel like I can keep my tennis up, but if the finances aren’t there.”

By Nick Said

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