THIS month (November 2009) the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is scheduled to release its verdict on the question of Caster Semenya’s eligibility to compete as a female athlete. It’s a sensitive, although not unique, issue, but nowhere in the world has it been treated with such hysteria as in South Africa by Athletics South Africa (ASA) and others. The reason for this lies in the history of the ASA, and of sport in general, since the fall of apartheid.

Leonard Chuene was appointed president of ASA on April Fools Day in 1995. At the time the symbolism was missed and he was seen as the representative of a new era, displacing the frontrunner, Danie Malan, who worked for the Johannesburg Municipality. Malan was a member of the old guard who had made quick adjustments to new circumstances while attracting criticism for his business dealings, especially with a company run by his wife.

Bernard Rose, a wheeler-dealer, and former athletics agent and shoe salesman, was then ASA’s CEO. In 1996, he hit the headlines by trying to force contracts on leading 800-metre runners, including Hezekiel Sepeng, that required them to refrain from record attempts except at meetings sponsored by Engen, and determined who could race against whom. It amounted to race rigging, with sponsors calling the tune. Marius van Heerden did indeed sign, but then Rose resorted to the classic ploy of denial and cover-up, his fax machine betraying an attempt at document substitution. The National Sports Council talked about fraud and called ASA mendacious.

The Atlanta Olympic Games delivered two athletics medals, but press comment at the time also noted the cars driven by Chuene and ASA secretary-general, Banele Sindane. One athlete who didn’t get to Atlanta was javelin thrower, Philip Spies. After obtaining ASA clearance to take a vitamin supplement, he tested positive and was suspended. With good reason he objected and tried to clear his name, but his reward for standing up to abusive, incompetent authority was to be left out of the team.

The most damning episode was the premature departure of the well-respected British coach Wilf Paish. He described administrative chaos, lack of long-term strategy and a failure to serve athletes’ interests. Everything, he concluded, boiled down to politics while the country’s real expertise was sidelined and its athletic potential squandered. Grassroots development, Paish argued, must be left to school authorities, with ASA’s role one of partnership, not dictatorship. He left South Africa, calling for an independent inquiry.

This all happened thirteen years ago, but many of the problems echo loudly today. In the meantime, there have been strong rumours of missing millions, questions about Chuene’s remuneration and role in view of his non-executive position, criticism of unprofessional selection criteria, the privileged lifestyle of administrators, a lack of institutional democracy, strange payments made to personal bank accounts, and general incompetence. The least important facet of ASA’s operation has persistently been the athletes.

The relationship between Chuene and national sports bodies has consistently been fraught. The National Olympic Committee of South Africa (Nocsa) suspended him in 2003 for bringing sport into disrepute. On this occasion he fell foul of Sam Ramsamy, another administrator often accused of political machination. The same has happened again this month with the suspension of Chuene and other officials by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee and the placing of ASA under administration. History does indeed repeat itself, in this case for good reason, although how this is to be characterised begs a question.

That ASA is a fiefdom run by dubious characters is a direct consequence of an unholy alliance between the African National Congress brand of politics and commercial cynicism. The individuals running athletics – autocratic, volatile politicians – are better known, for all the wrong reasons, than the athletes themselves. But it would be unwise to write off Chuene just yet. Already the rhetoric about transformation and racism, without a shred of evidence, is getting in gear. The stakes are high and experience suggests that every legal twist and turn will be used to defend Chuene’s position.

The roots of this disastrous situation lie in the effective expropriation (nationalisation in current parlance) of South African sport by the ANC, with the connivance of the National Party, in the early nineties. First the rainbow nation was the supposed objective, but then came quotas and the needs of racial nationalism. Whatever the political objective, the anti-apartheid sports movement was obliterated and professionalism sidelined, while the field was left wide open to opportunists with personal agendas. The lies and exploitation that surround the Semenya affair were simply a disaster waiting, inevitably, to happen.

Like so much of South African life, athletics needs to be wrested from the ANC political machine and its corporate backers by the people who are central to its existence: performers and coaches. But despite Chuene’s suspension, the chances are bleak. The way power is structured in South Africa today, incompetence and mismanagement present no barrier to survival. When athletes recently protested about the way ASA was running their sport, the meeting was broken up by verbally abusive and potentially violent opponents. It was a sign of our times, a warning of things to come. 

This article was first published in The Witness on 10 November 2009 and entitled ‘So much for the rainbow nation’