By Robert Mutsauki

WHEN I got a call from Ferhaan Ismail on Sunday morning, even before answering the call (but seeing the name of the caller on my mobile phone), I had the uneasy feeling that something had happened to his father, Moosa ‘Uncle’ Ismail because for some reason he had been on my mind in the past few days. I had not visited him for months and I was actually planning to visit him this coming Saturday but the ensuing conversation was to render my plans redundant as I learnt with a deep sense of sorrow that the ‘man of the people’ had passed on at the beginning of February. I could only lament the fact that I did not visit him at his Belvedere home in January to celebrate the fact that we had both made it into 2018.

I first got to know Ismail from close range in 1990 when we were both in Team Zimbabwe participating in the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand. He was assistant general manager while I was attending my first games as the coach for the athletics contingent. During our stay in the games village he struck me as a humble, friendly and knowledgeable individual who got on well with athletes and officials alike, a true father figure indeed.

The following year our working relationship was to be rekindled at the All Africa Games in Cairo, Egypt where we both again played the same roles that we had been assigned in Auckland. Again Ismail continued to be the affable ‘Uncle’ for Team Zimbabwe.

In 1994 I was appointed Chef de Mission for the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada and my two deputies were, yes you guessed it, Ismail and ‘JJ’ Nyashanu who at that time was serving as an official seconded to the All Africa Games Organising Committee. I was given this honour to lead Team Zimbabwe even though at the time I was not a Zimbabwe Olympic Committee official but only president of the then Amateur Athletic Association of Zimbabwe. Ismail was the ZOC assistant secretary general but he agreed and went on to serve under a much younger and less experienced person than him. We worked very well together and I really benefited from his wisdom, counsel and experience. At the time, due to my limited experience and exposure as a sports administrator and leader, I certainly needed an ‘old steady hand’ to give me some advice and words of wisdom from time to time.

Team Zimbabwe brought home medals not only from legendary diver Evan Stewart who was at his peak (and went on to become a world champion in the same year) but also for the first time from track stars Savieri Ngidhi (800m), Phillimon Hanneck (5 000m) and Tendai Chimusasa (10 000m). Naturally we were very proud of these achievements but if my memory serves me right these turned out to be the last games that Ismail attended and I recall that in later years he expressed a strong wish to attend the Olympic Games, the ultimate sports spectacle, but this was not to be.

I then joined Ismail on the ZOC executive board when we were both elected in April 1998. I was elected as first vice president while he became a member, a rung lower than assistant secretary general but he was still happy to serve in that new ‘if not reduced’ capacity. I was to later become ZOC secretary general in 2001 and chief executive officer in 2005 while he continued serving as a member until 2005 when he decided not to stand for re-election and was subsequently conferred with honorary life membership, a title he had already been accorded by the Zimbabwe Football Association years earlier (where he served for many years as the fixtures secretary).

During our tenure on the ZOC executive board I found Ismail to be an industrious and reliable associate and we collaborated very well. He had useful experiences to share not only from his stints in football, hockey and the ZOC but also from his many years in government or public service administration. He had a very broad network which unfortunately, I must admit, we did not bother to effectively leverage even when we were both serving in the ZOC.

Many will recall that Ismail was responsible for organising the Olympic Day Run for many years and this was in his capacity as chairman of the ZOC sports for all commission. This event was consistently a success thanks to his passion, unquestionable commitment and good organisational skills.

It is not a surprise that Ismail and I developed a strong bond of friendship which was painstakingly cultivated and nurtured over nearly three decades of close association. Our friendship was not only based on our close working relationship in and through the ZOC but it was more to do with the mutual admiration and respect that we had for each other and the values that we shared. His humility and modesty made him a shining example or role model, endearing him with those he came into contact with, young and old.

It is not every day that one finds a selfless individual like Ismail in our sports organisations, someone practising what we now know as servant leadership. He was pragmatic and led a very simple life and yet he was a successful businessman in his own right, working in partnership with his identical twin sons Ferhaan and Rehan (whom I still struggle to tell apart).

He may have struggled with some health issues during the last few years of his long and eventful life but he remained true to himself right up to the end, again yes he was consistent, principled and down to earth.

Go well my friend in the knowledge and comfort that you left a memorable legacy for all of us in the Olympic and sport movement. We will forever remember you while cherishing and hoping to emulate your good works. You are and will always be one of a kind, Moosa ‘Uncle’ Ismail.