Mugabe’s influence on sports

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Enock Muchinjo

BRUCE Grobbelaar, the legendary Liverpool goalkeeper, claims he was forced out of Zimbabwe by him.

Peter Ndlovu, possibly the finest Zimbabwean footballer of all time, says he played a pivotal role in his career as an adviser.
Andy Flower, the greatest cricketer to emerge from Zimbabwe — who once made a famous stand against the former leader — is hopeful for the country’s future
following the death of the long-serving strongman.

Henry Olonga, Zimbabwe’s first black international cricketer and Flower’s 2003 World Cup black armband protest partner, believes it was only by the Grace of
God that he escaped unhurt after standing up against the iron-fisted ruler.

Kirsty Coventry, Africa’s greatest Olympian and Zimbabwe’s current Sports minister, praises him for being supportive of the country’s athletes at different
international competitions.

This is what some of Zimbabwe’s most recognised sporting figures have said of former president Robert Mugabe before and in the aftermath of his passing in
Singapore last Friday at the age of 95. Mugabe, just like the late iconic South African president Nelson Mandela, had some impact on sport in his country.

This, it goes without saying, in the two men’s own different ways. With sport in Zimbabwe having been racially divided in the past and at times bitterly so, it
was always going to be inescapable once Mugabe assumed power — for a man who had spent many years fighting against white rule in his country — that he would
find himself, directly or otherwise, getting involved in the affairs of certain disciplines especially on matters to do with race. More of this will however
appear later in this article.

Mugabe is said to have been a keen tennis player in his much younger days, and also a genuine cricket fan of a lifetime. He was the patron of the country’s
national cricket association for many years, an arrangement that a certain rival group tried to use against the office bearers of Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) when
the fight for control of the game intensified around the early to mid-2000s.

Mugabe knew quite a lot of sportspersons in his lifetime, both athletes and officials. Perhaps the closest of them all to him — apart from his basketball-playing son Robert Jr — was his nephew Leo Mugabe.

A son of one of the late ruler’s sisters, Leo Mugabe was a controversial president of the Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa) from the 1990s right through to
2003 when he was ousted in a no-confidence vote alleged abuse of Fifa funds.

The other one had been Peter Chingoka, the head of the country’s cricket board who was at the helm of the game between 1992 and 2014.

When a young Robert Mugabe was a pupil in the 1930s up to 1941 at Kutama Mission in his birthplace, 85 kilometres southwest of Harare, he established a friendship with a fellow bookworm by the name of Douglas Chingoka, another boy at the Catholic school who was just a few years younger than him.

In the early 1940s after completing schooling, Mugabe started teaching at his alma mater, Kutama. Douglas Chingoka, meanwhile, worked part-time around the late 1930s and early ’40s at the workplace of his father, a Malawian immigrant who was in charge of the Native Department’s messengers and interpreters at Market Square in Salisbury, later to be known as Harare.

While Mugabe would join the country’s liberation struggle, his old study buddy Chingoka worked within the Rhodesian structure, briefly with the Dairy Corporation, before enlisting in the British South African Police Department (BSAP) in 1946.

Black policeman in the colony were viewed with fear, suspicion and contempt but Chingoka — a broad-shouldered man with an infectious smile — was a fair officer who earned enormous respect for busting crime as well as protecting black nationalists from arrests and persecution.

He was the first black cop to command a police station in Mabvuku in the early 1960s. In later years he would advance his education, which enabled him to attain higher ranks in the police department.

While posted to Bulawayo in a senior position, one of his sons, Peter Chingoka, was born in the colony’s second largest city in 1954. Peter Chingoka first learnt how to play cricket in his birthplace and later excelled at it at St George’s College in the capital city.

In the 1970s, the all-rounder captained a black outfit put together by the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCB), named South Africa African XI. With his father becoming a deputy police commissioner at Independence in 1980, Peter Chingoka started gaining foothold in cricket administration, serving on the then Zimbabwe Cricket Union (ZCU) board for a lengthy period before assuming its presidency just after attainment of Test status in 1992.

Now president of the country, Mugabe — cricket fan and old schoolmate of Peter Chingoka’s father — was made patron of the ZCU, to all intents and purposes an honorary and passive position in the affairs of the game at that time.

Mugabe would soon become a regular guest at international cricket matches at Harare Sports Club. “To his credit, we would enjoy robust cricket discussions with him,” said sports enthusiast and former Harare mayor Much Masunda.

“Peter and I used to feel embarrassed that he (Mugabe) was clued on sport more than his Minister of Sport, Witness Mangwende. When he came to the game, RGM wasn’t there to make up the numbers. He had a keen grasp of the game.”

It was during England’s historic maiden tour of Zimbabwe at the end of 1996 that Mugabe, then quite the darling of the international media, made the well-circulated speech from which one of world cricket’s most famous quotes is taken from. “Cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen,” Mugabe said. “I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe; I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen.”

It was vintage stuff by Mugabe, made so much more special because Zimbabwe famously whitewashed England 3-0 in the ODIs series after both Tests were drawn — one of Zimbabwean cricket’s finest hours. In an interview with a travelling English journalist, Mugabe spoke of how he had developed his knowledge of cricket while studying at the Fort Hare University in South Africa.

Mugabe also remarked during the interview that while he was happy with the on-field progress of cricket in Zimbabwe, he was slightly concerned with the slow rate at which black Zimbabweans were taking up the sport.

He told the reporter that the few blacks involved at the top level of the game were mostly products of private school education, “you know, people like him,” Mugabe said, while pointing at Chingoka, who sat in close proximity in the chairman’s enclosure during the interview.

When cricket in the country started to lurch from one crisis to another around the early 2000s to mid-2000s, the Chingoka-Mugabe family links became a convenient tool in the armoury of a feisty alliance that was then fighting the veteran Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) chairperson —who had become growingly unpopular after the game began its steady slide into turmoil.

Clearly due to their political naivety, some of those strongly opposed to Chingoka and been his subordinates on both the board and staff of ZC. Well-meaning they may be and supported by the cricketers and bona fide followers of the game, they would all later pay a huge prize for their political misjudgement.

Unsubstantiated media reports in December 2005 though claimed that Chingoka and the ZC managing director Ozias Bvute had been arrested and charged with “contravening sections of the Exchange Control Act”, which briefly roused excitement within the opposing camp.

The celebrations were, however, cut short when both men were soon seen going about their business as usual, far from looking like they were in any kind of trouble. It was whispered around the circles of the rival group that Mugabe has come to their rescue and ordered the pair’s immediate release.

However, it could be a fair point to suggest that the involvement or perceived interference of Mugabe in cricket affairs was probably exaggerated.

There are political figures elsewhere in the world that do make key sporting decisions: who governs the national association, who captains the side and in some instances, who gets to play.

Reading reports at that time and listening to conversations, it would appear that this was also the case with regards to cricket in Zimbabwe.

One would argue that Mugabe, at that time, had more pressing matters to attend to.

Zimbabwe’s fast deteriorating socio-economic situation and the local political threat of the hugely popular Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party were proving a real handful for Mugabe and his ruling elite. Also to contend with was a relentless diplomatic onslaught on Mugabe’s Zanu-PF government from civil society forces and Western capitals over a chequered human rights record by the Harare regime.

Yet, and another fair point, there is also something to be said of Mugabe’s complicity in the cricket crisis in that a lot of awful things were done in his name — in cricket and elsewhere in the Zimbabwean way of life — and Mugabe, in desperation to boost a weakening power base, chose to look the other way.

Cricket was no exception. Those desperate to jump onto the game’s gravy train, and thought of themselves as having a political clout, unleashed waves of intimation on the groups opposed to those in charge in a rather crude effort to gain advantage.

Matters came to a head in January 2006 when the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC) chaired by the abrasive retired Major-General Gibson Mashingaidze, an ex-military chief, fired all the white and Asian members of the ZC board and retained Chingoka as head of a now all-black administration. It was a shocking bloodbath, with Mashingaidze quite literally telling the sacked directors to go hang.

Nothing came in the form of sanction for Zimbabwe. Who at the International Cricket Council (ICC) would dare Robert Mugabe’s government?

Among the Asian ZC directors to be axed, even more absurd, was the respected vice-chairman Ahmed Ebrahim, an experienced administrator who had done more for the advancement of black cricket in the country than any black person. Politics, and the name of Mugabe, became more and more pronounced in cricket affairs amongst some personalities in the game — more simply to gain maximum advantage from an appallingly toxic environment and others out of misguided naivety and romanticism.
But what one cannot deny is that Mugabe had his admirers in different spheres of life and cricket — a sport once a privilege of the white community—bred a black generation that looked at its past and associated its previous anguishes to the policies and stance of the country’s leader.

George Tandi, for example, a fearsome schoolboy fast bowler of the late 1980s and early 1990s who played national age-group cricket with the likes of Andy Flower and Heath Streak — while owning up to his own ill-discipline — was still firmly convinced he was denied a national team opportunity even ahead of the likes of Olonga, Mpumelelo Mbangwa, Everton Matambanadzo and Trevor Madondo.

Tandi refined his cricketing skills at Prince Edward School, a scholarship recipient who had followed in the footsteps of fellow Glen Norah residents Stephen Mangongo and Walter Chawaguta in gaining bursaries at the leading Harare government school. Every time he saw me at Harare Sports Club during Mugabe’s presidency, Tandi would accost me with stories of how he felt hard-done-by in his prime.

“You know what, I 100% support the great man next door,” he would say in reference to Mugabe and his official residence, the State House, which is just a street across the country’s premier cricket ground.

Many are genuinely concerned about George’s psychological wellbeing these days, and I hope those that really care will help him through the difficult phase.

“I’m just happy that now white children and black children can enjoy cricket together, all this because of the great man Cde Robert Mugabe,” he would say while enjoying his snuff, maybe his escape from the daily challenges of life in Zimbabwe.

The late Robert Mugabe also became a regular feature at tennis matches when Zimbabwe’s Davis Cup team — made up of the Black brothers Byron and Wayne alongside compatriot Kevin Ullyett — punched way above its weight against some of the world’s best sides in the late 1990s to early 2000s.

Grace Mugabe, his wife, became the very energetic and resourceful patron of the national tennis federation, Tennis Zimbabwe. Quite interestingly, Paul Chingoka, another son of Mugabe’s old schoolmate, headed Zimbabwean tennis in that era.

As for Peter Chingoka, he died two weeks earlier than the former ruler at the age of 65, thirty years Mugabe’s junior and young enough to be his son.
Perhaps that is how they treated their relationship, and it is not uncommon in African culture to view the child of a friend as your own.

And it is no surprise that former champion swimmer Kirsty Coventry should be one of those paying glowing tribute to Mugabe following his passing last week.
Mugabe awarded her US$100 000 in cash and a diplomatic passport for her 2008 Olympic heroics.

The deceased former president—who has widely split opinion even in death—also used to ardently attend the national football team’s home ties in Harare although the team lost more than it won when he graced the occasion.

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