By Enock Muchinjo
TYCOON Strive Masiyiwa opened up for the first time two months ago about how Econet, the giant telecoms company he founded two decades ago, was hounded out of Zimbabwean football by strong political forces during the regime of deposed former president Robert Mugabe.
I remember it all too well, having covered that shameful episode as a cadet reporter on this newspaper back in 2005.
Econet’s grand entry as sponsor of the Premier Soccer League (PSL) at the beginning of that year, on a record-breaking five-year deal, had been a God-sent opportunity for Zimbabwean football to change forever.
The PSL deal, Masiyiwa disclosed in a social media blog in March, was only part of a much fuller package Econet had committed to help Zimbabwe qualify for the historic 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The Econet founder said the plan “required a massive expenditure in training and development at all levels of the game for a period of seven years.” But because of Masiyiwa’s perceived political agenda, a bright future was robbed by a most despicable political elite, notorious for putting its own interests above everything else.
For me, outside the economic ruin, the electoral fraud, the savage beatings and killings, that chapter—one of the darkest periods in Zimbabwean sport—represented the worst excesses of repression under Mugabe. It was incredible, what happened 13 years ago, and it displayed the appalling levels of wickedness in the ruling elite of the country.
After weeks of speculation, the bombshell was dropped that Econet had finally succumbed to the wave after wave of political pressure, with the Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa)—for goodness’ sake custodians of the game’s interests—scandalously being used as the willing tool in chasing away the revered sponsor.
We broke the story of Econet’s termination of the PSL sponsorship deal, just a year into it, with company spokesman Sure Kamhunga hardly able to supress the great disappointment of the traumatic experience. I quoted Kamhunga in the article: “All we as Econet wanted to do was to help develop football in Zimbabwe in the same way our sister companies are doing in other African countries like Nigeria. It has become clear to us that there are powerful forces in Zimbabwe who do not want us to be involved in soccer sponsorship, and we have therefore decided, sadly, to withdraw completely.”
It was a disturbing phase for Econet, indeed for every person with the best interests of sport in this Country—but then a sickening victory party for those who thought they had successfully crashed Masiyiwa’s political ambitions, which only existed in unholy minds. But you may be asking at this stage why I am opening up old wounds.
Well, as the saying goes—don’t forget the past, learn from it. The lessons from the past—the relationship between sport and politics in this country—have been harsh ones.
That is why I get a lump in the throat when I see the top leaders of our major sporting disciplines angling for political office—more so on the back of a dominant ruling party. Lately I have found myself having to answer questions about the permissibility of the entrance into the political arena of Zifa president Phillip Chiyangwa, his deputy Omega Sibanda and his Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) counterpart Tavengwa Mukuhlani.
I have said it before and will say it again that, all things being equal, there is nothing specifically wrong with Chiyangwa and Mukuhlani vying for parliamentary seats on the ticket of their chosen political party, and examples are there universally of sports administrators who dabble in politics—some making a success of both.
Both Chiyangwa and Mukuhlani, just as much as the next guy, are entitled to freedom of association. But we all know where the issue is, don’t we? Our nation’s poralised political landscape where political figures have the regrettable tendency to abuse power— an environment where those in positions cannot act free of their political affiliation or influence.
The timing, too—when Chiyangwa and Mukuhlani are facing spirited revolt in their respective sports Associations—does cause a great deal of suspicion and raise a most valid question: are they not taking cover from the brickbats, into comforting political arms?
It definitely poses a serious ethical dilemma for both men in ways more than one. It is hard to ignore the moral question in all this—even living as we do now through this post-Mugabe era, period of transition, new dispensation or whatever one wants to call it.
Another question will be asked in this respect: will a known official of the opposition MDC party be allowed anywhere near the levers of control of football or cricket in this country? Most certainly not, and I have recently learnt, in conversation with a disgusted colleague, of a certain lady, passionate netball fan, but has been blocked from sponsoring the sport or running for a position in the national association due to alleged links to opposition politics.
Econet saga reincarnation.
It stinks to high heaven and it makes you sick.
There is no better proof than this to show how immature we are as a nation and how ill-prepared we are to have politicians at the helm of sporting affairs.