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Sport, Greed and Betrayal: An Interview with Graeme Joffe – Part Two

Joffe

In part two of his interview with the CW team, the former CNN International Correspondent speaks to CricketWeb about his new book and the challenges of investigative sports journalism in the Twenty-First Century.

Cricket Web: Did you ever think about joining a mainstream news organization? I’ve always thought the kind of work you were doing would have made a nice fit in the Mail & Guardian, for example.

Graeme Joffe: I used to feed the Mail & Guardian so much information. It was laughable. Carte Blanche, too, is very conflicted. Naspers is the parent company of both Carte Blanche and SuperSport. So the former was never going to do anything with my work exposing the latter. I had George Mazarakis shouting at me on the phone one day because I was accusing them of covering up some stuff. But the trail is there to see. They don’t have any sports journalists on their team, and they very seldom do a sports expose. South African needs a 60 Minutes, a hard-hitting investigative programme for South African sport, in which these guys are grilled—or rather exposed. You’ll never get them on the show because they’ll just decline and decline as they deny and deny as soon as you ask them any tough questions.

It’s sad because the future is looking bleaker and bleaker for South African sport. Now we see, with the rise of BLM, all the revelations of racism coming out of South African sport. It’s not in a healthy place. In fact, it’s been captured. South African sport has been captured, and it got captured under the watch of Fikile Mbalula, the Sports Minister. The amount of corruption is unbelievable. Steve Tshwete was probably the last Sports Minister who actually knew about sport. The rest of them have all been politicians—politicians and dictators, not leaders.

Would you say that the culture you describe in South African sports journalism is unique to South Africa? I follow English county cricket pretty closely, and am so often amazed at the questions that don’t get asked. They had a very promotion/relegation saga themselves a couple of seasons ago. They needed to relegate more counties than usual from Division One. The county got the chop just so happened to be the one which wasn’t too keen on The Hundred, while those who were spared, or promoted, were those who had voted for it. I was amazed to find that no-one in the British media bothered to ask questions about this.

You’ve got a valid point. I don’t think it’s unique to South Africa. We can take two great examples. David Walsh, exposing Lance Armstrong, was a lone crusader for ten years. Everyone said to him, “Oh, stop it.” But he persisted for ten years believing that Lance Armstrong was the biggest cheat in world cycling. A lot of the cycling commentators and journalists turned on Walsh. They wanted nothing to do with them, but he persisted and now look what the story produced. Then we go back to a story which I was reminded of by the documentary series The Last Dance.

Oh, I’ve watched it. It’s brilliant, isn’t it?

Yeah, I was glued to it. There was a reporter for the one of the Chicago newspapers who had started reporting the negative side of Michael Jordan. He had heard from players within the Bulls camp that Michael Jordan was actually a piece of work—a bully, not a great guy, not a team player per se. That journalist was pretty much hounded out. No-one wanted to deal with him. He was getting hate mail. He started getting death threats. And that’s what happens. When you work on your own, it’s very difficult. The message that I give when I talk to a whistleblower is that you need to work with the mainstream media. That’s the way to do it.

But the thing about South Africa is that it has almost zero culture of investigative sports journalism. The British have a lot of investigative sports journalism, but there are people that will refrain from it because it’s just not going to help them in the long run. Another great example: Tiger Woods. There were plenty of golf journalists that must have known all about his affairs, but you’re not going to be a hero by exposing Tiger Woods.

Well, I wouldn’t have been very interested in hearing about his extramarital life. I think that’s his business.

Oh, correct. Does anybody really care? That’s Tiger’s own private life. But then how about USA Gymnastics? How about that Dr Larry Nassar? Absolutely disgusting individual. It happened for I don’t know how many years. There had to have been journalists at the Olympic Games—American journalists—who must have maybe known, or who were paid off to keep quiet about certain of the things that were going on. But it got buried for so long. Again, is it worth your career to go out there on a limb and say, “Larry Nassar is doing this.” It’s almost career limiting. It’s tough.

When you see the repercussions, you almost understand the cowardice and subservience of the culture.

Correct. I get it, especially with what I’ve been through. But then, I have no regrets and would do it all over again. South African athletes are silenced by draconian codes of conduct. You can’t speak up against the system because you get marginalised. There really isn’t freedom of speech. There really isn’t. Again, it’s these big boys clubs that get involved in South African sport. A lot of them have political ambitions, and a lot of them self-enrichment prioritised ahead of the athletes. I think you can count on one hand the amount of clean sporting federations in South Africa.

It’s especially sad to see what cricket has become. There were a couple of cricket journalists reporting on some of the bad stuff happening in South African cricket. Then what happens? The CEO bans these cricket journalists from coming to the press conferences and from the press box, and it becomes a big hoo-ha. These journalists get upset and finally start writing the hard-core truths. And then what happens? A couple board members from Cricket South Africa resign, and then they spill the beans. And that’s what you. That’s what investigative journalism does. You need investigative journalism, so that you put pressure on these board members, so that the good people start saying, “This is not good. This shouldn’t be happening in South African cricket.”

The problem is that a lot of these board members in Cricket South Africa are earning good salaries. They’re getting good perks. They’re double-dipping and triple-dipping. Why would you give up that gravy train? You’re going to stay there for as long as possible.

Cricket South Africa is not an orphan, but there’s so much money that’s gone into the sport, and now you’re getting some of the hard truths about the racism, the corruption, the maladministration, the nepotism, and what’s happened to development and transformation.

Where do you stand on transformation, by the way?

It’s always been a big bugbear. Quotas for me are just not okay. If only Cricket South Africa had ploughed the money into developing facilities in townships and rural areas. Structured development. You can’t just put a cricket pitch in the middle of a township and expect the kids to start playing cricket. You’ve got to have coaches there on a regular basis. You’ve got to have managers. You’ve got to have people overseeing those projects. That’s how you’ll get development and transformation.

The quota system is now coming back to bite South African cricket. A lot of the players who are now speaking out were called “quota players” or “transformation players” when in actual fact they were good enough to represent the country. They weren’t quota players. But the stigma attached to it is awful. I think quotas create a greater racial divide, sadly.

They do fuel a lot of resentment. (English cricket, transparently, is exploiting this: It’s no coincidence that most of the Kolpaks are white South Africans on the periphery of the team.) And although I’d agree that quotas can be used as a window dressing—a means of disguising the fact that you’re not doing enough at the grassroots—I do think transformational targets are important.

Targets are 100 per cent important. The two sports that never meet them are swimming and hockey. In hockey they don’t even have a blueprint for transformation. It should be one of the most transformed sports. The number of players of colour playing at school level and university level, and yet they haven’t met their transformation targets… It beggars belief. And the swimming administration is so bad. They’ve had the same guys running Swimming South Africa for so long, but how many swimming pools have been built in the townships and rural areas, and how many structured development programs are there for swimming in the townships and rural areas? I call it lazy administration.

I’ve actually been having a go of late at the President of SA Hockey, because I’ve heard about some serious allegations of sexual harassment on the part of a national coach who got moved around from the women’s team to the men’s team. Things are just swept under the carpet. I just don’t know how these people can live with themselves, allowing a person to continue in the job or moving him around when there are these allegations hanging over his head. The allegations were very strong, too. Hockey needs a change of leadership. The fact that they haven’t met their transformation targets is a great example of how poor the leadership really is.

Right. Well, I think we’ve got enough now. But there’s one rather difficult, rather awkward question I want to ask you.

Sure.

I’ve followed up most of the claims you make in your book, and found them generally well substantiated. But I’m pretty dubious about one of them.

Oh?

Near the end of the book, you quote an old friend of yours to the effect that after an epic universities match you got Jonty Rhodes to down a whole beer at a fines meeting. I’m gonna need the receipts on that one.

Oh, right! Because Jonty famously didn’t drink!

Exactly.

So I’m surprised. Did I actually say that?

You quoted a farewell message from a friend, written after you’d left South Africa, and—

Oh, Andrew McLean! Yes, Andrew says I’m the only guy that could get Jonty to down a beer. You know what? I think you you’ve caught me out. This could be the only lie in the book. But yeah, I remember him getting about seventy or eighty against us. Boy, he hit us all over the place. That I do remember.

And, finally, I’ve got a gig coming up this summer. I’m doing the cricket stats for SABC on the radio, and I thought I’d ask you if there’s anything you wish you’d known before you sat behind the microphone for the first time?

I wasn’t a natural behind the microphone. I remember my first time on television… One thing I’ve learnt—even more so now, doing my podcast—is that I used to speak too fast. I remember that after a couple months at CNN, they said, “We’ve got to get you a speech coach.” And I remember how she told me how South African inflections sometimes go up, instead of coming down, at the end of the sentence. So slow the pace down a little bit, because not everybody has English as their mother tongue. Keep the pace, keep the flow, be yourself. Is this for SABC Sports?

Yeah, it’s for the cricket. I did a bit of it last summer during the England tour. I still haven’t got used to hearing my own voice. I think I sound like a pompous pratt.

You don’t. Actually you reminded me a lot of Michael Abrahamson. His voice was so easy to listen to. You don’t have to put on any voice. I think your voice is great. For me it’s just about not trying to rush things, taking a breath in between, and just letting things simmer—especially with stats. You want people to absorb the stats, because there’s probably so much stuff going through your mind, so don’t rush them all and give them too many stats at one time. You want to slow it down a little bit, and just go to a nice, gentle medium pace, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Alright. Thanks so much. That means a lot.

No, it’s all good. Good luck with that.

I think we should conclude this interview the way such interviews are always concluded: I say your name: Graeme Joffe. Then the title of your book: Sport: Greed & Betrayal. And then I ask you where people can buy it.

Unfortunately, it’s not available in South Africa because HSM got a court interdict.

Oh, really?

Yeah, they went to all out to ensure that the allegations weren’t repeated. They even went so far as to write to Amazon to stop distribution to South Africa. But if anyone wants a free PDF of the book, please send me your email address. I’m only too happy to share it. I just want the truth to get out.

That’s extraordinary. That’s really worth repeating: A major publisher in the South African media, for whom freedom of speech should be value, tried and succeeded in preventing the publication of a book they didn’t like.

Correct.

Extraordinary. Extraordinary. You couldn’t make it up.

They’re bullies. They hate to be exposed, and they have a lot to lose. That’s the thing.

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