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The Case for Reconsidering the Zimbabwe Boycott

16th June 2010.

Things may not be as rosy as observers may have cause to hope for, but respect for those seeking to rebuild the country and its cricket must surpass anger about those hell-bent on its destruction.

Zimbabwe and its cricket community have been getting soft treatment lately, as both undergo changes that optimists hope are substantial and pessimists fear are superficial. Much has happened in a year, so positions need to be reviewed.

Before plunging into the debate, it is necessary to declare an interest. Over the years two issues have gripped my mind. In the formative years, apartheid was the main provocation. Martin Luther King’s call that every man be judged not on the colour of his skin but the content of his character rang loud. Nor is it enough merely to have an opinion. Vic Marks, Derek Wyatt and I formed an anti-apartheid group. Admittedly it was ineffective, but it was better than nothing. Articles for the Sunday Times and the Times condemning sporting links with South Africa took the matter further. At the time it was not a popular cause. Many cricketing conservatives (and there was no shortage) regarded Mr Mandela as a terrorist. Those days are easily forgotten. Others argued that politics has no part in sport (which is true, but tyranny is not a political but a humanitarian issue).

Nor was it enough to sit on the sidelines after apartheid had been dismantled. Nowadays I spend half my time in South Africa, running a household, contributing here and there. Of course it has been fascinating to watch the birth pangs of the new democracy, and the eternal struggle between the hardliners and the moderates. That numerous cricket tournaments, and now the soccer World Cup, have been successfully staged in the country suggests that something is going right. But then, South Africa had Mandela at its head.

Zimbabwe had Mugabe, a Stalinist prepared to take all measures needed to retain his grip on power, a mass murderer responsible for the slaughter of at least 20,000 Ndebele in the 1980s. As Mandela grew, so Mugabe shrank, spitefully taking his country down with him. In an attempt to distract attention from his bitterness and destruction, and the unpopularity of his government, he took up various populist causes, all of them self-serving, all of them supposedly driven by a radical agenda absurd from a leader two decades in office.

And so came the collapse of the country and the enrichment of a small elite. Of the Zimbabweans under my roof, one was abominably tortured with 20 friends by security forces angry that they had protested food shortages, another saw his friends tortured by the youth militia because they did not know the words of a Zanu-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front) song, another escaped from a house burnt down by the militia after his father dared to stand against a government candidate, another has recently been threatened after criticising Mugabe. All of them have suffered family deaths, sisters forced into prostitution, siblings unable to obtain medicine, and so forth. All of them yearn to go home. A former soldier defied a blood oath to tell me about the rapes and killings he was forced to carry out. It is possible to love a country and hate a government. Sometimes it is compulsory.

Doubtless these events have left a mark. That is the background.

Hitherto the case against Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe Cricket was compelling. No amount of clever words and pretty pretences could distract attention from the massacres, torture camps, murders, repression, thieving, greed and contempt for the common man that defined an ever-worsening government. But the upheavals in 2008 changed everything. Despite the usual rigging, the opposition won the election, a result that shocked a government that controlled the media and the courts and had depended on widespread intimidation in the unseen rural areas. Naturally Zanu-PF could not accept the outcome. It had committed too many calumnies and was making too much money to concede power. Another vicious campaign was unleashed and the dream was once again systematically destroyed.

It would be foolish to trust the incumbents, cricketing or political. After all these years of betrayal, it’s reasonable to predict an engineered collapse in the government, a continuation of the repression, violence and corruption, and a dismantling of recent structures, cricketing and otherwise

Elsewhere in Africa, genuine democracies and properly functioning countries had emerged and saw Zanu-PF in its true light. Only a rump remained, boosted by friendships with North Korea and Iran. Even South Africa wavered, and anyhow they had a World Cup to organise. And so a “Unity” government was forced on the recalcitrants, an arrangement that has survived. Its rule has been marked by an unusual mixture of common purpose and bad blood. It’s always risky to get into bed with a snake, but without risk the country was doomed. As it happens, the smaller opposition party was given responsibility for sport, and so cricket. Of course that put the cat amongst the pigeons. Oversight was on its way. And no one knew how long it might last. It’s not that power suddenly saw the light.

Hitherto the issue had been straightforward. Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe Cricket were nothing more than fronts used by vested interests posing as radical thinkers. Despite the protestations of self-interested officials, cricket had always reflected the regime. As it deteriorated so did Zimbabwe Cricket, until only ruthless opportunists remained. They prospered by staying close to the regime and by buttering up the BCCI, so that the ICC did not ask too many awkward questions. Other boards were sacked due to poor governance. Protected by allies in South Africa and India, Zimbabwe Cricket remained intact.

Now the position is more complicated. Suddenly the image of Zimbabwean cricket has improved. Many observers are rushing to praise and gushing in their words, and never mind that the same men occupy the key positions.

Doubtless the appointment of reassuring figures as coach, chairman of selectors and media manager, has helped convince the community that the new national and cricketing rulers are to be trusted. In part, this view is itself racist. All of the cricketing appointees are white. Colour was not, or ought not to have been, the problem.

Still, the inclusion of Alistair Campbell, Heath Streak, Dave Houghton, Grant Flower, Neil Manthorp and company is significant. Individually, they may not convince. In some cases, they seemed to be part of the previous problem not the current solution. Because they addressed principle and not self-interest, the protests made by Andy Flower and Henry Olonga were more convincing than the complaints subsequently heard from the remaining white players and their immature lawyer. Zimbabwe Cricket was right to push black cricket and black cricketers. Its development programme has had much to commend it. Integrity, not strategy, is the issue. And it is in short supply.

Henry Olonga

Henry Olonga.
Photo ©: International Cricket Council (ICC)

Whatever their colour and merits, though, these new faces at Zimbabwe Cricket have two important attributes. They are outsiders and they are experienced. Admittedly two of them, Campbell and Manthorp, are hogtied by a conflict of interest that puts them in the lucrative but dubious position of working for both Zimbabwe Cricket and the media. In effect, they can write their own reviews. Alas, it’s common practice to serve two masters these days, and helps explain the malpractices that continue to blight the game.

Thankfully some strong, independent voices remain in every country. It’s not to be taken for granted. A recent survey revealed that Pakistan and Sri Lanka count among the five most dangerous countries for journalists. Nor is the profession a cinch in Zimbabwe, except for craven creatures prepared to toe the party line in the government propaganda sheets. As Benjamin Franklin observed, a country without a government but with newspapers is better placed than one with a government but without newspapers. All the more reason to keep the estates apart.

But this mutual scratching of backs does not mean nothing has been accomplished. Apparently, the franchise system recently introduced domestically has worked well, though dubious types were typically put in charge of some of the franchises. Several overseas players were invited to strengthen the teams. Sources indicate that coaching in schools has picked up. Cricket in Zimbabwe needs to tap into the abundant goodwill of the community and the high intelligence of the emerging players.

Certainly, too, the national team has looked more settled. Not that too much can be read into midwinter matches played against weakened international sides, but even shadow Indian and Sri Lankan outfits are not to be taken lightly. Only the churlish will deny Zimbabwe credit for reaching the final of the recent 50-over triangular. Brendon Taylor, Tatenda Taibu and Hamilton Masakadza batted with aplomb, and the spin bowling was presentable. As might be expected from a side finally give the chance to play on its own patch, against strong opposition, the team also showed plenty of pride. However, its inconsistency told of dependence on a few players and limitations elsewhere.

Incidentally, the team often contained seven white players, which made the lost years seem wasted. Arguably more licence was given to them in 2010 than in 2005. Chamu Chibhabha, a No. 3 batsman, might have been given more opportunities. As far as selection is concerned, the team seemed unduly comfortable.

Now comes the difficult part of the case. Over the years I have been a proponent of applying the same sporting boycott to Zimbabwe as to the apartheid regime, and for the same reasons. Has the time come to reconsider? On the one hand, the same leaders remain in power, still plausible, cunning and rich. On the other hand, there have been some improvements and the minister of sport himself welcomed the recent touring teams and asked New Zealand to reconsider their decision not to visit the country.

It would be foolish to trust the incumbents, cricketing or political. Everything could disintegrate once the World Cup is finished. Then the truth will come out. After all these years of betrayal, it’s reasonable to predict an engineered collapse in the government, a continuation of the repression, violence and corruption, and a dismantling of recent structures, cricketing and otherwise. As far as crooks and tyrants are concerned, the prophets of doom are usually right.

However, it’s no use waiting for the worst to happen. After consulting ANC contacts in 1990, I concluded that the time had come to start easing the sporting boycott. Sooner or later the path forwards must be charted. It’s a question of timing.

The MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) has taken the plunge. Cheated of victory in numerous elections, they were prepared to join forces with their killers and torturers in a desperate attempt to save their country. These people continue to risk their lives for their country. They are freedom fighters. All the more reason to put their opinions higher than those of us commenting from a relatively safe distance. And the MDC has also asked the international community to send cricket teams to the country. Presumably they fear the return of the hardliners, should the world continue to stay away.

With scarcely softened contempt for the conmen of ZANU and their cricketing apologists, I think the time has come for cricketing countries to reconsider their boycott of Zimbabwe. It is not always possible to rectify the past satisfactorily before embarking on the future. In the end, respect for those seeking to rebuild the country must surpass justified anger about those hell-bent on its destruction. In this life or the next, their day of reckoning will come. Meanwhile their rotting souls will either continue to plague them or prompt sincere change. Let’s give peace a chance.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo
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