Power player keeps his hands on rugby's tiller

 

South African rugby supremo Louis Luyt has confounded the gleeful predictions of his adversaries that he was about to be unceremoniously dumped as president of the South African Rugby Football Union (SARFU). Instead of tasting defeat in the annual election for Sarfu's top position - held on Monday - Luyt savoured victory, pulverising his two challengers by winning more than twice their combined vote.

His opponents - Mluleki George and Keith Parkinson, presidents of the Border and Natal provincial unions - suffered a further indignity: apart from only winning 14 votes between them against Luyt's 33, they were not even re-elected to SARFU's executive committee.

Luyt looked vulnerable in the run-up to the election for several reasons. Each reason was powerful on its own; combined, they seemed all but irresistible.

Leaving aside Luyt's reputation as a hectoring bully - he labelled an earlier challenger "stupid" and smashed a journalist's camera for daring to take a photograph of him - the main factors militating against a Luyt victory were: Allegations of nepotism: His son-in-law, Rian Oberholzer, is SARFU's chief executive officer; his son, Louis Luyt jnr, is the general manager of Ellis Park, South Africa's biggest stadium, and the recipient of a reported 2 million rand commission for negotiating a sponsorship contract.

Accusations that Luyt is using his position as supremo to built up a personal empire worth millions of rand: His presidency of SARFU aside, he is the president of the Gauteng Lions Rugby Union, the richest in South Africa.

Added to these woes, and accentuating the gloom associated with his presidency, were a string of defeats in the past two years for South Africa's Springboks, including successive losses in South Africa against New Zealand's All Blacks and the Lions.

The resignation amid great controversy of national coach Andre Markgraaff did not help; he was heard repeatedly referring to blacks as "kaffirs" in a tape recorded conversation which was leaked to national television. It confirmed the view of many but not all South Africans that rugby under Luyt is the last refuge of racially-bigoted whites.

On top of that, there was the rebellion of the larger provincial unions, Natal, Free State and the Western Cape, against plans to restructure South African participation in the Tri-Nation series against Australia and New Zealand. These unions stood to lose millions in sponsorship money because their distinctive identities were threatened by Luyt's plans to merge them with smaller unions.

In an affidavit presented to court, Natal Rugby Union boss Brian Van Zyl alleged that the restructuring plans were "prompted by considerations relating in a material degree to the personal financial benefit" of the Luyt family.

Another potentially damaging development came in October when Nelson Mandela appointed a judicial commission of inquiry to investigate the administration of rugby. The inquiry's terms of reference embraced SARFU's financial affairs and asked whether its administration is in the best interests of all South Africans, "including those in the underprivileged areas".

The judicial commission was appointed after SARFU refused to co-operate with a team of investigators appointed by sports minister Steve Tshwete to probe the affairs of SAFRU.

On the eve of the SARFU presidential election, Luyt, backed by a majority of his executive committee, decided to contest the legality of president Mandela's commission in court, charging that its terms of reference were too wide to enable SAFRU to prepare an adequate response.

But these seemingly adverse conditions did not prevent Luyt from being elected as SARFU president for the fifth consecutive year, a victory which gave Luyt the option of leaving "when I think the time is ripe".

Luyt's prowess as a shrewd and tough fighter in the corridors of powers aside, his stunning triumph appears to rest on two pillars: solid support from the smaller unions - which account for the nine of SARFU's 14 member unions - and a backlash against Mandela's appointment of the commission of inquiry.

The transition from amateur to professional rugby has left smaller unions on the verge of bankruptcy and dependent on SARFU for survival. Luyt, therefore, is the man who controls the purse strings. Their representatives are too scared to vote against Luyt, says one former SARFU official.

The judicial inquiry, however, is seen in SARFU circles as an assault on one the last citadels of Afrikaner power by the predominantly black ANC-led government. More crudely, it is viewed as an attempt by blacks to get their hands on the millions generated by rugby.

Given those perceptions the mainly Afrikaner delegates to SARFU appear to have rallied around Luyt as the strong man capable of resisting the offensive. As Luyt, whose physical size belies his intellectual nimbleness, puts it: "It is a fight which I never wanted. But now that it is here, I will fight it."