As the voters went to the polls in Zimbabwe last Friday to select from a choice of one, it is unlikely that the fate of their national cricket team featured significantly in their concerns.
Many have been looking to South Africa either to intervene or as a route for escape. The rise of Jacob Zuma in the ranks of the ANC holds out an anticipation that is lacking from the lacklustre mediator Thabo Mbeki, but time is yet another shortage for this beleaguered people.
Despite Britain’s ambitions at leadership, pressure on Robert Mugabe is better suited coming from a neighbour and ally. That South Africa also appreciates the role of politics in sport gives credibility when considering cricketing sanctions that are lacking when it comes from an ex-colonial master.
Last week the South African cricket board broke from their traditional policy of support for African unity by suspending all agreements with the Zimbabwe Cricket Union until further notice.
The general situation in Zimbabwe means that they will no longer be invited to take part in South Africa’s domestic competitions, and development programmes will be suspended.
Following quickly on the Protea’s coattails, the English Cricket Board (ECB) announced that the government would deny Zimbabwe entry for next year’s proposed test series.
Secretary for Culture, Media, and Sport Andy Burnham justified the government’s instruction on the grounds that, "The Zimbabwean government has ceased to observe the principle of the rule of law. It has terrorised its own citizens, including the ruthless and violent suppression of legitimate political opposition."
So contrary to the ICC’s stance that a country’s politics should not affect its cricket team, the government have banned Zimbabwe on political grounds.
Seen initially as support for the South African position, it in fact goes beyond their actions. The Proteas have said that they will still honour the ICC’s Future Tours Programme regarding Zimbabwe, and so will play them at the international level, but not lower down.
Just what effect this will have on Zimbabwe is questionable. Burnham claims that the close links of Mugabe to the Zimbabwe cricket team had a bearing on the government’s decision.
As patron of the national side, Mugabe’s role is an egotistical one more than anything else. How much cricket he watches and follows is unknown.
Still, the British government must have been feeling very angry because in the same week they also removed his honorary knighthood!
The actions of the South Africans at least mean that the question of Zimbabwe is once again placed on the ICC agenda. To disqualify them from cricket’s top table requires the support of eight of the 10 full members, though this is looking unlikely.
The Indian Board of Control have expressed their surprise that the issue has been raised again and reiterated the ICC’s position that a country’s politics and its cricket don’t go together.
Sharad Pawar is the chairman of the Indian Board and also vice president of the ICC. He owes his position as ICC president-elect to support from Zimbabwe, the only non-Asian country to support him in last year’s election, which he drew 5–5 against the former ECB chairman David Morgan. He also knows a thing or two about politics, being India’s current Minister for Agriculture and Food.
Those who seek Zimbabwe’s expulsion make comparisons with the South African regime during apartheid, though I remember most of the English establishment were in favour of building bridges with the Springboks.
This comparison fails to stand up for me. For a start, South African sport was ingrained in the white minority’s psyche, and their isolation became a psychological weapon and a means of leverage.
In addition, the domestic opposition movement supported sanctions. Cricket is not a major sport in Zimbabwe; it was a minority white pastime that has been Africanised under the present regime. It is more multiracial than in the past, but could be sacrificed by Zanu-PF as a further example of colonial influence.
There has been little from the opposition MDC in support of Zimbabwe’s isolation. Instead we have been fed congratulatory comments from ex-players Andrew Flower and Henry Olonga.
The opposition newspaper New Zimbabwe fears that this may play into the hands of Mugabe. It is pointed out that his conversion to tyranny is not a recent one. Between 1982 and 1987, for example, thousands of fellow black Africans were slaughtered at the hands of his troops in the Midlands and Matabelelend as he sought to stamp out opposition.
Taking advantage of the measures initially imposed by Ian Smith’s white regime, Mugabe would wait until 1990 to lift the State of Emergency. He was producing widows, orphans, and mass graves whilst the European-descended Flower and Zambian-born Olonga were representing their country.
Any stand on Zimbabwe has to be agreed upon by all of cricket’s fraternity. England acting alone could actually aid Mugabe, whose answers to his nation’s problems usually revolve around "blame the British."
In addition, a stance on political grounds will lead to accusations of hypocrisy if the same concerns are not later raised against Pakistan, where the leading opposition leader was assassinated just before the last general election. Then there could be questions about China and a myriad of countries hoping to compete in the Olympics.
The "ethical foreign policy" was New Labour’s "back to basics," an embarrassing vacuous statement that had more to do with contradiction than confrontation.
An ethical sporting policy is subject to the same problems—who, for example, should play against countries whose illegal military intervention in another nation has led to the deaths of over a million civilians?
But I doubt Gordon Brown will call for sanctions against America or Britain itself!
And of course this sabre-rattling means little if British companies, some of which include Tory front-benchers as leading share-holders, continue to invest in Mugabe’s corrupt nation.
A message that we won’t let you play cricket with us, but our companies will make the biggest ever investment in your economy shows that profits are more important than people or democracy, and that morality is best left to the philosophers.
The government has suggested that the ban on Zimbabwe will extend beyond their scheduled visit to England next year and take in the World Twenty20 scheduled here.
The possible consequences of doing this go beyond losing this prestigious tournament, and might have a negative impact on events such as the 2012 Olympics and the 2019 cricket World Cup.
Now that would be some victory for Mugabe.