It all started when a South African national U-15 soccer team won an international tournament contested by 48 countries in France back in 1998. The youngsters somehow wiped away the pain of watching the senior national team losing their opening match 3-0 in their maiden appearance at the greatest global event, as an unfortunate Pierre Issa scored two own goals.
I watched with pride as the international media interviewed the country’s U-15 captain who had led a group of swashbuckling teenagers to triumph in the tournament, leading me to believe that the world should watch out for South Africa in the next World Cup in Asia.
It was the eloquence of the captain that really fascinated and intrigued me. He was in his element and expressed himself in such a matured manner that my heart swelled with pride. I was convinced that the boy had all the makings of a future Bafana Bafana captain. Like any journalist, I enquired about the lad and did a feature on him.
You can imagine my shock when I discovered that the U-15 captain was in actual fact a tertiary student at a Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality institution where he was studying engineering. I was so utterly deflated, so ashamed after blowing his trumpet that I wished to curl up and die.
I could have left the story right there. But then I received a call from a friend of the disgraced captain, informing me that the “fake captain” who was a third year electrical engineering student had expressed to them that he was disappointed and hurt that we were focusing on him alone and yet the whole team was loaded with age cheats.
Like a hound that smelt blood, I started digging even further. I did a thorough check on the whole team and was shocked about the extend of the cheating. I experienced this burning desire to unmask those age cheats who had taken SA for a cheap ride. I was driven by a desire to bring the whole age cheating saga to a halt.
I uncovered a chain of lies and deceit in which coaches, teachers, local football associations, parents and unscrupulous employees of the Department of Home Affairs were colluding in this shameful scam just to cheat because they claimed, “other countries like Ghana and Nigeria were also doing it and so why can’t we.”
But two wrongs did not make a right. And somehow word got around that I was conducting a massive investigation to expose all the age-cheats. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I received a letter from the South African Press ombudsman, requesting me to apologize and retract the story where I had mentioned the names of the boys I was sure had been economical about the truth regarding their rightful ages.
I refused and instead published further damning reports exposing widespread cheating threatening to expose additional boys unless they came out and confessed to have cheated; revealed who assisted them in obtaining false documents and who encouraged them to go on this cheating spree.
Then a letter of demand dropped onto my desk. The Ombudsman’s office was getting impatient with me and passed on a threat of litigation unless I distanced a particular boy from Mamelodi from this whole mess.
I dug up the boy’s background even further and came up with even murkier stuff about him. After a week of probing, assisted by a diligent Nhlanhla “City” Mlambo, then a school Principal at J Kekana High School, I was ready to face the boy’s parents, his lawyers and the ombudsman.
I appeared before the Ombudsman and after being informed about the gravity of my actions and whether at that late hour, I was prepared to retract all my statements, I responded in the negative. I proceeded to paint a picture of a boy who was being led and manipulated to lie and cheat by people that were scared he would unmask them.
I produced documents I had obtained from a primary school in Mamelodi, which I showed to the Ombudsman and explained that according to the boy’s testimony and affidavits obtained under oath and the documents in my possession, the boy started grade one when he was two years old!
When I handed down those documents, the boy and his father walked out of the hearing and the Ombudsman threw out the case. I did not jump up in triumph because I was sick to my stomach that a parent could go to such extra ordinary lengths to cheat and use his child and lie so blatantly?
What kind of parent teaches his child that it is okay to cheat in order to gain an unfair advantage over other children? I am not a saint myself, but may the Lord grant me the wisdom and the courage never to encourage my son to cheat but to work hard to achieve whatever he wishes.
His father later contacted me and in a threatening tone, warned me to watch my steps because I had ruined his son’s career; that I was not patriotic because Chelsea had, following my series of reports, cancelled a contract where they intended signing the boy for their youth set-up.
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