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Zim sports heroes must speak up
Percy Zvomuya, Mail & Guardian (SA)
April 26, 2007

What would happen if Portsmouth's Benjani Mwaruwaru was to score a goal and dedicate it to the hundreds of opposition activists who are in detention now, to the thousands of people who are dying of Aids because they have no access to ARVs and the millions who have been forced to flee from their homes because of the crisis in Zimbabwe?

One assumes it would jolt hordes of Pompey's in Southampton. It would bring to the attention of the British public the mounting crisis in Zimbabwe but, most crucially, it would cause Zimbabwe's leadership to sit up and, who knows, listen to one of their country's iconic youths.

For it's not every day that our societies -- who seem to have an inherent disdain for youth -- will sit back to listen to a 28-year-old. But if the 28-year-old happens to play for Arsenal, Mamelodi Sundowns or is a tennis star and can summon a press conference to air his or her views, then it's different story altogether.

Most of these personalities earn a lot of money, are idolised by millions of schoolboys and schoolgirls and sports-crazy people listen to what they say.

If Mwaruwaru were to protest in this way, he would not be the first to do so.

At the last Cricket World Cup, former Zimbabwean cricketers Andy Flower and Henry Olonga took a stand.

It could have been in an inspired moment away from the cricket pitch that the meaning of the adage, "for evil to prosper, good men have only to do nothing", weighed on their consciences. But it was on the pitch that they decided to wear black armbands, "mourning the death of democracy" in Zimbabwe.

They decided that they could not play cricket as if everything was normal in the ghettos, on the farms and in the rural areas of Zimbabwe. They had heard people were being beaten, had probably seen someone being tortured, maimed and in all likelihood had seen pictures of those who had been killed.

And they resolved to make a stand against the oppression.

"We cannot, in good conscience, take to the field and ignore the fact that millions of our compatriots are starving, unemployed and oppressed," they said. Their statement continued: "We are aware that hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans may even die in the coming months through a combination of starvation, poverty and Aids."

After wearing the armbands during a match against Namibia, Olonga was to play a bit-part role for the rest of the tournament. His international career, which had not really been going anywhere, had gloriously come to an end.

Olonga had arrived in 1995 on the cricket scene with a flourish. He was the only black player in the team; he was the youngest, too. Never had youth, talent and race gelled so naturally to produce a hero for the hundreds of thousands of black boys who also wanted to take up cricket. Sadly, he was not to fulfil his potential, largely because of injuries.

"I've had many pleasant memories over the years and great satisfaction from playing this game," Olonga said when he retired from cricket.

"I've had some highs and lows, but I'm really glad I've stood for what I believed was right. It's sad that my career may end in this way, but I've done the right thing and I'll stand by it. If we fail as a world to do and recognise what is right, then we fail ourselves and we fail our children."

Four years on, the crisis moves into overdrive with no solution in sight, a development that makes the hotel brawl involving former Coventry, Birmingham, Sheffield United and now Sundowns striker Peter Ndlovu and Mwaruwaru over a girlfriend sad.

Ndlovu is one of Zimbabwe's most iconic sports personalities. He went to play for Coventry as a teenager and dazzled the English public with his pace and tricks with the ball. So enamoured were they that they called him the "flying elephant" (ndlovu is Ndebele for elephant). Likewise Mwaruwaru, a son of Malawian immigrants, was a hero wherever he played.

Their relations have been strained, especially as Ndlovu's football appeal and prowess is washing out. But no one thought it would plummet to such depths.

Windows and tables at Harare's Crest Lodge Hotel were smashed as they fought over an ex-girlfriend. Mwaruwaru denied the incident by saying: "I don't fight about girlfriends. I have a lot of them, and I am married."

Of course, we are not asking our sports heroes to leave football, cricket and become anti-war activists, Noam Chomskys, Dennis Brutuses and newspapers columnists, but if the situation demands it, why not?

When Flower and Olonga made their stand in 2003, no one thought the crisis would reach the deathly proportions it has reached now. It is easy to dismiss the gesture as just that: a gesture. But Olonga can sleep in peace and say, "I did what I could in the circumstances."

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