The eSwatini stadium that never was

eSwatini has no sporting stadium that meets international standards. The country’s plans to build one in Manzini has however since been scuppered by a lack of funds and behind-the-scenes big men rivalries.

Back in 2016, when the eSwatini government officially announced the construction of a new 30 000-seater stadium in Manzini, the cat was literally set amongst the pigeons.

Licking their lips in anticipation of the multi-million deal were prominent business people divided in four camps: two locals and two South Africans (from rival football homes). In one camp was Floyd Mbhele (in partnership with Homeboyz Construction director Polycarp Dlamini), in another was Bobby Motaung, backed by then Minister of Sports, Culture and Youth Affairs David “Cruiser” Ngcamphalala. Then there were the two friends and partners at Eswatini Mobile: the late Victor “Maradona” Gamedze and Inyatsi director Michelo Shakantu; this time, on opposite ends.

The proposed stadium construction saw friends turn to foes, employing the most under-handed tactics as they took turns doing their best to win a favour with the appointing authority at Lozitha Royal Palace.

It was a brazen show of power that, though no blood was shed, it was intriguing and captivating all the same. This power tussle alone might have put paid to the whole project, long before it was even discovered that the government did not have the E2 billion needed to build a new stadium for a country that since independence has not had any stadium worth the tag.

A South African rivalry in eSwatini

Kaizer Chiefs manager, Bobby Motaung, kow-towing to Minister Ngcamphalala, believed, having been part of the controversial Mbombela Stadium deal, he had all the necessary know-how to win the tender and build the stadium in eSwatini.

Motaung, his partners at Lefika Emerging Equity, Herbert Theledi, and the company’s former Chief Executive Officer, Chris Grip, were charged with fraud valued at E143 million for allegedly using a false tax certificate when they bid for a tender to design the Mbombela stadium, then valued at R1.2 billion. They also allegedly forged a Mbombela council letter with a fake signature of former municipal manager Sgananda Siboza to obtain a R1 million overdraft from a bank. Missing information has delayed the revival of the high-profile case in South Africa.

It was not surprising, then, that the 2016 King’s Cup featured the top two South African soccer giants, Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. One managed by Motaung and the other by Mbhele. These two rival-club managers were now being pitted against each other on eSwatini soil as they both eyed the lucrative new stadium tender.

Watching from a distance was the sly Victor Gamedze who was a bitter man after being initially overlooked in the organisation of the King’s Cup where Minister Ngcamphalala had taken the leading role. The minister’s relationship with Gamedze was soured after the once-off cup tournament flopped due to tickets priced beyond the local market. The tournament would then be best remembered not only for high-flying Mbabane Swallows winning it but for Ngcamphalala struggling to pronounce the English word “xenophobia” in a TV interview which went viral.

Motaung and Mbhele frequented the country then, with the Orlando Pirates manager even attending national ceremonies like Umhlanga and Incwala where he rubbed shoulders with the high and mighty, including His Majesty King Mswati III.

Meanwhile, Gamedze, a street-wise businessman and a member of the Royal Board of Trustees, was also doing his own bidding to land the stadium deal. But Michelo Shakantu of Inyatsi Construction was also an interested bidder, even while his company was involved in other major government-funded projects, including the controversial International Convention Centre and five-star hotel at Ezulwini.

No money for project

The Bridge has reliably learnt that some designs of the new stadium have already been presented to the Ministry of Economic Planning but government’s lack of funding has halted everything. The cash-strapped government has not even included the new stadium project in its budget for the 2021/2022 financial year, leaving the role players tearing their hair in frustration.

This comes just when the Confederation of African Football (CAF) declared both the Somhlolo National Stadium and the Mavuso Sports Centre unfit to host international games. The latter was initially constructed as a training venue but has been used to host domestic games.

For days, the inept Eswatini Football Association, leveraging on a provisional licence handed to Mbabane Swallows to host CAF inter-club competitions between 2018 and 2019, failed to resolve the matter and had to go begging to the CAF Emergency Committee to host the remaining Africa Cup of Nations 2021 qualifying game against the “African Wild Dogs” of Guinea Bissau on March 26 only.

Luckily for eSwatini, the CAF granted the EFA the right to host the remaining game against Guinea Bissau, saving the country the monumental embarrassment of having to host its home match away from home for the first time ever.

One stadium not enough

And while the country waits for its first stadium, one that will at least meet international standards, communities in all four regions have no choice but to make do with gravel grounds. The Ministry of Sports, Culture and Youth Affairs has no programme in place to develop playing grounds at community level.

The entire Manzini region, for example, is serviced largely by Zakhele Sports Centre, while Mbabane communities largely depend on Msunduza. These grounds have not been upgraded for years. They are the gravel they were when they were constructed decades ago. The Zakhele sports centre (it was meant to be that) has been neglected to pathetic levels yet schools and regional leagues use it for their games. In between weeks others use it to train.

While the country waits for a stadium, football life continues. Teams will still play at the Mavuso Sports Centre in Manzini and at the Prince of Wales, for example. These are centres whose standards are terrible as is, lacking in the most basic of structures like toilets and rudimentary stands. Stadiums are, after all, much more than the mere grounds.

Even the newly unveiled Ka-Langa Football Technical Centre (valued at E30 million) does not signal change in the right direction. It is an isolated good development of an otherwise disorganised government and sports ministry with no clear plans for the future.

But what does the future hold? Will a new stadium be built? By who?