Cricket / ODIs

Mandela, Mugabe and The African Game of Thrones

Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe both used sport to further their political  agenda, but to dramatically different ends—one to unify an Apartheid-torn nation, the other polarise his already divided country

by Leslie Xavier

From rows and rows of Nations Cupthe Holy Bible stacked at supermarkets and pavement stalls to the new-age evangelist establishments, Catholic and Protestant churches…. You only have to take a walk down Harare’s main road, the Nelson Mandela Avenue, to realise the sociological relevance the Christian God has in a country that’s financially down in the dumps.

Zimbabwe’s economy has been in the ICU for a while now. The sky-rocketing inflation has been arrested a wee bit since 2009, when the government took out the Zimbabwean dollar, replacing it with the US dollar and South African rand. Robert Mugabe, the country’s ruler since its independence in 1980 (prime minister till 1987 and president since then), is set to continue for another five years after securing—through foul play, alleges the opposition—a landslide majority in the July 31 elections. The 89-year-old was sworn in for another term, despite the widespread belief that the mandate was rigged.

SI India was in the country during the elections, covering the India vs. Zimbabwe cricket series. Though cricket was not a part of the manifesto of either Mugabe’s Zanu Patriotic Front or the opposition Movement for Democratic Change–Tsvangirai (led by Morgan Tsvangirai), the current state of the sport reflects the social and economic changes—termed reform by the government—that have swept across the southern African country, leaving everything in tatters. The series with India went ahead despite the dates clashing with the general election, a tricky period in the country as the last round (in 2008) had witnessed widespread violence that claimed the lives of hundreds. It was even extended—from three to five matches—with an eye on larger revenue to cover a part of Zimbabwe Cricket’s $15 million debt.

On the streets of the capital city, half a litre of water costs $1.5, while the average income of a restaurant waiter or a store clerk or a manual labourer, the so-called common man, is $5–10 for an eight-hour shift. “Actually, things are much more difficult as we don’t have regular jobs. I work on a farm on the outskirts of Harare when there is work available,” says Trust, who was working as a guard at a store the day we met him. “If not, I come to the city and try my hand at whatever job I get.”

The country is in turmoil, but Zimbabweans are a calm lot; crime rate is lower, way lower, than some of its neighbours, and the citizens do not seem to mind their impoverished existence in a nation which has huge reserves of mineral wealth, including gold and diamonds. Are they resigned to their fate? Or, is it that they still believe in the message of hope and reform that Mugabe delivers every time he addresses his subjects? It’s hard to tell. What is evident is that the people’s inclination towards religion—the biggest influence on Zimbabweans, much more than Mugabe’s propaganda machinery—has grown to become an escape route that even former international cricketers in the country have embraced.

Tatenda Taibu, Zimbabwe’s first black skipper, retired from the game in 2012, and is now a preacher, his true calling, claims the former wicketkeeper-batsman. Here is a cricketer who had fought the establishment down the years for decent payment and job security for players via contract. Taibu, according to sources, was initially in support of the player rebellion in 2004 that stood up to the government’s attempt to blend in less-worthy black players into the national team. The belief is that he was forced by the administrators to stay away from the strike. The 30-year-old, who also was on the roster of the Kolkata Knight Riders in the Indian Premier League in 2008, is now earning his living as a real estate agent, while his real quest is in the spiritual realm.

Taibu is least bothered by what is happening with the national team he once led, or with the country he calls home. “My quest is not material,” he says, sounding a bit like Bryan Strang, the former medium pacer, who has found solace in Sri Sri Ravishankar’s Art of Living as well as meditative techniques that he learnt from a yogi in Dharamsala.

Strang’s troubles in his personal life—he was also known to be erratic off-field—coupled with the situation in the country, where policies were increasingly becoming hostile towards its white citizens, pushed him in the direction of a spiritual undertaking, just like an “existential crisis” pushed Taibu towards God. Both cricketers stand testament to the state of the “white man’s game” and Mugabe’s attempt to turn it into a national sport and a platform for black citizens, even at the expense of killing it.

Springboks Visit Nelson Mandela In HoughtonIT is exactly the opposite of what Nelson Mandela did just across the border. Mandela, after becoming South Africa’s first multi-racially elected president in 1994, had a monster of a situation to handle. The country was on the verge of an internal conflict, with English and Afrikaans (descendants of Dutch settlers), who ruled during the Apartheid era, on one side, and the indigenous black population on the other. Added variables were also thrown into the inter-racial population, which included those of Indian origin. Most important, Madiba, as South Africans lovingly call Mandela, had the responsibility of erasing the Apartheid legacy and taking the country forward towards his dream of a Rainbow Nation.

A few years before Mugabe used a white man’s sport to suppress the former elite class in a bid to consolidate power and trigger a resurgence of the indigenous population, Mandela used another white man’s sport for nation-building—taking rugby and the Springboks (the nickname of the South African national rugby team and a symbol of Apartheid) to unify a nation under one flag. He stood firm, against the wishes of the majority of his party, the African National Congress, and urged the whole of South Africa to stand behind their team during the Rugby World Cup which the country hosted in 1995. “One nation, one team,” he used to say, while campaigning for the Springboks.

Rugby symbolised Apartheid oppression. Social researchers in South Africa point at how the black population viewed the game, which uses brute force, as a reminder of their forced submission. Football, the universal game, was the game of choice for the black man, and it was hard for even the great Madiba to get the people to forget the decades of suffering and stand behind a symbol of oppression. Things changed, however, as the tournament progressed and the Springboks, led by Francois Pienaar (who, long before the World Cup, was coaching impoverished Soweto kids), realised the responsibility of the task. They were playing in South Africa’s biggest sporting event after the Apartheid ban was lifted and they knew that their victory and image would go a long way in settling the internal strife.

As the team continued its victory march through the summer of 1995, the country went through a change too. In the final—one of the most memorable sporting moments of the 20th century—South Africa beat the New Zealand All Blacks to lift the World Cup. As Mandela, dressed in Pienaar’s No. 6 Springboks jersey, presented the skipper with the trophy, South Africa celebrated as one nation. “Other presidents would probably have worn their best silk suit. When Mr. Mandela chose to wear my Springbok shirt, it symbolised the coming together of a nation. The new South Africa was actually born then,” the skipper was quoted as saying in an interview later.

South Africa is not in turmoil due to racial insecurities now, but is faced with different social evils—corruption and a very high murder and crime rate because of economic inequality. It’s not colour that divides the nation, but gated and guarded communities, all wary of intruders.

The sense of insecurity is clear from one recent and famous example—the defence argument of murder-accused para-athlete Oscar Pistorius, the Blade Runner. Pistorius shot his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, to death inside his plush and guarded apartment and later said that he had mistaken her for a robber. Whatever the truth, the fact remains that, like the sports icon, almost every South African feels insecure in the country, something Madiba’s successor, Jacob Zuma, should look to rectify.

Mike Atherton the captain of England (left) meets Robert MugabeTO the north, Zimbabwe’s troubles come in many layers, cutting across the social fabric. Crime is not the biggest problem, and a banker from Harare (name withheld) explains why. “It’s simple. Mugabe fears armed rebellion,” he says. “So, soon after independence, he brought in gun control, confiscated all the guns and started a strict licensing regime. That never happened in South Africa, and they are all trigger-happy there, as you know.”

But good governance was not the “revolutionary liberator’s” forté, in any case, retribution was. Independence had triggered an exodus of whites from the country as most of them felt insecure after Mugabe’s government began the land redistribution programme. Initially, though, the Lancaster House Agreement (which paved the way for independence) had protected the white farm owners. A ‘Declaration of Rights’ clause gave them the right to choose to hold or sell their property. Moreover, the British promised to fund 50% of the cost of buying the land on a ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ principle from white farmers and to reinvest by building clinics and schools. During this period, nearly 71,000 black families settled on 3.5 million hectares of land previously owned by whites. In 1989, The Economist described it as “perhaps the most successful aid programme in Africa”.

When the 10-year period ended, however, the government promptly began its aggressive land reallocation. In the 1990s, compulsory acquisition was initiated, overlooking the ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ principle. But the real trouble began at the turn of the century when the Mugabe regime began its now-infamous ‘fast track land reform’ programme, where violence was employed to evict not just the white owners but the black farm workers as well. On paper, the land was divided into small-holder properties called A1 schemes and commercial farm, or A2. That remained on paper, as most of the land acquired apparently ended up with the high-ups in the regime. Court cases followed, but it’s anybody’s guess in whose favour the proceedings would have ended.

This had a huge impact on the Zimbabwean economy, which was driven by mining and tourism as well as farming—tobacco and maize

Some cricketers, too, were affected by the land reallocations. Eddo Brandes lost his chicken farm near Harare. His story is spoken of in hushed tones in cricketing circles now by former players, who are perhaps wary of government reprisal. Even Heath Streak, Zimbabwe captain during the early 2000s, was not spared. The Streaks owned a 15,000-hectare farm and safari ranch outside Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city, and employed around 50 people. Now, they are left with 2,500 hectares. Streak was spared the full brunt because he was on good terms with Mugabe at the time as he was skipper.

“It’s quite a political hot potato now,” says Denis Streak, the fast bowler’s father. “We just hope that we can carry on and do our farming. We do a lot for our community as well; we do a lot for the youngsters with the profit from all this. I hope we do not get targeted. It helped, as Heath was pretty close to the president during the time the reallocation was happening. We just said we want to continue farming. And we were allowed to keep 2,500 hectares. We are happy with what we have been left with.”

But not everyone was lucky. Like Brandes’, there are many stories and the next step for these farmers was to relocate to other countries—South Africa or the UK. On a parallel front, there were attempts to get more black representation in the national cricket side. Heath and the Flower brothers, Andy and Grant, were at the forefront of a 2004 strike against the administrators’ move, following which many talented players left the country, while Zimbabwe fielded a below-par side that led to it losing its reputation as a team of worth. The team stopped playing Tests too.

“The strike partly came from the pride we all had representing our country,” says a player from that period. “It was not our attempt to keep the game reserved for a certain group of people in society. We wanted the best possible team to wear the national colours. That’s all.”

Le Tour de France 2013 - Stage EighteenTHE fortunes of the national team plummeted along with the country’s economy, creating a cascading effect. “It can happen to any side,” explains Andy ‘Bundu’ Waller, the current Zimbabwe coach. “When a whole generation of great players just left, there was no one to guide the next generation and prime them for high-level cricket. And so the general level of cricket came down.”

Sponsors for the game dried up and Zimbabwe cricket sank into debt. To make matters worse, England cut all cricketing ties as a protest against Mugabe’s “non-democratic” and oppressive rule. Zimbabwe is no longer a part of the Commonwealth Games movement either. Doesn’t it remind you of the Apartheid sporting ban on South Africa?

The country’s cricket body is now dependent on life support from the International Cricket Council and friendly gestures every now and then from powerful and rich boards like the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

Zimbabwe Cricket president Peter Chingoka revealed to SI India the current state of affairs of the game in the country. He also shed light on the demographics of sport in Zimbabwe where cricket was a prominent sport for the elite whites, while football was always a black man’s sport. No wonder no common man on the streets of Harare or Bulawayo, where world champions India were playing the home team, cared about the bilateral series or the fortunes of their team. For them, it’s a very “confusing game”. Then why is Zimbabwe Cricket bent on imposing it on people who’d rather play the beautiful game? The logic, in one way, is as weird as Mugabe’s electoral promises of change in the next five years, a change he could never bring about in the last 33 years. But, the logic is simple too. Cricket was used by the regime as another tool for retaliation.

“We are quite unique compared to other Test-playing nations,” says Chingoka. “We were in a situation where cricket was an elite sport and, unfortunately, the country was divided by colour. Whites usually played cricket in school, while black people preferred football. Since gaining independence in 1980, we have been trying to make cricket our national sport. Zimbabwe Cricket has to build from zero. Not everybody can afford the equipment. If you look at Australia, they have a system where kids play cricket on the school circuit. We are starting from scratch, trying to ensure boys can be part of school cricket and other age group tournaments. We have been spotting talent at the junior level and trying to place them in schools that have a cricket structure in place.”

Chingoka also reveals how cricket has changed the life of some of the black players who are currently in the national fold. “Players such as Hamilton Masakadza and Brian Vitori are heroes in the communities they come from,” he says. “You can’t compare the salary of a Virat Kohli with a Brendan Taylor (Zimbabwe skipper). But these players earn a lot better compared to what the common man earns in the country. And that’s what cricket can do to uplift individuals and communities.”

But, soon after the India series, the Zimbabwe players again went on strike, demanding timely payment of salaries and clearing of backlog. So much for better-earning role models for impoverished communities!

Cricket in Zimbabwe is still a minority sport. But what the administrators and  the government have managed to do is to take the sport away from the people who played it with passion and impose it on those who never liked it. Perhaps they were trying to follow South Africa’s much talked about quota system that facilitated the entry of more black players into mainstream cricket. But the likes of Makhaya Ntini (South Africa’s first black player) or Lonwabo Tsotsobe would have made it even without any reservations.

It is different in Zimbabwe. Of course, they have had some good black players in the ranks—Henry Olonga and Pommie Mbangwa and Taibu being the famous names—but the quota system was far from objective. And with the slide in fortunes, and the strikes, the question is whether the players—white or black—play with pride when they wear the Zimbabwe jersey.

“They do,” insists coach Waller. But for the current lot of Zimbabwean cricketers, sustenance and career come before pride. Understandably so. It is the story of every Zimbabwean who aspires to a better life. Many players, who make a mark in Zimbabwe, choose to try their luck in the domestic leagues in the UK (lower divisions if not county cricket) and even South Africa.

Yes, indeed, South Africa—a sporting power now in the region,  despite other shortcomings. They have successfully hosted many events over the years, including the big one—the 2010  Football World Cup, all thanks to a movement started by Madiba’s farsightedness.

If Mandela unified a country with a sport that no one apart from the white minority cared for, Mugabe used another sport as a tool to polarise society further, failing to see the larger picture. This lone act of each, in the game called politics, more or less seals the greatness of one and relegates the other to notoriety in the annals of history.


One thought on “Mandela, Mugabe and The African Game of Thrones

  1. Pingback: Defecting Ambassador Reopens Australia and Zimbabwe’s Unique Political History

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