The South African tourism agency’s plan to sponsor English Premier League football club Tottenham Hotspur is in jeopardy because several government insiders want to cancel the proposed deal, according to three people familiar with the matter.
The agency has been “summoned” to appear before a parliamentary committee on Tuesday, its chairwoman Tandi Mahambehlala said. The agency can expect a grilling from the10-member multi-party committee.
The sponsorship deal would involve spending £42.5 million (around 900 million rands). Rwanda’s government has a similar sponsorship deal with Tottenham’s north London rival Arsenal as part of its “Visit Rwanda’' marketing campaign.
The proposal has been widely criticized in South Africa by those who say the cost is too high given the country’s economic problems linked to chronic energy shortages.
South Africa’s tourism minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, held a meeting at the weekend with members of the South African Tourism board to discuss the matter, according to the people who spoke to Semafor Africa on condition of anonymity. She does not have the authority to interfere in the independent agency’s operations but sternly told the board to review the proposal, according to the people.
One of the people said the tourism board plans to hire a company to conduct a forensic review of the deal. The person said that approach was discussed with Sisulu at the meeting.
Three members of the 12-person board resigned on Friday amid the growing controversy around the plan.
There appears to have been no competitive bidding process, which makes this whole matter irregular,” said the tourism spokesman for the main opposition Democratic Alliance party.
South Africa’s presidency said it had not been briefed on the reported sponsorship. “We do not think spending so much money in the manner that is being suggested will be justified,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesman, Vincent Magwena.
It isn’t clear what prompted the idea of a deal between Spurs and South Africa’s tourism agency. If it was sparked by the Arsenal-Rwanda deal, that was not the best example to follow.
South Africa and Rwanda have completely different political realities. One is a democracy with a noisy public accustomed to demanding accountability from politicians or the government. The other is a country that has been ruled by a strong man since 1994.
In economic development terms, Rwanda is a country on the up whereas South Africa is mainly in decline. Power cuts are the norm in South Africa, and criminals terrorize residents and visitors on a daily basis.
The tourism agency may have underestimated public impatience with poorly-thought-out government plans or simply been oblivious to the levels of public anger such proposals can generate.
Room for Disagreement
But as much outcry as there has been about the proposal there are those who can see an upside to South Africa betting on the multibillion-dollar global sports league.
“The English Premier League is watched in more than 160 countries, by 3.8 billion people every week, you want to be there,” said Rich Mkhondo, Founder at Johannesburg-based The Media and Writers Firm. He explained that tourism can play a positive role in South Africa’s social and economic development even as it recovers from one of its worst downturns since the end of apartheid in the early 1990s.
“We need to move away from the beaten track. One way of doing this is to be adventurous through initiatives such as the Tottenham sponsorship,” said Mkhondo. But he also acknowledged that the optics were not great for the government given dire state of the economy. “It’s a good idea but the timing is bad and also the mood in our country is bad.”
* The sleeve sponsorship deal between Visit Rwanda, the country’s tourism board, and Arsenal dates back to 2018 and was renewed for four years in 2021 with a contract worth £10 million ($12 million) per year. The deal prompted controversy in the UK due to criticism of Rwanda’s human rights record when the British government announced plans to deport some asylum seekers to the East African country, reports The Athletic.
* Visit Rwanda also has a sponsorship deal with French champions Paris Saint-Germain. The club is home to three of the world’s most famous players — Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Neymar.