Pouring Rain: You don’t need to drown in government legislation

Aug 1, 2021 | Golf Course Management, Media Article

The old saying is that it ‘never rains, but it pours’, which might be an appropriate description for how many South African clubs’ feel about their increasing environmental and governance responsibilities.

The fact that in early 2021, many parts of South Africa experienced biblical rain, as the result of the cyclone that parked itself just east of our borders with Mozambique, just added a dose of reality to the idiom.

Our focus in this discussion will be on the environment and of course, even though rain is welcome, especially in a water starved environment, it does bring its own challenges – just ask some of the golf clubs on the borders with the Kruger Park!

The pandemic and the actions taken to combat it, including the lockdowns and ban of the sale of alcohol, caused storms for many clubs through 2020 of a financial nature. Some of the damage caused, despite the unanticipated spike in rounds’ numbers, post the reopening after the first lockdown, will take some years to repair.

In this type of ‘all hands to the pumps’ environment, where throwing what is not of immediate value or use overboard to lighten the load and to stop the ship from sinking becomes a priority – what impact will this have on clubs’ environmental responsibilities and is this a ball that the golf sector can afford to take its eye off, even if only for a moment.

To explore this topic, and discuss key points from the recently published and 14th edition for 2020 / 2021 of the John Collier Survey, I am joined by Alistair Collier, who is the CEO of the John Collier Golf Survey.

John Cockayne (JC): Some years ago, a club GM remarked to me that just getting through to the end of each month without ‘going under’ was just about as good as it gets and reduced budgets and staff numbers must have added an edge to this challenge.

Undoubtedly 2020 was a tough year for everyone (unless you were heavily invested in the IT sector, new technologies or Bitcoin!), so has this been reflected in the Collier Annual Survey’s results for the period?

Alistair Collier (AC): To some degree yes, but by and large those clubs which had already embarked on a process of monitoring and improving their interactions with and impact on their immediate environment have been able to continue to pursue their set targets and goals.

What is important to note is that in order for surveys, such as the John Collier Survey, to have any credibility, the quality of the data, obtained from the clubs participating in the questionnaire, is critical.

Some 44% of the target population of South African golf clubs provided data through the John Collier Questionnaire.

Statistically, this is good sample, however given the importance of good governance and environmental compliance, and to build a positive narrative about golf in South Africa all clubs should be participating in such third-party external reviews, but regrettably only 21% of clubs formally participate in such reviews.

In this regard transparency is one of the fundamental pillars of good governance. But what is really concerning about good governance and environmental compliance of South Africa golf clubs, is that the national compliance level sits at 31%.

Fortunately, or unfortunately (depending on your perspective) for golf clubs throughout South Africa, the Department of Environment’s environmental management inspectors (EMIs) are focussing on several other areas for the time being, but in time the EMIs will be knocking on golf club’s doors.

More information on what one of South African golf’s important regulators is doing, is available in the current John Collier Annual Survey in a discussion about the National Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Report for 2019/2020.

JC: Can you please summarise the key findings in and the trends uncovered by the current survey.

AC: The John Collier Annual Survey focusses on two areas, namely environmental compliance and good governance, albeit that environmental compliance will be the focus for this discussion.

If one reviews the legal universe applicable to golf clubs, notwithstanding the COVID 19 pandemic, the legislators have been hard at work. The effort has been in generating more papers, procedures, policies, regulations, Bills and Acts that impact upon golf clubs in South Africa, the implementation of which is in everyone’s best interests and which should be viewed as a team effort.

However, many of these regulations are still only in draft form and if one looks at one example in terms of the biodiversity regulations, one has to ask how many more trees are going to be infected by the invasive polyphagous shot-hole borer species from south-east Asia before the applicable legislation is gazetted?

Notwithstanding the delays within government, our Survey’s findings indicate a developing trend where more clubs are struggling to keep up even with current legislation.

Some of the key compliance level findings include – waste management at 35%; water management plans at 26%; fertilizer nutrition programme at 26% and biodiversity management at 26%.

Compared to the previous year, during 2020 the overall trend is a slight uptick in all areas of the survey.

JC: Do these findings surprise you?

AC: Yes, they do, we were expecting, with the torrid time golf clubs have experienced with the various stages of the COVID lockdown, a decline in compliance levels, but over-all there was a small improvement.

JC: Although we look at the golf industry whole, this can be deceiving as the 80/20 just about fits in this sector with about 80% of the business being done by 20% of the clubs. What allowances does the legislation and the Collier Survey make for these differences in terms of scale, available budgets, staff levels, etc?

AC: In terms of legislation, once promulgated, the provisions of the law are applicable to all, however in terms of good governance, King IV acknowledges the differences in entities and hence the principles are pragmatic enough to accommodate these differences.

JC: The real issue always boils done to ‘money’ or perhaps a lack of it, so how active is the Collier Survey in detailing the economic sense and costs savings that can come from environmentally sensitive processes in managing a golf course and how successful do you feel you have been in transferring this message into action.

AC: In this year’s survey we discuss the issue of the real value of participating in a survey such as the John Collier Questionnaire.

We also cover the hidden costs involved in not implementing and complying with the required policies and procedures.

Using Cost of Quality (COQ) methodology (the process that measures and determines where and how the resources of organizations are utilised in the maintenance of quality and the prevention of delivering poor outputs), we estimate that a club’s COQ, or better yet, the club’s cost of poor quality (COPQ) could be about 15% against revenues, but that it could also range as high as 40%.

With these types of potential losses, there should be no need for discussion about the necessity to participate in the John Collier Questionnaire and similar surveys and putting in place the relevant policies and procedures.

In simple terms these documents, and the requirements detailed therein, can save any participating club money.

JC: If we were to conduct a SWOT analysis in terms of environmental compliance what would your key indicators be in each of the sector?

AC: A distinct strength, at a very high level in terms of environmental compliance, is the calibre of greenkeepers throughout South Africa.

Equally, a weakness is the regrettable lack of recognition of the greenkeeper and staff and their contribution to golf.

In terms of an opportunity, South African golf is blessed with a strong administrative structure, starting with GolfRSA, the Provincial Unions and Clubs, which offers a clear pathway through which to encourage environmental compliance through all spheres of golf leadership.

However, to pass the message effectively through the structure, GolfRSA must continue its work and extend it efforts further to ensure that the benefits of environmental compliance are understood and practised by every golf club in South Africa, so as to avoid the current low levels of environmental compliance by golf clubs becoming a real threat to golf in the region.

Much has been said about generating an upbeat picture about South African golf, but if the compliance and transparency levels remain low, it will difficult to develop trust and continue to build a positive narrative.

JC: It has been argued that many surveys are blunt instruments in that they provide aggregated findings and often miss the nuances that make up the ‘true’ picture in any business sector.

What does the Collier Survey do to ensure that the results do not bundle a small club, which in many cases are run by only one or two people, with the bigger clubs with more resources and structure? For example, we understand that being VAT compliant has nothing to do with staff numbers of structure, but the question about having a ‘formal integrated environmental management policy and programme’, does this apply to a 9 holes course run by 2 people and if not or there are other benchmarks for a club like this to follow.

Finally, the key points for me in your summary are the low national average and the inevitable and much closer scrutiny that will be put on golf clubs. Do these match your sense of the status and what should golf be doing to encourage better performance in this area?

AC: For many years South African golf has been blessed with enthusiastic and committed supporters of the game who are prepared to give their time, skills and expertise for the benefit of golf. A good example of this is the Nomads. It is through the generosity of this organisation and other people that we witness the pipeline of talented youngsters who come through the amateur ranks and some move into the professional arena. Just look at the recent success of young Garrick Higgo. The successes are there, but one needs to heed what is troubling South African cricket as a warning to South African golf. When things go wrong, they unravel very quickly and the first casualties in any skirmish is trust and objectivity. It is for this reason that the discipline of environmental compliance and good governance are critical for the future of golf in South Africa.