The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
Is a major international tournament like the World Cup simply of such importance to humanity that it makes one person’s death insignificant? I ask the question because one of the major storylines to have emerged about Jimmy Mohlala’s death is that it “raises fresh concerns” about the security of the tournament.
In other words, the papers, which were already using South Africa’s high rate of violent crime as a pretext for writing ominously about the safety of tourists traveling there for the soccer next year, have taken the killing—a murder that seems to be World Cup-related—as a piece of concrete evidence in the case they were already building. If a South African politician can be gunned down over the tournament, how can a tourist from Barcelona possibly be safe? The implication, intended or not, is that Mohlala’s death matters less in itself than as a signal of what to expect once the tournament gets underway.
This is the wrong approach, for two reasons. First, while Mohlala’s killing exposed many ills in South African society, it was not an example of the kind of violence that might beset the World Cup. Mohlala wasn’t attacked randomly or murdered for his wallet. He was almost certainly the victim of a political assassination stemming from his role in exposing corruption and fraud in the construction of the World Cup stadium in Nelspruit. Unless more people than I realize have become whistleblowers and made enemies of high-profile ANC officials, that isn’t likely to be a danger faced by many European tourists.
Second, the kind of widespread violent crime that the newspapers seem to fear is not at all likely to occur. That’s because the politicians and powerful businessmen of whom Jimmy Mohlala made enemies have a massive financial stake in not allowing it to occur. The South African tourism boom they hope the World Cup will usher in is only going to be profitable to them so long as it isn’t wrecked by bad publicity during the tournament. Security in any area likely to be frequented by tourists is going to be massive.
There’s a risk, then, that associating Jimmy Mohlala’s murder with “World Cup security” will set up a test that’s too easy for the organizers of the tournament to pass. Because the possibility of a catastrophe has been established in the newspapers, they’ll report a safe, efficient tournament as a triumph for South Africa. The final judgment on the World Cup will be made based on two weeks next summer, and all the events that preceded the tournament—the ones that raised the possibility of catastrophe in the first place, like the murder of Jimmy Mohlala—will be brushed aside and forgotten.
But the World Cup shouldn’t be judged only by the experience of the reporters who travel there for a short time to cover it. The years-long preparation for the tournament should also be part of the record, and when that preparation includes bribery, theft, exploitation, and violence, then the record has to show those things as well. Jimmy Mohlala’s murder matters now, for its own sake, not for what happens in 2010. And whatever happens in 2010 won’t erase it.
A couple of quick updates on the progress of the case: The funeral was Monday. The same day, the Mail & Guardian reported that they had gotten hold of the minutes of a confidential meeting in December in which top African National Congress officials voted to reinstate Jacob Dladla, the Mbombela municipal manager whom Mohlala exposed as the point man for a number of fraudulent schemes surrounding the building of the stadium in Mbombela. You’ll recall that it was his role in revealing this crime that caused Mohlala to be asked by the ANC to resign. The contrast is so simple it almost embarrasses rhetoric: the ANC wanted to keep the corrupt man in power and remove the man who exposed the corruption from office.
More sensationally: according to the South African Sunday World, Monday was also the day Mohlala was to have filed fraud charges against the Lefika corporation for submitting a forged letter from the government to their bank to initiate an overdraft. Lefika are the company overseeing construction of the Mbombela stadium; they’ve been accused of tender fraud and collusive practices, among other crimes designed to skim large sums from the budget for building the stadium (frequently pulling the strings, as far as I can tell, of Jacob Dladla). They’re also co-owned by an extremely well-connected member of South African soccer royalty: Bobby Motaung, the son of the owner of Kaizer Chiefs, South Africa’s biggest club. (Bobby Motaung also manages the team.)
The Sunday World is a tabloid, and the story is full of sensational details, like the existence of a “hit list” of eight men targeted for murder by Lefika for possessing copies of the forged letter. It also claims that the letter was behind Mohlala’s murder:
Mohlala’s ordeal started the day the bank faxed him the letter.
That night he was attacked in the street. A source close to the police investigations says the men who attacked Mohlala wanted to use his own gun to shoot him, but he was not carrying it.
I have no idea whether any of this is true. But if Mohlala was really planning to open a fraud case against Lefika just a few days before he died, the likelihood that the murder was unrelated to the World Cup appears vanishingly remote.
The police are still saying that they’re close to making arrests. They’re still not arresting anyone. We’ll keep following this.
by Brian Phillips · January 14, 2009