An analysis of the crisis of Swazi football and how government can rescue the sport

Society, particularly an unconscientised one, will typically reflect the dominant political hegemony and ideas of the ruling elite. Together with other non-coercive institutions of the state, like religion and education, sports plays a huge role in shaping a society to adopt the methods, practices and world outlook of the ruling class. 

Likewise, in a contested political environment like ours sports has becomesa terrain fought between the conservative and progressive, with each seeking to influence the sporting community towards a particular way of seeing and interpreting the world around them. 

In this article, I will seek to unpack the current sporting setup in the country, with particular emphasis on football as a useful example. I hope to reflect on the backward practices that the Tinkhundla method of governance has subjected our local football and stagnated its growth. 

In future articles, we will expand on different facets of local football as a way of elaborating on the ideas being flagged today. These will include local football administration, political economy of the sport, policies governing sports,financing, and finally the structuring of our national teams.

To kick-off the series, we will analyse and discuss the political economy of our local football clubs’ with a specific focus on the clubs that campaign within the Premier League of Swaziland (PLS). 

To do this, we will break down the clubs into four categories; the Big three (Manzini Wanderers, Mbabane Highlanders and Mbabane Swallows), the Government Departments’ supported clubs (Green Mamba, Royal Leopards and Young Buffaloes), the two pretenders of elite football (Manzini Sundowns and Moneni Pirates) and the rest (Mhlume Peacemakers, Manzini Sea Birds, Milling Hotspur, Tambuti FC, Pigg’s Peak Black Swallows and Malanti Chiefs). 

Below, we will provide the characteristics of each of the categories, and how they are positioned on the political economy of the game.

Mbabane Swallows. Writer says they have been dominating local football in the last few years

The Big three

The big three contribute more than 60 percent of the PLS revenue mainly from gate takings (excluding fines of course, even though they may be a huge contributor too). While these clubs boast of having hordes of supporters, they are however still heavily dependent on external sources of funding mostly from their benefactors. 

Towards this end, I count on Mehluli Nhlengethwa (who, until the recent impasse, was the main sponsor of Manzini Wanderers), Ally Kgomongwe (Mbabane Highlanders) and Bheki Lukhele (Mbabane Swallows). 

The pressure to perform well for their respective supporters has ballooned the cost structures of these clubs exploding to levels that are unaffordable even for their sponsors. The pressure to deliver for their supporters results in over-committing to expenditure and expenses these clubs do not afford. 

For this reason two of the three clubs, Wanderers and Highlanders, have often featured in the local dailies for all the wrong reasons. It must be noted though that some of these clubs are spoilt from past practices that made them to be oblivious of their financial reality.

Mbabane Highlanders, for example, were the “Forces Clubs” of old. They were benefiting, albeit unofficially, from nepotism and downright corruption within Government departments.

It was common in yesteryears for Mbabane Highlanders players to be employed by the Government without official qualifications and where qualifications were available, through nepotism. 

The major Government departments and Ministries where the club was publicly known to have direct influence include the Swaziland College of Technology (SCOT), Central Transport Administration (CTA), Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to name but a few. 

The club utilised government vehicles to attend games throughout the country. After the erosion of this benefit and/or influence, the club has somewhat struggled to survive and compete evenly with other clubs.

Manzini Wanderers, the known trend setters on many matters relating to branding and modernisation, commercialised earlier than the rest of the clubs in the league. They were successful in mobilising patriotic small-medium enterprises (SME) to support them in one way or another, including getting their players employed, contributing to running expenses, providing warm-up and playing uniforms, etc. 

However, they too have in the past been beneficiaries of controversial and corrupt employment practices that saw some of their players gaining employment with one of the commercial banks especially during the late Henry “Shushu” Mthethwa’s leadership of the club. 

Subsequent to that era, the club struggled to offer solid employment benefits to their players leading to them employing the players directly.

Mbabane Highlanders F.C. The club had a ‘corrupt relationship’ with some government departments.

Meanwhile Mbabane Swallows used undue influence in certain corporate bodies in Swaziland to sustain themselves. Examples of such bodies include the Central Bank of Swaziland where players such as Lloyd Maziya, Victor Gamedze, Masotja Vilakati were employed rather controversially. 

The  Swaziland Post and Telecommunications Corporation (SPTC) also controversially employed players such as Thisha Dlamini, Jabulani “Go-Man-Go” to name but a few. At the turn of the Century the club fortunes for the top three changed, and Mbabane Swallows was to grow in prominence and influence dominating local football under the stewardship of the late Victor Gamedze (his influence in administration of the Country’s football will be discussed in subsequent editions). 

Swallows’ success placed pressure on the other two ‘competing’ members of the Big three and opened a battle of dominance of Swazi football and this battle played itself out differently at every level of our football albeit surreptitiously. This unfortunately threw the other clubs into financial crisis because they could no longer match Gamedze’s financial muscle. 

The financial strength and independence of Gamedze transformed Swallows into a worthy competitor against the ‘government department’ clubs too. This will be analysed later. There is now real fears that the demise of Gamedze would throw Swallows into a crisis until the club was taken over by Bheki Lukhele of the All Nations Church of Zion. Lukhele appears to be financially solid as well and it is too early to tell if the club will be as domineering under his reign.

Government Department Clubs

These clubs (Green Mamba, Royal Leopards and Young Buffaloes) always lead to a polarised debate around their role and position in mainstream football of Swaziland. As it has been alluded earlier, their methods are not new. Their modus operandi were previously used by clubs like Mbabane Highlanders. 

However, what is different with them is that they have taken things a notch up to the point of making corruption official and institutionalised. They engage in player recruitment using gainful and pensioned employment to entice players to join them but also to weaken their competitors through offering packages the other clubs cannot afford because they are not backed by the state. 

Whereas in the past players of the disciplined forces would have to be employed in the force first before playing for the ‘government department’ clubs, today a footballer is recruited into the club first before becoming a member of the force.

To players, joining and playing for the armed forces is attractive because it addresses a societal problem of unemployment in a country where up to 45 percent of the youth is unemployed.

The biggest contradiction with this arrangement though is that those employed within the armed forces are forced to make contributions to the clubs even as most of them have their personal club preferences they support. 

For example, within the police service, each officer contributes to what is called a ‘Sports Fund’. The purpose of the fund was originally to allow officers to support their individual sporting preferences. 

As a way of demonstrating this, if an officer kept fit through running marathons, he or she would requisition funds from the Sports Fund to purchase him/herself running shoes. Today, the funds are almost exclusively used for the benefit of Royal Leopards, the police football club. 

Add the fact that the players recruited into the service work shorter shifts and in better equipped police stations within the Mbabane – Manzini corridor and you get a club that is semi- professional, whose salaries are paid consistently (albeit using the public purse), and has the administrative might of the state behind them . These clubs are then expected to compete with clubs run on a shoe string budget and financed by the hard toil of well-meaning Swazis.

Manzini Wanderers F.C. The club was the first to commercialise within the ‘Big three.’

What happens at Royal Leopards is true of the other two ‘government department’ clubs too – Young Buffaloes (made of officers from the country’s army) and Green Mamba (made of officers from the Correctional Services). 

For example, the Correctional Services have recently recruited Gcina Dlamini who is way past the allowed recruitment age into government service. Dlamini joined the Correctional department as part of the “Special Skills” program just so he could be head coach of Green Mamba. If this is not flagrant abuse and disregard of government recruitment policy then nothing is.

The Pretenders to the throne

Every now and again debates on whether there should be a Big- three or Big four erupts. The debate centres on whether to add Moneni Pirates or Manzini Sundowns into the ‘top’ fold. 

Such debate heightens when both clubs performs well enough to attract a size-able group of spectators to their matches. These clubs too resemble to Big three in most characteristics except they do not have as much a following. 

Their cost structures are above their income categories (except that Manzini Sundowns has been having a benefactor that finances most of their expenses) and their administrative capacity equally lacking. As for the other clubs how they survive in such an expensive football league is still a mystery.

How does the above align with the Tinkhundla- way of doing things?

What the above shows and reflects is that the government is not interested in leveling the playing field for sports in general and football in particular. The fact that we have clubs that benefit from the might of the state competing with others whose bills are footed by people who benefit or get no incentive from the state should be our collective shame as a nation.  

There is no interest in developing sports to become an industry that addresses unemployment as a social ill, and further lift the majority out of poverty. Politicians have utilised football as a campaign tool where they exploit the struggling masses with football kits (and handout) plus minute sponsorships in exchange for votes during parliamentary campaign trails. 

At best, these practices lack understanding of football as creating a self-sustaining industry, and at worst, an exploitation of the desperation of the masses through a sport they like. Football issues are never then discussed in parliament as a way of uplifting the sport. Instead, the sport is useful only as a conduit for aspiring politicians to go to parliament.

For all of the commentary that gets displayed by political figures and football administrators they do little to create developmental policies that encourage corporate participation in club administration; remove skewed Government resources abuse; and provide soft landing for willing football entrepreneurs that want to invest in the world’s most popular sport.

All this is typical of Tinkhundla style administration, which demands recognition without providing practical support. That the ‘Forces’ clubs are allowed to rely almost 100% on public resources, as well as employ footballers and masquerade them as officers without any consequence, is typical of a system of governance that abuses the national purse with impunity. 

While there has been some sporadic parliamentary debates on these issues as spearheaded by politicians like Marwick Khumalo the difficulty however is that he himself is compromised because he is aligned to Mbabane Highlanders, a club that previously benefited from some of the shenanigans happening at government.

What Should be Done?

In an alternative political dispensation, the role of government should be to create an enabling environment and creating an attractive industry that is capable of contributing to the economic and social well-being of the Swazi society. Unlike with the current status quo, volunteers fund the clubs and keep them at their mercy sometimes to the detriment of the sport and players. Instead, a democratic government should provide rewards to those that are dedicated to improving Swazi football either through tax cuts or other rewards to make it attractive to support local football.

Linked to this should be a ban that government departments should not have clubs that play within the professional ranks of Swaziland. Instead, a grants system that provides football clubs with a substantial revenue as a base for clubs that campaign in the top two leagues should be put in place. 

The purpose of these grants should be ensuring that a formalised and decently paying industry is created that will ensure significant employment of the country’s youth. The ultimate plan must be developing an industry that has the potential to export talent as well as attract foreign income to the country via football. This grant system would then reduce youth unemployment significantly.

Private sector key stakeholders should be encouraged to spend in sports, particularly football, to ensure that a sustainable footballing culture is developed. Countries such as Uganda have created supportive policies that allow the corporate world to participate and are today reaping the fruits as the country’s football is growing in technical competence and other areas. 

The talent that Swaziland has can only be natured if and only if football is transformed into a multi-million Dollar industry. Progressive tax incentives should be provided to companies that support sports, with the bigger benefit going to those that fund individual clubs as opposed to those that sponsor tournaments which are rather short-term oriented and only focuses on marketing benefits.

Establishment and investment in studies in sports administration and sciences should be made to a point of career-oriented training programs. Such programs should be pitched at graduate and post graduate levels, and substantial investments in sports research made so our entire sports can move from being dominated by juju relying on science to make us win. This will ensure that competent athletes, training and development methods are designed  while also improving administration capabilities. Such investments may increase performance levels as well as talent export opportunities that provide direct and indirect benefits to the economy of the country.

Lastly, enabling infrastructure should be created that will ensure high-level sport facilities reach the people at grass root levels. This should be done to create and grow mass support for the game. 

It is indeed a shame that the sports ground at Zakhele in Manzini, which services so many leagues in the region, is still barren and undeveloped in 2019. Developing football centres and equipping them properly should be based on the understanding that the technical aspects of the game are nothing without the fans filling up the stadiums. 

Taking leaf from advanced football leagues of no bigger stature as the English and German leagues, which present contrasting pricing models, a developmental and democratic state should pick lessons in terms of pricing to the spectator to maintain these facilities and improve them. 

Attracting mass following therefore requires supporting infrastructure which goes beyond just a playing field that is perfectly laid but also include availability of child (read family) friendly facilities that do not alienate women and children spectators. Such facilities should include clean and well-maintained ablution, shopping as well as children’s playing facilities.

The above are but some of the key policy and related actions that should be taken with a deliberate and conscious mind to develop local sports. We must be aware that the hegemony of the ruling regime has cascaded down to all levels of our society hence our sports, football in particular, reflects the backwardness and visionless of the government. 

I hope in the next issue we will deal with other aspects of sports and football to show that a system rotten at a political level will corrupt even the sports that is meant to stand independant.

NB: Mcebisi Khumalo is an owner of a football club competing in the Piggs Peak junior league.

 

Mcebisi Khumalo

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