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When sport also made a stand

ANTHONY Sharwood is a controversial Australian journalist who often takes no prisoners, earning himself quite a fair amount of critics along the way.

Sports panorama with Enock Muchinjo

There is even a Facebook page created specifically to pour scorn on the Huffington Post newsman, who is the publication’s sports and environment editor.

The page’s profile picture shows a not-so-flattering image of Sharwood next to a heap of human waste, signifying the “c**p” he is said to spew out from time to time.

As you would expect, it is extremely hard to always share an opinion with a hard-nosed journalist of Sharwood’s streak, as I found out in 2014.

Feeling strongly obliged to react to an opinion piece he had penned for an Australian online publication, I set about putting together a counter-argument to it.

As it was, Australia’s cricket team had ended its decade-long tour boycott to Zimbabwe, a stand the Aussies had taken at the height of our country’s descent into socio-political crisis and tyranny under former president Robert Mugabe — whose unceremonious departure last week ended a 37-year iron grip on power and was met with wild cheers across the nation.

With cricket in Zimbabwe slowly emerging out of its slumber and administrators showing signs of accountability and ingenuity to resuscitate the game, the Australians had finally agreed to revive ties and arrived here in August 2014 for a tri-nations series with the host nation and South Africa.

Sharwood, though, took to his keyboard, arguing that the Australian team should have stuck to their moral principles and not have anything to do with a country that “rates worse than Iraq on the official list of failed states”.

My argument against Sharwood’s viewpoint was simple and straightforward: In old-school African politics, especially in Zimbabwe under Mugabe, that is just a sheer waste of time. A wily old politician like Mugabe, drunk with power and clearly determined to hang on to it for as long as he lived, surely cannot be moved an inch by a sporting boycott to Zimbabwe by, of all people — Australia — a nation with so much shared history with Britain, the chief target of the fallen despot’s vitriol.

No, not the Mugabe we all knew, the Mugabe who had defied so many formidable forces in his nearly four decades in power and survived the impossible, including clear electoral defeat, to cling on to power.

The only losers, I argued, would be cricket — the players, the fans and the game itself.

People have different views on how things ought to be done, but it is all too easy sometimes, particularly for an armchair observer sitting outside Zimbabwe, to want to define the means and methods of the process. You only need to live here to experience it. Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe became an abnormal country, a nation where what works in a normal society did not necessarily work here.

So while I disagreed with Sharwood about his preferred course of action, I felt touched by his conviction, his seemingly genuine concern for the people of Zimbabwe who had to live with one of the modern world’s most notorious autocracies.

Probably, too, the same way I disagreed with Henry Olonga in 2003 when he and teammate Andy Flower dared to speak out against the repression in the country through the famous protest during the Cricket World Cup 14 years ago.

Olonga was 27 at the time with his whole career ahead. But in taking a stance against Mugabe’s ruling elite, he knew he was putting his career on the line and, indeed, tragically, fearing for his life, one of our finest national cricketers had to go into exile.

In Olonga’s case, Zimbabwe’s first black international cricketer, will feel vindicated, more so because he has been consistent in speaking out against evil even as he watched events unfold from thousands of miles away.
He has admirably maintained an undying love for his country and showed solidarity with his distressed countrymen throughout.

This is what principles are all about and I personally do have nothing but respect for those among us who remain consistent throughout the struggle, the good folk in our midst, whose moral bags stay full all the time, men and women who do not swerve in pursuit and support of what is right.

When the time came, Olonga and Flower spoke out where men of less integrity not only remain silent, but also swing with the pendulum in order to curry favour with those suppressing the masses.

“Speaking out”. These two magical words have been on the lips of many since a fortnight ago when multitudes took to the streets in a popular protest against Mugabe’s stay in power.

I was one of those who partook in the march and, true to the adage, that “no normal sport in abnormal society”, I met on that beautiful day a cross-section of sportsmen, adding their voice to an idea whose time had come.

I saw impoverished footballers, who due to bad government policy on recreation, their sport, despite being the country’s favourite pastime, remain some of the poorest. I also saw cricketers, guys who love their game to bits, a game which often mirrors the rot at the highest level of national leadership.

So they all joined fellow Zimbabweans in the march for change, each with his or her expectations of the new dawn.
American civil rights movement hero Martin Luther King Jr said, during the famous 1965 Alabama march: “Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us.”

Two weeks ago in Zimbabwe, we witnessed an idea whose time had come. The masses marched, and the army did not halt them.

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