THE British government’s desperation to make a stand against President Robert Mugabe this week stretched to absurd levels with a report that 10 Downing Street had mulled imposing a blanket ban on all Zimbabwean sportspersons.
However, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s spokesperson was quick to deny the BBC report, saying the government was not against all sporting contacts.
Brown would, the spokesperson said, however be happy if Zimbabwe’s cricket team were to be banned from touring England in May and June next year for two Tests and three one-day internationals.
Of course, for now, he wants to leave the decision to the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB).
But how will banning Zimbabwe’s cricketers from setting foot on British soil help in any way?
“The situation in Zimbabwe is deeply concerning – I think bilateral cricket tours don’t send the right message about our concerns,” Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband was quoted as saying. “This is something that needs to be discussed with the ECB and others.”
A spokesman for the British Foreign Office said: “International sports should never be a way for dictators to publicise their misrule. If the situation does not improve in Zimbabwe, we would not want to see the Zimbabwe team tour here in 2009, nor the England team tour there in 2012.”
Self-exiled cricketer Henry Olonga, who fled Zimbabwe in 2003 after staging a black armband protest with Andy Flower to “mourn the death of democracy” in the country, yet again did not miss a chance to remind us that he is still around.
“It’s great to see that Gordon Brown is taking a much stronger stance than his predecessor (Tony Blair),” Olonga said.
Fundamentally, what all these anti-tour protagonists are saying is that sporting contacts with Zimbabwe would be morally wrong in view of Mugabe’s human rights record and continued tenure in office.
The British fear if the tour were to go ahead Mugabe would have a propaganda field-day with Zimbabwe parading well-fed young cricketers coming from a country where the majority is oppressed and starving because of the government’s bad policies.
It’s absurd to believe anyone would buy such propaganda.
Zimbabwe’s annualised inflation has rocketed past 100 000%.
The Zimbabwe dollar trades at anything above $30 million to the United States dollar.
Shortages of fuel, power, drugs, potable water and food as well as anything a human being needs for survival are the order of the day.
Roads are potholed, phones hardly work, the health delivery system is in the intensive care and everything is just collapsing.
The people of Zimbabwe are under no illusion whatsoever that Mugabe is the mastermind of their poverty and misery.
The urgent thing suffering Zimbabweans want is to see Mugabe leaving office after his 28-year rule has proven to be disastrous.
But they know it will not be easy to remove a president whose autocratic tendencies have seen the army and the police cracking down on any kind of protest against the way they have been reduced to destitution.
Yoked Zimbabweans know they cannot bring down Mugabe’s regime without international support, the same way we needed international backing to defeat Ian Smith’s regime.
But that’s where we have a problem because clearly Western countries don’t understand the Mugabe we are dealing with.
The idea of imposing sporting sanctions on Zimbabwe is no doubt inspired by the way similar sanctions helped end apartheid in South Africa.
When the Springboks were barred from contesting on the international stage in protest against South Africa’s segregation policies the country’s white rulers felt the heat because rugby meant a lot to them and those who had put them into office.
Sporting sanctions against South Africa were particularly against the blanket exclusion of black players from the Springboks.
The same applied to cricket which was a preserve of South Africa’s white population.
While cricket in Zimbabwe has until recently been predominantly a white sport, it’s critical to appreciate that the sport is still struggling to build a large following the way soccer does.
If Mugabe has defied international pressure directed at his person for the past eight years – including travel and financial sanctions imposed on him and his inner circle – there is no reason to believe that a ban on Zimbabwe’s cricket team would make a dent on his conscience.
Though Mugabe and his men have admitted the smart sanctions are biting, it’s important to note that the Mugabe regime has become more repressive and autocratic.
Operation Murambatsvina victims as well as those who have dared challenge Mugabe’s misrule have a story to tell.
In any case, Mugabe is now determined to die in office because he claims he wants to “defend Zimbabwe’s sovereignty”.
That brings me to another point.
On what moral ground does Britain stand to ostracise Zimbabwe when it is silent about human rights abuses in countries such as Pakistan which still enjoy good sporting relations with England.
Without belittling the crisis in Zimbabwe, we all know Pakistanis have butchered each other for the sake of politicians who want to topple Pervez Musharraf who himself came to power through a coup.
Such hypocrisy gives Mugabe the ammunition to churn out propaganda that Britain would have wanted to avoid in the first place.
Already, Mugabe’s ministers have labelled the plan to ban Zimbabwean cricketers a racist ploy and a “sour-grapes” reaction to the country’s land grab.
In any case, sporting sanctions would end up hurting some of the people they want to protect in the first place.
Zimbabwe’s sportsmen are not different from those Zimbabweans who are keeping Britain’s health system functional while others all over the country are working in different industries.
Benjani Mwaruwari wants to continue playing at English Premiership side Manchester City as much as Cara Black wants to defend her Wimbledon doubles title.
So do all those sportsmen, mainly cricketers, who have run away from a ruined economy to earn a living playing in English leagues.
Zimbabwe’s young and inexperienced cricketers need England more than Mugabe does.
The young players have a future and Mugabe doesn’t.
By the way, we don’t know what England achieved when they boycotted their 2003 World Cup match against Zimbabwe in Harare. But we still had them coming two years later when things were apparently worse.
Anyway, who told the British that Mugabe is going to win again in this month’s synchronised elections?