May 2007

The Nation Reviewed

Out of Africa

By Gideon Haigh
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In the 1960s, one of the catchcries of the anti-apartheid movement seeking the exile of South African athletes was "no normal sport in an abnormal society". So judgemental. Surely that should have been "differently abled" society. And hey, what's normal sport anyway? Curling. Zorbing. Cheese Rolling. You can't tell me those are normal.

Similar thinking seems to underlie the apparent indifference to the prospect of the Australian cricket team touring Zimbabwe in September. Oh, it's such a shame about Zimbabwe, isn't it? Millions starving and not so much as a pop concert. But it's hardly as important as Kevin Rudd using a 4WD, is it? There's bound to be a ‘root cause' or two in there somewhere; probably a few ‘double standards', too. Say what? John Howard and Alexander Downer don't think they should go? Well, would you buy a used foreign policy from them?

Ricky Ponting, meanwhile, agrees that it could be a tad dicey - but you never know, do you? "It's such a long way away yet," he told journalists during the World Cup. "Anything could happen between now and then in Zimbabwe. We'll see what happens." If he batted like he talked, Ponting would be timed out in every innings. When Australia bravely flew in and out of Zimbabwe for their World Cup fixture in 2003 inside 24 hours - security reasons, you understand - Ponting declined to say whether he would shake Robert Mugabe's hand, on the grounds that it was a hypothetical question. Perhaps they didn't tell him how to answer those at the cricket academy.

Yet in terms of the general situation regarding the evolving scenario vis-a-vis ongoing long-range optimisation Mugabewise, Ponting has a way to go before he outwimps Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's prime minister, advocate of dealing with his old chum Mugabe by "quiet diplomacy". Mbeki's serene perspective? "The point really about all this from our perspective has been that the critical role we should play is to assist the Zimbabweans to find each other, really to agree among themselves about the political, economic, social, other solutions that their country needs."

Alas, the only Zimbabweans that Mugabe wishes to find are members of the Movement for Democratic Change, the country's lavishly persecuted opposition coalition. And it doesn't need diplomacy - quiet, noisy or otherwise - to determine that what Zimbabweans mainly agree on is that they're hungry, Mugabe's ruinous "land reforms" having reduced a hearty agricultural exporter to a country that can cover less than half its grain needs. We'll deal with the human-rights violations, the crushing of the free press and independent judiciary, the GDP that has halved since 2000, the inflation rate nudging 2000%, the 80% unemployment, the unofficial exchange rate of US$1 to ZW$25,000, the 3 million refugees in South Africa alone, the national median age of 19 and the life expectancy of 37 for males and 34 for females ... well, later. Much, much later.

Against all this, of course, a cricket tour is a trifle. But in Zimbabwe, the old chestnut that sport and politics should not mix doesn't have a lot of traction - if it ever did. Zimbabwe Cricket is now hardly more than a front for the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF): after a long period of exercising increasing suasion, the government's Sport and Recreation Commission officially took over Zimbabwe Cricket's offices in January last year to break a deadlock between it and recalcitrant provincial boards. "Reform" began - that is, using the Mugabe definition. New national and provincial boards were constituted, composed in the main of party hacks and their cronies. Their zeal to serve may have something to do with the expectation of big payments from the International Cricket Council for Zimbabwe's participation in last year's Champions Trophy and the recent World Cup.

Mugabe, of course, famously declared in 1984, "Cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone in Zimbabwe to play cricket." On present trends, everyone who wishes will enjoy the opportunity to play international cricket. Not a single member of the last Zimbabwean team to play a Test against Australia remains there. Their able young captain when last the teams met in a one-day international, Tatenda Taibu, fled Zimbabwe 18 months ago after being threatened by a ZANU-PF hardliner, and having had the police turn up at his home to repossess his Zimbabwe Cricket car.

Zimbabwe's benighted cricketers, in fact, are regularly humiliated by absurd, pettifogging rules, like last year's ban on dreadlocks: three complied under sufferance; a fourth left the country. They are barely paid; their previous coach recently revealed that he wasn't paid at all; their World Cup squad members were forced to sign their contracts on the spot, on pain of omission, and their fees have been withheld until June to prevent an immediate exodus. Three players were even briefly jailed on trumped-up foreign-exchange violations. Not surprisingly, Zimbabwe is a shadow of the halfway-decent team it was a decade ago, and did not win a game in the Caribbean. Fortunately, perhaps, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation did not telecast any matches; apparently it was unable to afford the US$50 for a satellite technician to obtain the signal from South Africa.

The act of touring Zimbabwe is effectively doing business with a branch of a government that is an international pariah. Even if Ponting and co. want to stick to their no-morality-please-we're-sportsmen schtick, there is an argument that Zimbabwe Cricket is no longer an administrative body with which Cricket Australia should have reciprocal relations.

Yet it should never have come to this. Perhaps the International Cricket Council should have done more. Because - prepare to be amazed - they have done squat. Perhaps the Australian government could have provided firmer guidance; perhaps more information should have been made available to the public. But - well - why? So professional sportsmen should not have to show an ounce of curiosity and exercise their consciences? The Australian rugby player Tony Abrahams, who declined to play against the Springboks in 1971, was once asked how difficult it was for him to speak out. Difficult? "It wasn't that difficult," he said. "I mean, it seems to me, looking back on it, but even then, that it was probably one of the clearest issues you could make a stand on."

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