Into the Lion’s den

2010-10-10 15:39

The handles of the double-volume sliding doors at the entrance to his luxurious home in Johannesburg’s ­super-rich suburb of Sandhurst are gold-plated lion heads.

His star sign is Leo, he has lion ornaments throughout the house and he keeps live lions on one of his game farms. It was no surprise therefore that this week he too ­became a Lion.

I am, of course, talking about ­Mpumalanga-born IT billionaire Robert Gumede.

Gumede and his friend, arms dealer Ivor Ichikowitz, are 49.9% shareholders of struggling Johannesburg-based rugby team the ­Lions.

They hope to use their business experience to turn the ailing team around – both in the boardroom and on the rugby field.

But on Friday night the team lost 27-34 to the Mpumalanga Pumas and failed to qualify for the Absa Currie Cup semifinal.

Gumede made headlines in April when his company, Gijima AST, had its R2.5 billion IT upgrade ­contract cancelled because of ­alleged irregularities.

The company and the Department of Home Affairs are in negotiations.

If no agreement is reached, litigation will follow.

Gumede has been a generous benefactor of the ruling ANC, and he is not shy about it. When he splashes out, he seems to adopt the phrase “go big, or go home”.

He spent tens of millions when he married Dr Portia Mkhize in Mbombela in March.

The four ­garages at his home say a lot about his love for expensive toys.

Gumede once owned the ­Mpumalanga-based Dangerous Darkies. He helped to bring them to the Premier Soccer League, but the team bombed out. He then turned his back on soccer because of the “corruption of referees”.

In May Gumede was in Nice, France, when he heard about the excitement that the Super 14 semifinal match between Pretoria’s Blue Bulls and New Zealand outfit Crusaders at Orlando Stadium had caused in Soweto.

Gumede, whose love for sports spans many codes, immediately sent a text message to Ichikowitz’s younger brother, Eric, saying it was “time to buy a rugby team”.

The 47-year-old tycoon’s son, Simphiwe, made Gumede love the sport. Simphiwe played for St John’s College rugby team and was a “very good player”.

 Gumede nearly bought into the Pumas.

After the Bulls game in Soweto, Gumede’s interest in buying into a rugby franchise was rekindled, but choosing a team was not easy.

He said he wanted to buy into a team that was down and out so that he could help turn it around.

When the Lions suffered their heaviest loss of the season (32-0), Gumede saw an opportunity and engaged the directors of the club.

“We (Gumede and Ichikowitz) shared the vision of transforming rugby using the Lions. We needed to create a home for any nine-year-old, black or white, to know that the Lions was a home where their ­careers could be nurtured,” he said.

“The team’s support base needs to transcend the borders of Johannesburg. We need to go where people are and educate them about the sport and attract them to the game.

“South Africa is a jungle and the lion is the king of the jungle. Our aim is to reawaken the lion that has been asleep for the past 11 years.”

Gumede believes he can create a winning team by turning the business of rugby around and improving the team’s performance.

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