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.
“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.