From bowler to boss: CSA head Thabang Moroe focused on delivering transformation
Thabang Moroe has risen to the top of cricket administration in SA after beating the odds that were once stacked against black players and becoming a bowler of note
Black and navy suits with white shirts and sober ties are ubiquitous symbols in corporate power structures the world over. But some challenge the classic executive look. Like Cricket South Africa's chief executive officer Thabang Moroe, who loves colour. Every day he rocks up at work in a bright suit, and the energy he brings to his environment is infectiously jolly.
His funky dress sense did not impede Moroe's journey to the colossal corner office, furnished with armchairs around a coffee table topped with magazines to help his guests relax, in the Johannesburg suburb of Melrose where CSA's new, bigger and better offices are.
Moroe occupied this position before his 35th birthday. He has experienced far more in his life than you'd imagine, and there have been hardships as well as smooth sailing.
Born in January 1983 to parents too young to raise him themselves, Moroe's first home was with his maternal grandparents in Meadowlands, Soweto. Then he was sent to live with his aunt and uncle in QwaQwa. As teachers, they were well off by family standards.
The love he received from his aunt and uncle confused Moroe into thinking he was their blood son. Members of the community only deepened this confusion when they called him and his cousin twins. His cousin, the biological daughter of his aunt and uncle, was born in the same year and they were both dark-skinned.
"I grew up thinking my aunt and uncle were my parents," says Moroe. "When my real parents visited us I called them sister and brother. I thought they were my parents' younger siblings."
In 1989 he was sent to the home of his paternal grandparents, who lived in Orlando West, Soweto. In QwaQwa, Moroe had completed grade 1. Thanks to his teacher relatives, he had been enrolled at an early age at a semi-private school. In Orlando West, he attended Thabaneng Primary School, where he was put back in grade 1 until he quickly showed he did not belong there.
"On the first day the teacher gave us each a piece of paper and asked us to write our name, surname and date of birth. I wrote my name, surname, date of birth and my home address," he says proudly.
The teacher took the piece of paper and walked out of the classroom, returning minutes later with the principal. After a short discussion, Moroe was promoted to grade 2.
"I was in grade 1 just for a few hours," he says, as the cellphone on the coffee table vibrates.
"Abuti, can I take this call?" he asks rhetorically, answering the phone and efficiently scheduling another meeting.
The demanding position at CSA is, for Moroe, the culmination of a journey that started as a blind date with the sport back in 1990 at his primary school in Orlando West. Before that, he played soccer like any other boy in Soweto and every other township.
In an ESPNcricinfo article about legendary player and administrator Ali Bacher, Stephen Fay writes of the "disastrous [Mike] Gatting tour in 1989-90 . when Bacher was traumatised by the fierce anger of well-organised black demonstrators. He decided then that cricket would have to accommodate black and coloured players and officials if it was to survive in the new SA."
Moroe was one of those impacted by Bacher's epiphany, which led to the formation of the United Cricket Board. His primary school was nominated by this body as one of the township schools that would offer cricket clinics to children, with a view to transforming the sport.
"I met Ali Bacher at my primary school in 1990," says Moroe. He recalls how he and his friends were taught to play cricket by professional players who accompanied Bacher to the school.
In 1990, significant moments heralded fundamental shifts in SA. In Orlando West, young Moroe was at the epicentre of great political change. The ANC was unbanned and Nelson Mandela released from prison. Moroe vividly remembers attending the old Orlando Stadium, which was then wrapped with barbed wire and had a single entrance with a blue turnstile.
Moroe says he had grown up singing struggle songs about Mandela without a deeper understanding of his political significance.
"There were police and the stadium was full of people," he says. "There was one person addressing the crowd on the podium and I was told that he was Nelson Mandela. Peter Mokaba was there, and Cyril Ramaphosa was there."
As the winds of change gained momentum in SA, so too did efforts to transform cricket. Moroe went to trials where hundreds of young aspiring black cricketers competed for 13 places in the Soweto Cricket Club at Elka Stadium. Coach Moses Mataboge believed in young Moroe's bowling talent and ensured that the lad was seen by the selectors during trials.
At the age of 15, Moroe was selected for an Under-18 development team and represented SA in Kenya, where he warmed the bench in frustration for the first three matches.
"The captain did not like me and made sure that I did not play. They lost the first three of seven matches, and I was called in on the fourth and we won and I was man of the match. We also won the remaining matches and I was the leading wicket-taker when we returned," he says with pride.
In 1996, Moroe befriended fellow player Enoch Nkwe when they were both consistently selected as the two "quota" players allowed in what was then still called the Transvaal provincial team. Nkwe is now head coach of the Highveld Lions franchise and recently coached the Jozi Stars to victory in the maiden edition of the Mzansi Super League (MSL).
In 1999, Moroe was awarded a cricket scholarship from the Gauteng Cricket Board (GCB) to attend King Edward VII School in Johannesburg. His burning love for cricket was nearly extinguished by his coach, who made clear he did not want black players in his team. This led Moroe to quit the sport briefly out of frustration.
After he matriculated, he went to live with his parents, who had moved into their own house in Bramfischerville, Soweto. The new Dobsonville cricket club was nearby and Moroe was drawn back to the game.
When the club's coach left because he couldn't earn enough to survive by coaching cricket, Moroe was asked to step in. He took to the administrative side of things with ease and in 2008 was elected chair of the Black African Cricket Clubs and given a mandate to fight for equity.
At around the same time, the Langa commission recommended that black cricket clubs should have the right to elect their own leadership. This paved the way, amid the rising excitement about SA's hosting of the Fifa World Cup, for Moroe to be elected to the GCB in 2010. In 2011, he became acting president of the GCB, which gave him a seat on the CSA board.
"Cricket was coming into a new dawn," he says.
In 2012, simmering tensions at administrative level caused member teams of the GCB to revolt and the CSA placed the GCB under administration. Moroe voluntarily stepped down from the CSA board in 2013, on the grounds that the GCB had to clean its house first and return to CSA only once it was no longer under administration.
In 2014, once the GCB had resolved its conflicts, he was re-elected to the CSA board. In 2016, when he was 33, he became CSA vice-president, and just over a year later was appointed acting CEO. In July last year, the prefix "acting" was removed and he became permanent.
One of his first acts was to cancel the proposed Global League, because "there was no money coming in for it from outside", he says, and it would have been too expensive for SA to fund. It was replaced with CSA's smaller Mzansi Super League (MSL), which Moroe says was pulled off successfully on a very modest budget and within a limited time frame.
The league is a model that can easily be privatised, he says, and the numbers show its popularity. His labours to make national cricket profitable have been rewarded by lucrative international tours and he predicts that the MSL will break even in less than five years.
Moroe's passion for transformation finds expression in the enthusiasm with which he is trying to change the circumstances for women's cricket. He proudly says the women Proteas are now the highest earners in women's sport in SA.
When they travel they now fly business class like their male counterparts and they no longer share hotel rooms. He concedes that a lot of money is required to maintain these standards.
His driving objective now is to improve the Future Tours Programme (FTP) for the men's national team. "I need to improve the FTP for the Proteas," he says. "As Thabang Moroe I need to do this."
He still lives in Soweto. He has yet to propose marriage to anyone, because cricket is still his major love.
• Seshibedi is a photojournalist for Gallo Images