Sport boycott an option

Three years ago, Zimbabwe was in turmoil. After years of abusive tyrannical rule its leader Robert Mugabe had instigated Operation Murambatsvina (Clean out the filth) to get rid of informal housing settlements. Tens of thousands were bulldozed from their homes amid international condemnation and well-reported brutality.

In New Zealand, the Black Caps cricket team were preparing to tour Zimbabwe. Appeals came from all sides for the tour to be called off. Former Zimbabwean cricketer Henry Olongo toured New Zealand at the invitation of the Green Party while Human rights activist Judith Todd (daughter of New Zealand’s Garfield Todd who led Zimbabwe in the 1960s when it was a British colony called Rhodesia) did the same at the invitation of Global Peace and Justice Auckland.

New Zealand Cricket and the Government were under pressure to act. Foreign Minister Phil Goff and Prime Minister Helen Clark railed against the regime but refused to pressure the cricketers to abandon the tour.

Phil Goff put up a range of straw men to knock down in speeches and news bites. He said New Zealand would be adopting the same anti-democratic practices as Mugabe if we prevented our sportspeople going to Zimbabwe.

Nothing of the sort had been proposed, however. What Goff and Labour were asked to do was simply make a formal request to New Zealand Cricket on behalf of the Government for the tour to be postponed to a more opportune time.

An election was looming and the Government was worried about a backlash from sports fans if they stood on any sporting toes. So Goff worked hard with an extraordinary amount of bluff and bluster to try to deflect attention away from Government inaction. He went so far as to say New Zealand would work with other Commonwealth countries to build pressure for a wider sports ban on Zimbabwe. He said New Zealand acting alone would be a futile exercise. Getting all the Commonwealth working together would be far more effective. Let’s do the job properly rather than make a half-baked unilateral stand, said Goff.

And so in what has been a long tradition of political gutlessness and sporting amorality in the face of a humanitarian crisis, New Zealand Cricket’s Martin Snedden turned a blind eye and the Black Caps toured. Mugabe breathed a sigh of relief.

Cancelling that tour three years ago would have sent a strong message to Zimbabweans struggling for freedom from oppression. It would have been a critical step in isolating Mugabe and undermining his regime. New Zealand was in the international spotlight as the world reeled from Mugabe’s outrages. We missed a critical opportunity to act effectively against a violent, anti-democratic regime.

In the meantime, the crisis has deepened further with more than 90 opposition supporters having been killed in the past few weeks during the presidential election run-off between Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

The election has been so mired in violence that Tsvangirai has pulled out of the race. Mugabe supporters are furious.

Leaving aside the predictable condemnations of the aging, tin-god dictator from around the world and the failure of South African President Thabo Mbeki to pressure his dependent land-locked neighbour, what can we do?

The most encouraging action has come from the Durban wharfies who two months back refused to unload a shipment of Chinese arms and ammunition destined for Zimbabwe’s armed forces. After they closed the door at Durban ports countries across Africa responded and the ship left the continent without unloading.

But in the last few days its been encouraging to see international cricketers reconsidering Zimbabwe’s place in world cricket. Even the New Zealand cricket team are reportedly looking askance at their planned tour to Zimbabwe next year.

The cricketers now need a strong political lead. Perhaps the normally voluble Phil Goff could check back on his speech notes and recall that he championed this approach three years back. A lot of people have died during his three year silence but better late than never.

On the one hand worrying about sport seems irresponsible in the face of such appalling human rights abuses but for New Zealand it is the most effective action we can take.

Boycotts in sport are highly visible and impossible to brush off. They give encouragement to the oppressed and psychologically undermine the oppressors. They are hugely effective. They are the least and the best we can do.