The magnificent seven they were called; the seven Australian rugby players who refused to play against the all-white 1971 Springboks. One of the seven, Tony Abrahams, said of his decision: ‘it wasn’t that difficult: I mean, it seems to me looking back on it, but even then, that it was probably one of the clearest issues you could make a stand on.’
Ten years ago to the day, as highlighted by Alison Mitchell in these pages, a cricketing equivalent occurred, when Andy Flower and Henry Olonga issued a statement before, and wore black arm-bands during, a World Cup fixture, in the face of heavy pressure, to make the world aware of what they described as the ‘death of democracy’ in Zimbabwe.
Fast forward a month now to East London, March 15, 2003. Not many one-day games linger long in the memory for me, but this one did. With South African police force helicopters whizzing over-head, and dark rumours circulating the press box, this World Cup fixture between Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe had a febrile atmosphere. In a deathly dull competition, here, at least, was some intrigue.
The cricket itself was unremarkable and I remember little of it, save the look on Flower’s face when he was given out leg-before to Aravinda de Silva after a thick inside edge. With his dismissal, Zimbabwe rolled over and out of the World Cup and Flower knew that his international career and his days in Zimbabwe were done.
No, the intrigue surrounded Flower’s colleague in armband, Olonga, whose international career was also over, but who now faced a more uncertain future than Flower whose English passport was a guarantee of his safety at least. Rumour had it that seven men from the Zimbabwe Central Intelligence Organisation were waiting for Olonga somewhere in East London, ready to take him back to face charges of treason in Zimbabwe, the sentence for which was the death penalty. After the match, he was whisked away to a safe house by South African police. We moved on to the next game.
There are always personal sacrifices when sportsmen step out of the shadows and into a political spotlight. Whilst the issues, as Abrahams indicated, might be straightforward, not everyone has the courage to act. For Flower, the immediate consequences of that sacrifice were the end of his career, as well as some strong-arm cunning from the Zimbabwe authorities who accused him of not trying in some of the early World Cup games at the same time as highlighting his British passport and threatening to withhold his pay.
As he suggests, the long-term consequences have been more difficult: an alienation from his homeland: the inability of his children to develop a relationship with his country; the absence of friends, and the distance from loved ones. No matter that he has forged a highly successful career here, fully integrated and highly respected, and that the lessons of the stand he made have helped make him a better coach than he might otherwise have been.
Olonga, too, was thrown to the wolves: he was accused of treachery and called a Zambian rather than a Zimbabwean by the authorities at the time, and an ‘Uncle Tom.’ He received death threats before and after that final match in East London and, like Flower, has lived in exile and hasn’t played first-class cricket since the World Cup. Unlike Flower, he has not forged a second career of note and many who applauded his stand have probably forgotten all about it.
Two weeks before East London, I had been to Zimbabwe and seen at first hand the devastating effects of Mugabe’s rule. In Bulawayo, queues snaked long and far for petrol; the shelves of supermarkets were near empty, although there was an attitude of ‘getting on with it’, as there always seems to be in distressed communities, people shuffling to work and going about their chores. An MDC stronghold, there was more willingness to talk openly about Mugabe than in Harare.
During a World Cup match between Zimbabwe and the Netherlands there, two protestors- one black, one white- held up anti-Mugabe banners, comparing him to Hitler, and were bustled into a waiting police van. One of them, Kindness Moto, later claimed that he had been held in police custody for four days, raped, electrocuted, beaten on the soles of his feet, and then thrown from a moving car. The World Cup continued.
Flower and Olonga’s protests brought a lot of initial attention to the plight of Zimbabwe, but not much changed. There was some hand-wringing from Tony Blair and his Australian counterpart, John Howard, but they failed to give their cricket teams an easy way out, with the result that England fretted and fussed but eventually pulled out, a decision that cost them their second round place, whilst Australia decided to play in Bulawayo, zipping in and out in 24 hours, points in the bag, thank you very much. Multi-nationals continued to do business there.
Within a year, England were back playing in Zimbabwe, a move that Flower agreed with, but Olonga did not. Zimbabwe continued to play Test cricket for a year or two, until suspension, but are back playing Test cricket again now. The ICC has continued to fund Zimbabwe Cricket, although where the money has been going nobody knows. It certainly wasn’t finding its way to cricket grounds, which fell into disrepair. A report submitted by the auditors KPMG was shredded and has never been seen. Peter Chingoka remains as chairman of Zimbabwe Cricket.
Democracy, of the kind that Flower and Olonga highlighted, stumbles on in Zimbabwe. Two years ago, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture noted ‘the serious and credible allegations of torture, ill-treatment and inhuman prison conditions’ that exist in the country. Amnesty International’s latest report talked of ‘systematic harassment by the government of human rights defenders.’ Human Rights Watch states that ‘the political climate remains harsh.’ Robert Mugabe remains President.
So on the face of it, Flower and Olonga achieved little. But what they did was to remind us all that playing sport is not just a job, a box to be ticked, and sportsmen are not simply paid employees, mute and meek and blind to their surroundings. We love it when sportsmen wrap themselves in the flag in the aftermath of victory. Flower and Olonga did more than just pay lip-service to the love of country- they sacrificed their careers for it.
The tragedy for Flower and Olonga is the lack of support that followed their gesture. Australia’s magnificent seven found themselves with governmental backing a year later, as Gough Whitlam’s government refused to have anything to do with South Africa.
The cricket community? Its choice has been to support Zimbabwe, but, on the face of it, the return has been threadbare. In the ten years since Flower and Olonga made their stand, Zimbabwe have played 22 Tests, winning two (both against Bangladesh) and infighting and accusations of racism continue. Meagre rewards indeed for millions of dollars and moral bankruptcy