Zimbabwe: Why Politics Should not Hurt Sports

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

By David Coltart

"The economy has stabilised. Schools have been reopened. Hospitals and clinics now have drugs and the cholera epidemic of 2008 stopped. There has been a massive downturn in the number of human rights abuses."

I cannot help but feel that there are unspoken reasons behind the New Zealand Government’s decision to discourage the New Zealand cricket team from touring Zimbabwe in June 2010. Prime Minister John Key is reported as stating that the main concern was for "player safety".

But I fear there is more to it than that. I believe in particular there are deep-rooted concerns about ongoing human rights abuses within Zimbabwe, scepticism regarding the transitional agreement and its chances of survival and, perhaps, distaste for the fact that certain personalities are still in office. If I am correct in this assumption one understands why this has not been stated openly – because New Zealand may then become liable to pay damages to Zimbabwe Cricket.

Be that as it may I believe there are compelling reasons why the tour should go ahead. I write this in the context of being a human rights lawyer who has opposed human rights abuses in Zimbabwe for the last 27 years.

Firstly, those of us in the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) are ourselves deeply concerned about ongoing human rights abuses and our collective failure as a transitional government to fully implement the transitional agreement. However, putting it negatively, this agreement is the only viable non-violent option we have. The agreement has a positive side too. Despite our failure to implement it fully, we have made remarkable progress in the last year. The economy has stabilised. Schools have been reopened. Hospitals and clinics now have drugs and the cholera epidemic of 2008 stopped. There has been a massive downturn in the number of human rights abuses. Importantly maladministration in cricket is being addressed; racism and tribalism in team selection has ended and former doyens of the sport, such as Heath Streak, have been reintegrated.

Secondly, for all the political rhetoric, the fact is that the political agreement is functional and is gradually being implemented in its entirety. Zanu PF has been desperately holding on to whatever power it can and has resisted implementing certain aspects of the agreement. But as demonstrated by the successful visit of President Zuma to Harare this week there is progress and in my view there is little danger of the agreement collapsing in the near future.

Thirdly, and most importantly, our friends in the international community have an obligation to help those of us acting in good faith to make this peaceful process work and sport has a critically important role to play in this regard. Clint Eastwood’s recent film Invictus about Nelson Mandela’s efforts to use the 1995 Rugby World Cup to forge unity in post-apartheid South Africa is a powerful reminder of the positive role sport can play in assisting countries in transition.

Whilst there are obvious differences between South Africa in the early 1990s and Zimbabwe today, there are many similarities. We are in transition; we too have to forgive those responsible for terrible things done in the last decade; there are still those who will do all in their power to derail the peaceful process. Just as rugby was able to bind a nation together then I believe cricket can play a similar role in Zimbabwe today.

Furthermore when it is the clear wish of former Zimbabwean cricketers such as Heath Streak and Grant Flower, now both national coaches who have also suffered in the last decade, that this tour should go ahead, they too should be listened to.

What I am absolutely convinced of is that by asking the New Zealand team to travel there are substantially less safety and security risks involved than there are in touring the United Kingdom, the subcontinent or indeed South Africa. We do not have any terrorist or al Qaeda threat in Zimbabwe; bombs have not gone off in Harare as they have in London or Mumbai in the last decade. Crime rates in Harare and Bulawayo are far below those in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

In short Zimbabwe is one of the safest places to travel to and the apparent safety concerns of the New Zealand Government are simply misplaced and not based on fact.

I have no doubt that if the New Zealand team decides to honour its obligation to tour Zimbabwe in June they will find they will be welcomed by all with remarkable warmth and friendliness. In the process they will help Zimbabwe cricket in its quest to regain test status, bring much joy to the Zimbabwean cricketing public and greatly help our peaceful transition to democracy in Zimbabwe.

I hope that the New Zealand Government will have the vision and boldness to enable this to happen.

* Senator David Coltart is Zimbabwe’s Minister of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture. This letter was first published in the New Zealand Herald.