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Martin Williamson speaks to Henry Olonga about the black armband protest at the 2003 World Cup
April 27, 2007
One of the abiding memories of the 2003 World Cup was the protest made by Andy Flower and Henry Olonga against the Mugabe regime during Zimbabwe's opening match at Harare Sports Club. Olonga, who now lives with his family in England after fleeing the country, spoke to Martin Williamson about events before and after the day itself
The will-they, won't-they saga surrounding England's match against Zimbabwe dragged on and on before a decision was finally reached on February 12. But by then the Zimbabwe authorities had more than enough on their plate closer to home.
On February 10, Zimbabwe's World Cup campaign kicked off with a low-key match against Namibia at Harare Sports Club. In the hour before the start, the tranquility was shattered when it was revealed that Henry Olonga and Andy Flower, two of the more senior players, were going to use the occasion to make a public protest, issuing a media statement and wearing black armbands to "mourn the death of democracy" in the country.
It was no spur of the moment decision. The pair had first discussed the idea a month before. "He phoned me," Olonga told me earlier this month. "I was at home in Harare at the time and he said: 'Look, can we meet at a cafe?' I went willingly and he said: 'I am going to ask you something completely crazy. Someone needs to take a stance about what is happening in the country.' The rest is history."
Olonga was taking an active interest in the country's deteriorating human rights situation before he spoke to Flower. "I was beginning to think about Zimbabwe the nation as a whole and the things that made me uncomfortable about the nation's past and its shaky future."
Both players realised that if they took action then there would be consequences. "I suppose such was my conviction that this was the right thing to do that I felt it was necessary to stick to my principles no matter what. In that way at least I would know that I would have no regrets."
|Some players made some smart Alec comments about us being tortured but they were in the minority|
As soon as Olonga and Flower advised the management that they were about to release a statement, they were hauled in front of Vince Hogg, the Zimbabwe board's CEO. "The poor guy's hands were tied as we were adamant we were going thorough with it," Olonga said. "I have nothing against any of the people who were placed in a tricky situation by our actions ... in fact, I feel rather apologetic that some good people were forced into tight corners.
"However, once it was done there was no turning back and I suppose there was no option but to be stubborn in our resistance. Those were scary times but we stuck to our guns."
Flower made a breezy 39 as Zimbabwe racked up 340 for 2 while Olonga waited nervously in the pavilion. "Andy had already batted with his armband on, but I had not taken the field yet so the significant moment for me was when I stepped onto the turf. They were scary times as I was unsure if anything drastic would happen immediately. I suppose while the spotlight was on the World Cup we were sure we had the security of knowing that nothing could be done in front of the media."
Zimbabwe won the match, but that was almost overlooked as the media seized on the protest. "I returned home as usual, fully aware that we had stirred the hornets' nest, but also with a deep sense of relief that we had done it. It was an anticlimax of sorts, because all the emotion of planning such a risky venture was released when we crossed the line with our armbands."
The Zimbabwe board fumed, choosing to surprisingly report the pair to the ICC, but faced with worldwide media support for their actions, cricket's bosses lobbed the problem straight back from whence it came.
The ZCU struggled with what to do with Flower. While it would have loved to have dropped him, he was one of their only world-class players and his omission would have been so obviously political. "I am aware it was common knowledge to the establishment that the senior players in the squad would have stepped down if any action were taken against Andy. Player power sprung through, I guess, and although it was only talked about, I suppose the board were aware of the potential boycott of the senior players and, of course, such a move would have been disastrous and would have drawn even more attention to the issues and result in a crisis."
So they turned on Olonga instead, and he is sure that was not because of his form. "I believe on good advice that it is alleged that a directive had come from the then chief selector, Max Ebrahim, that I was not to be used as a 12th man for any reasons. I am not sure where the instruction ultimately originated as he had many heads above him.
Despite that, Olonga was picked one last time, for a dead game at the end of the Super Sixes against South Africa. "It may have been that the selectors wanted to show the world that there was no political reason for my censure. I just wanted one last chance to play for my country before signing off. I was also given the chance to play against Sri Lanka , but by that stage I had had a few threats on my safety so I was in no way in a right state of mind to play.
"I had heard from the security officer that there were six secret police at the Sri Lanka match, and to this day I cannot say for sure why there were there. Maybe they loved the odd game of cricket, who knows! But I had heard from our former manager, Dan Stannard, who himself had been a part of the secret police many years before, that they were out to get me and I needed to watch it."
Minutes after the end of the Sri Lanka game at East London, Olonga told the media he was retiring. Rather than mollify the hardliners in the ZCU, it only served to further incense them. As the team boarded the team bus, Olonga was barred by a livid Ozias Bvute, now the board's managing director. "Everyone said it's ridiculous. But no one said, 'he should come on the bus'. No one was willing to make too much fuss about it.
"I was given my air ticket and was told I was on my own. I was told to find my own way to the airport, and the manager, under instruction, was told to inform me to pay for my own hotel bill. Naturally, I told him that was unreasonable and he backed down .
"The security personnel were kind enough to offer me a lift to the airport in their car which drove in front of the team bus. It was a sobering moment.
|It taught me the importance of standing up for one's beliefs, even in the face of incredible opposition|
And looking back, was it worth it? "It was well worth it. It taught me the importance of standing up for one's beliefs, even in the face of incredible opposition.
"For a brief moment, the glare of the world's media focused on a not so oft spoken nation that has a tremendous amount of suffering. I am aware we didn't change anything tangible, but maybe, somewhere in it all, we held a beacon of hope for some. For others, maybe we spoke words they had no voice to speak, and maybe for others yet we challenged their own world view in a way that they could reflect on their own lives and revel in the freedoms they enjoy.
"Tyranny is often more powerful than the 'meaningless' voices of dissent that may well get crushed but it has been said that evil prospers where good men do nothing. I would never claim to be a good man but I hope I played a role in doing something."
If he was in the same position now, would he act differently? "The most important beliefs I hold to are to do with my faith, and if I had felt that it was the right thing to do at the age of 23 or 27, I suppose I would have gone through with it, as such is my conviction that we ought to do what is right when given the chance. In that way we can live life with few regrets. It will cost us something, but the reward is to look in the mirror with a clean conscience."
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