Picture: 123RF/Christian Kaecker
Picture: 123RF/Christian Kaecker

In this first feature on environmental compliance and good governance, I discuss the broad implications for golf of the term “governance” with Alistair Collier, whose legal background is eclectic.

It includes specialising in the fields of social security and environmental law, holding a master of laws in environmental law from Wits university, and working as a certified environmental auditor with the Southern African Auditor and Training Certification Authority and as a golf course assessor for the international body Golf Environment Organisation.

The combination makes Collier uniquely qualified to talk about governance and environmental compliance, and for the past 14 years, he has been collating data from golf courses throughout SA in the John Collier Annual Survey in which, during 2019, 170 courses participated in the survey.

JC: Good governance has become a buzzword that slides smoothly off the tongue, especially from the mouths of those who have little grasp of the term’s real meaning, and even less interest in implementing it, unless it happens to align with their own narrow agendas.

Most of us understand the need for governance, compliance and risk management in the financial sector, especially in the light of seemingly endemic malfeasance in terms of corporate accounting.

Can you offer an overview of what governance means in general terms?

AC: The King IV report is the cornerstone, and its guidelines could perhaps be best summarised by it requiring corporates to be transparent in their operations. However, while this is also true for golf, I believe that for the game as a whole, the idea of inclusivity — not working in a vacuum and seeing oneself as being part of the larger community — is even more vital and carries more resonance.

JC: As someone who uses English as a tool, my concern is that words such as transparency and compliance are potentially an esoteric cul-de-sac, where the reality of the golf workplace does not allow for “good governance” at the levels envisaged by the King report.

We shall explore the various areas of governance in more detail as this discussion progresses, but at the outset, can you offer an update on where golf is, as an industry, in terms of compliance?

AC: The requirements apply to all the layers in the game — from golf clubs, the provincial unions, to Saga [SA Golf Association] and GolfRSA.

Concerns regarding good governance and compliance in amateur golf may be anecdotal; fortunately there is empirical research in SA, published in the John Collier Annual Survey.

The first challenge is for good corporate governance in management terms and applies to individual clubs and the role of the board of directors of GolfRSA, the leadership of Saga, the provincial unions and the various stakeholders in holding management accountable and taking responsibility for corporate conduct.

In this regard, the 17 principles set out in the King IV report on corporate governance for SA is the benchmark for SA entities. Current data indicates there is a 25% good governance compliance level throughout SA by golf clubs. While golfers pride themselves on their integrity by adhering to the game’s rules on the course, it is off the course that the lack of adherence to regulations is worrying.

JC: If that is the status at club level, how are we faring on a national level?

AC: In this area, results are more concerning. The 2019 John Collier Annual Survey measured the good-governance performance of Saga and GolfRSA. This measurement was against the 16 applicable principles as set out in King report. Using traffic lights’ colours as an indicator (with red being for poor compliance, yellow mediocre compliance, and green good compliance), the results showed that 15 principles measured as red and one as yellow.

JC: This is not at all encouraging and reflects the overall and high-level national picture, but where do the clubs sit in this assessment and are their challenges different from those facing the national bodies? Overall, are we looking at an immediate meltdown, something that can be forestalled, or is this a process that (rather like Eskom) will be a gradual and erosive one, until we reach a point of no return?

Chris van der Merwe from the Club Management Association of Southern Africa agrees with previous comments about the impermanent nature of the committee system being a potential threat to a process such as this. He paraphrased Winston Churchill’s remarks about democracy being a poor system, albeit better than anything else that has been tried. He was also concerned that many smaller clubs simply do not have the staff or management capacity to become compliant at the legislated levels.

AC: Initial damage has been done: finding the resources is certainly a challenge — for any business — but not an insuperable one, and the situation is certainly not irretrievable if prompt action is taken. However, if these matters are left unattended, golf could run the real risk of ending up on the rocks and in much the same mess that SA cricket finds itself.

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