A fight for legitimacy

HARARE - Steyn Kombayi’s quiet and shy demeanour belies a fierce competitive spirit and an eventful life.

Forced into exile in England as a young boy due to a firebrand politician father, assassination plots and eventual death of his dad Patrick Kombayi – an active senior MDC-T member – seeing his dream of playing rugby for his country shattered and a long fight for legitimacy as a Zimbabwe Cricket selector. Here is his story:

FOR a seemingly close-knit community where everyone knows each other, Steyn Kombayi’s arrival at Zimbabwe Cricket in 2006, initially as manager of the country’s most influential provincial association, was greeted with suspicion and resentment by many, both black and white.

The suspicion grew in people’s minds when Kombayi was appointed on the national selectors’ panel, largely due to the fact that both his cricket and personal background, despite a famous surname, were vague.

“From the onset I was up against it,” Kombayi begins to chronicle his experience at ZC.  

 “I had joined an organisation that was in the throngs and with its own challenges. My appointment to the position of provincial manager of Harare Metropolitan Province had added more fuel to the growing belief that the ZC management was giving jobs to people who were not suitably qualified for the positions.”

A devout Christian, it was through religious work that Kombayi ended up in the administration of the game.

“It was during the tours of Sri Lanka and Australia to Zimbabwe in 2005 when I was presenter-producer at the Feba-sponsored radio programme, Christians in Sports, that I became acquainted with the behind the scenes wars at ZC.

“The programme was losing its appeal as most prominent Christians in sports worldwide had not been interviewed. There was need to revive the programme and the tours by Sri Lanka and Australia provided a perfect opportunity. Surely, there would have Christians who were willing to share their experiment with Zimbabwe.

“It was during this time that I met two young cricketers who were to play an important part in my growing relationship with the game. The first was Ronnie Mutumbi, who was a member of Harare Sports Club and the second whose name escapes me was a member of Norton Cricket Club.”

At that time, Zimbabwean cricket had been torn apart by the rebel saga, leading into the fast-track of an entirely new and inexperienced team for the home series against Sri Lanka and Australia following the sacking of 15 senior white players over a selection dispute.

“It must be remembered that at the time in Zimbabwe, the game of cricket was in a crisis and like most people, I had an opinion and I was not afraid to express it. It was while I was at Harare Sports Club and I had finished interviewing one of the Sri Lankan players who was a Christian I joined a group that was describing the crisis. I said my piece as it were. Realising that I had no clue about the situation in Zim cricket, the two gentlemen advised me to get all the facts before I opened my mouth. They even showed me how I could get the correct facts if I wanted a better understand the situation. I followed their advice.

“I followed their advice and it did not take long before I realised how wrong I was. As I began to get the dynamics of the crisis at hand, a sense of wanting to be part of the solution rather than being part of the problem began to grow. The question I asked myself was, how would I deal with the situation if I was appointed CEO of the organisation.

“For the next six months, I embarked on a research, whose aim was to get a better understanding of the crisis, what had caused the crisis and what need to be done to solve the crisis.

“From the onset, there were results from the research. Fundamentally, there were three aspects to the crisis; greed, racism vested interests. 10 years down the line, the problems are still the same.”

“I was not aware at the time of the research that a year later I would be an employee of ZC. I was not the CEO of the organisation; I was the manager of the most influential province in the country. I now had an opportunity to fulfil my dream. I had the chance to bring lasting change for the good of cricket.”

So Kombayi became manager of the volatile Harare Metropolitan Province, formerly known as the Mashonaland Cricket Association.

“Upon starting my job in June of 2006, I hit a road block. The road block was to be with me for the duration of my employment at ZC. It was one of legitimacy. Who was Kombayi? Where was he from? What does he know about cricket? Does he have a cricket background? The answers to the questions did not help me gain the stakeholders’ confidence in my abilities. Throughout my time as provincial manager, whatever I did was never good enough. I found myself having to deal with issues that had nothing to do with me so that I could get on with my job.

“How was I to overcome that road block? Well, I had two options. To do what I am doing by producing records of my past or to prove myself through the job. For me it was simple, my job as an administrator was to provide the correct environment for the players, coaches and support staff to do their jobs. I don’t think the situation would have become any better had I produced the evidence that the anger towards me was not to me personally but towards what they believed I stood for. I strongly believe that if I did a job and prove my capability I would gain the confidence of my peers.”

Kombayi’s job as a national selector was not such an easy ride too. He had courted controversy before when as a Harare Metropolitan manager he axed the highly-talented but wayward young wicket-keeper batsman Brendan Taylor from the provincial team for misconduct.

Senior ZC staffers had to intervene because Taylor was highly-regarded in the local game despite his young age and perhaps he was already being seen as a future captain of the national side at that time.   

“I have no regrets whatsoever about accepting the job as national selector,” says Kombayi.

“As an accomplished sportsman, I believe I was qualified for the position and I am more than pleased with the work I did. I am not ashamed to state that Regis Chakabva and Malcolm Waller are fruits of my work as a selector. I was roundly criticized for picking Regis over (Tafadzwa) Mufambisi, but my decision has been vindicated.”

Having himself been an object of discussion over his merit as a selector, Kombayi was also inclined to add his voice on the recent selection row between Sports minister David Coltart and ZC.  

“The most contentious job in cricket is that of a selector and the composition of the selection panel,” he says.

“We have to be honest with ourselves. Even if Zimbabwe was to choose the best selectors in the world, it would not change our situation. Unless we deal with the greed, racism and vested interests, we are always going to struggle with our game. The sad part is that these aspects are endemic at all level of Zimbabwean cricket; school, club, franchise and national. All decisions are about greed, racism and vested interests.”

Steyn Kombayi was born in 1965 in Kitwe, Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia), where his father worked for the railways during the federation.

At the demise of the federation, his parents chose to stay in Zambia because of Kombayi Snr’s political activism against the Rhodesian regime, which were deemed illegal.

Young Steyn went to Kafue primary school in the town, where his father had been appointed manager of the Railway Club.

In 1973, Steyn and his four brothers transferred to Kabwe Convent on the Copperbelt. Two years later they moved to the UK, where the boys enrolled at St. Lawrence Junior School Ramsgate in Kent and later the St. Lawrence College Senior School.

He returned home soon after Independence and completed his high school education at Chaplin College in Gweru, excelling at rugby, cricket and hockey.  

Between 1984 and 1989 he worked for Ziscosteel, becoming a rugby player of note for the company team, good enough, he says, to play for the national side had it not been for an unfair selection process during Zimbabwean rugby’s white-dominated era.

Steyn would return to the UK to study hotel management at Blackpool & Fylde College for two years, which equipped him with the skills to work for for the family business upon returning home in 1994. He father, then a well-known businessman-cum-politician, first gave him a job at Chitutuko Hotel and later the Midlands Hotel.

After stints in South Africa and Harare, Kombayi Jnr joined Zimbabwe Cricket in 2006.   

 “As bleak as I paid the picture of cricket in Zimbabwe, I have to say I had a great a great run. The two years I spent at ZC taught me many things. Today the function of management has a deeper meaning because of my time at ZC.”

But his professional career was shaped in part by his upbringing in a political family.

“It soon became apparent that my success would depend on me being a doer like my father was, but a milder vision,” he says of his later father, who died in his beloved Gweru in 2009.

“During his tenure as Mayor of Gwreu, he dealt with the problem of housing shortage by building the suburb of Ivene, when the Ascot- Montrose road was a danger to the residence because of speeding motorists. He put humps, known as ‘zviKombayi’ on the road. During the liberation war to help those in Mozambique refugee camps facing starvation, he loaded up his truck and shipped food into the camps.

“Jojo, as he was known is the family, never took kindly to red tape, he was a man of results. His mantra was ‘if it does not move, move it.’

“Contrary to Karl Marx, my father saw capitalism as the solution to empowering the community. Karl Marx confused greed with capitalism.”

His father’s business acumen, he says, was a source of great pride for the family.

“To my father successful business meant profits, and profits meant social responsibility programmes for the community, for him politics and business were a means to an end, the end being the community.  Jojo did not do theories about things, he just implemented them.”

At his death, the MDC pushed for the Government to grant the late Senator national hero status, a request which was declined.

His son, however, says that recognition of the people he served is a great honour in itself.  

“For me the greatest earthly honour he received was in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” he says. “A street was named after him in Ascot in Gweru. As far back as then, he had enough work to be recognised by his peers.”  

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