Tokyo Sexwale’s underwhelming campaign has fizzled well before delegates boarded the first plane to Zurich. The first vote has not been cast, but Sexwale is already sifting through the rubble of a mangled campaign looking for answers, observes Staff Writer, MQONDISI DUBE
As a citizen of a country whose attitude towards fellow Africans has always been under scrutiny, Tokyo Sexwale did not anticipate the cold response from his continent of birth. Equally, the continent believes its only hope has thus far ran a sedated campaign as FIFA prepares to hold a crucial presidential vote on February 26 to choose disgraced strongman, Sepp Blatter’s successor.
Critics argue complacency crept in well before what was initially imagined as a well thought out campaign.
“As a region, we expected an in-depth engagement from him. It is difficult to criticise him without fully understanding his challenges,” Botswana Football Association (BFA) president, Tebogo Sebego told Mmegi Sport recently.
Africa waited for the former cabinet minister to traverse the vast continent and sell his policies. But the next moment, football authorities heard Sexwale had flown overseas and even ignored the CAF awards, instead arriving in Zurich for the Ballon D’or awards. Sexwale also skipped the West African Football Union Congress in Ghana, a meeting attended by the other FIFA presidential candidates.
The media in his own country and the South Africa Football Association (SAFA) immediately flagged him offside. Both felt his campaign was lukewarm and Sexwale was hitting the wrong notes. Sexwale and Africa will feel a glorious opportunity to control the “United Nations of Football” has gone begging.
The South African was the continent’s only candidate after the vetting process and stood a good chance to land football’s biggest post and make history. CAF is the biggest of FIFA’s six continental federations with 54 voting national associations.
Sexwale’s homeland, South Africa, was the first African country to host FIFA’s flagship competition, the World Cup in 2010, and he could have used this to leverage support.
He was key in bringing the World Cup in Africa, in addition to being in the FIFA system, although the downside was the corruption, which engulfed Sepp Blatter’s sunset days.
Sexwale has served on FIFA’s anti-racism and anti-discrimination committees.
Outside football, Sexwale spent considerable time at the notorious Robben Island, where iconic prisoner-turned-president, Nelson Mandela was incarcerated. The ‘Mandela Magic’ has so often proved pivotal in many instances including landing the World Cup in 2010, and Sexwale was ready to ride on its wave.
The Mandela legacy was seen as Sexwale’s other massive selling point. Sexwale is acknowledged as a shrewd businessman and politician; key factors that would have won him considerable votes. “I think his campaign has been lukewarm. We had interest in him as a business and football person,” Sebego said of Sexwale, whose wealth has been estimated at P1.5billion.
However, the stick, which probably broke the back of Sexwale’s dithering campaign was complacency.
“He thought he had the African vote and had to focus elsewhere,” South African sports journalist, Tiyani wa ka Mabasa told Mmegi Sport.
“The mutual feeling is that he didn’t do his work. He didn’t interact with presidents of African associations. Remember charity begins at home. It’s not automatic that since he is African he will get the African vote. Football is looking for answers, the right man to take the sport forward after what has happened (corruption allegations),” Mabasa said.
He argues Sexwale failed to take advantage of the factors going for him on the continent as he was largely seen as aloof.
But there was another lurking danger, which Sexwale probably ignored, the downside of being South African. “This should come as no surprise to those who follow the ANC’s attitude to Africans north of our country’s borders where South Africans are often seen as arrogant and imperialist,” South Africa’s Daily Maverick opines.
Mabasa also said although Africa sometimes has a dim view of South Africa, Sexwale could have done better and engaged the continent.
“Africa looks at South Africans as arrogant and that has worked against us in the past. But it doesn’t hurt to interact with them (African soccer presidents) and understand their problems,” he said.
He is of the opinion that sharing a cell with Mandela counts for nothing in football.
“Sharing a prison cell with Mandela counts for nothing in football. The same way they will not vote for someone simply because he is African,” Mabasa said.
Sexwale could have borrowed a leaf from a more proactive, but failed Danny Jordan’s campaign for the COSAFA presidency in 2011.
Despite being seen as an overwhelming choice for the regional bloc’s top post, Jordan was humbled by incumbent Mauritian, Suketu Patel. Sexwale should have received a warning that being South African in a continent that distastes the rich southern African country’s Big Brother attitude, presented its own peculiar challenges.
South Africa literally drives COSAFA, with its companies rolling out massive sponsorship deals with the Metropolitan and Castle agreements running into millions over the years.
But that was insufficient for Jordan, seen as a much more aggressive and engaging candidate than Sexwale, to land a regional post. It was a clear statement that the region, and by extension, the continent is not ready to accept South Africa’s leadership.
Sexwale received the crude confirmation that he had not done enough to convince his own continent when CAF decided to back Asian Football president, Shaikh Salman.
The few associations that had pledged support, slipped away with the BFA saying it will now decide between Salman and and FIFA vice president, Prince Ali Al Hussein.
Sexwale has suffered an irreversible blow and subsequently did not make the trip to Miami where four other candidates made their presentation to the troubled Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF). But he remains defiant in the face of imminent defeat claiming he is still on track and seemingly swatting away Africa’s swelling concerns.
Under the mangled rubble, Sexwale would probably discover he did not emerge from Robben Island with the humbling experience the island prison offered. He has let slip a sparkling moment to ease into the history books and has instead been fed humble pie as a campaign, as vexing as his name, peters out.
His will remain etched in the minds of many as a cautionary tale of how unpredictable Africa and its influential 54 votes can be.