SWAZI FOOTBALL ON THE BRINK OF COLLAPSE
It was top businessman and former Premier League of Eswatini (PLE) Chairman Moses ‘Mkhulu’ Motsa who opined, in the aftermath of the shocking demise of Victor ‘Maradona’ Gamedze on 14 January 2018, that the man who shot Gamedze had “actually shot football in cold blood”. Still, and in spite of Motsa's proven aptitude and knowledge of football administration coupled with his business acumen, it was tempting to dismiss his sentiments as outlandish and even patronising.
After-all Swazis, since time immemorial, are known for singing praises as a form of paying homage to the dead. Had I been a Member of Parliament, I would fight tooth and nail to have this outlawed.
Fast forward, four years later, Motsa’s statement is proving to be true with each passing day as Eswatini football continues to leap from one maladministration gaffe to another with glaring abandonment and facing a bleak future in as far as sponsorships are concerned. Football is in a forest but inexplicably can’t see the trees right now! What the influential Victor Gamedze had nursed and propelled into an industry that not only attracted sponsors who poured millions into football but had also find a niche with the Royal family, in particular His Majesty King Mswati III and government, has snowballed into irrelevant and unappealing shuffling beast that any corporate entity would not touch even with the proverbial barge pole right now.
The streetwise Gamedze’s political influence had helped open every possible door for football to benefit from, in particular government parastatals that ordinarily would not have associated with the game of the billions. Legend has it how he coerced the then Sincephetelo Motor Vehicle Accident Fund (SMVAF) Chief Executive Officer Helmon Vilakati into sponsoring his idea of the Ingwenyama Cup, which beautifully intertwined culture and football. Over the years, every Managing Director (MD) at Eswatini Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (EPTC) – from E.Nathi Dlamini to Petros Dlamini – would not think twice about renewing the contract for the Eswatini Telecom Charity Cup because Gamedze’s influence in the renewal or non-renewal of the self-same MD’s contract was almost public knowledge.
The posture of his company, MVtel, as one of the biggest suppliers at EPTC also contributed to his influence as Chairman of the PLE when time to negotiate a new package for the season opener – the Eswatini Telecom Charity Cup – came around. Down the valley, the powers-that-be at MTN Eswatini were always walking on eggshells around Gamedze by virtue of his position as one of the directors of Eswatini Mobile and he used his position at the competitor to leverage for the football sponsorship. All things considered, Gamedze’s power and influence helped to keep football afloat and also attractive to the Captains of the Industry.
Since his cold-blooded assassination on that fateful Sunday of January 14, 2018, it has been a freefall for Eswatini football and true to the words of Moses Motsa, the people’s game was shot literally in cold-blood. With not one amongst the current football leadership with the political influence or clout to pull the strings behind the scenes, be it at the boardroom of a prospective sponsor or down at Lozitha Palace, football’s livelihood is now hanging by the thread in the midst of a political powder keg and shrinking economic pie.
The advent of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 has made the situation worse, leaving football literally on the brink of collapse. With a whole year of football fans being banned from the stadiums as part of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, football knockouts whose very existence was tied to the masses from a marketing point of view have been halted leaving football with only one competition – the MTN Premier and National First Division league in the last two years. It has left team owners, who relied on gate-collections, struggling to keep up with the daily expenses of running their franchises leading to unpaid salaries for players, scrapping the bottom of the barrel.
There is no guarantee that even those with deep pockets like Mbabane Swallows President Bishop Bheki Lukhele, Mbabane Highlanders South African businessman Chief Ally Kgomongwe and Manzini Wanderers Nelspruit based businessman Cedric Mathata, will be around for long. No matter how benevolent someone can be, pumping E400 000 a month on a project that does not guarantee any returns is unsustainable. So what happens from here? With only one competition, the MTN league which has a first prize of E1.3 million if you win both the first round incentive and the league title, it no longer makes any business sense for the funders of the teams in the current climate.
The PLE has been mum with regards to the knockout tournament, which were a welcome respite for the teams with the cash prizes and The Swazi Bridge has reliably gathered that the three knockout tournaments, the Eswatini Bank Cup, Ingwenyama Cup and the Eswatini Telecom Charity Cup would not be returning any time soon. With EPTC MD Themba Khumalo’s first task being retrieving the parastatal from the economic cesspit it is in after years of maladministration, sponsoring a football knockout is the least of his priorities.
The parastatal is currently struggling to pay its suppliers on time and as noble as the tournament was in helping the needy, there are no funds to finance such an expensive initiative which was beginning to cost the corporation over E5 million per edition. The Ingwenyama Cup, under the current political climate, is not feasible. Sources at SMVAF confided to The Swazi Bridge that last year’s sponsorship package was channelled towards the Reconstruction Fund as announced by the tournament’s Patron, His Majesty King Mswati III. Meanwhile the Eswatini Bank in its abridged financial statements released on September 2, 2020 reflected that the bank had made a E64 million loss.
As a result, the bank has been cutting down on its Corporate Social Responsibilities and one of the those is the Eswatini Bank Cup which was the biggest single event financed by the bank at the tune of E2.9 million per edition. MTN Eswatini, for the first time ever, has agreed on a one-year contract instead of the usual three years with the sponsorship package remaining at E6 million.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former PLE boss said he "personally lost all hope that the sport could survive after the listless Mbabane Highlanders' patrons revoked a contractual agreement giving ownership of the team to Member of Parliament Marwick Khumalo and businessman Zweli Jele". He says this is because of the fact that other than Motsa, these two were the last administrators with the desired pedigree to persuade the corporate world to sponsor and support the beautiful game.
Clearly, priorities have changed with the ‘Captains of the Industry’ and the football leadership without the persuasive clout, political influence and marketing savvy are clutching at straws as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic become a reality with each passing day. With a no Victor Gamedze clone in our midst, and teething administration flaws in particular at the PLE, where the Chairman, Mark Carmichael increasingly looks out of the depth and the newly-elected Eswatini Football Association (EFA) president, Peter ‘Samora’ Simelane still on his honeymoon, the future looks bleak for Eswatini football. Yes, maybe Moses Motsa was right, the bullet(s) that claimed Gamedze's life also condemned the popular sport to the doldrums of history.