South Africa A in Zimbabwe August 10, 2007

No normal sport in an abnormal society

Gary Lemke
Gary Lemke looks at the double standards being employed by the South Africa board as it sends an A team to Zimbabwe

Sport and politics will never be separated © Getty Images

It was almost 20 years ago that I first met Sam Ramsamy. I went to interview him in a flat near Marble Arch in London and what followed was an hour-long lecture from the grand fighter of the anti-apartheid movement. The message was consistent, and powerful. "No normal sport in an abnormal society," he would say at regular intervals.

He had another line. "Sport and politics will never be separated." The Ramsamy dream turned from matters black and white into a kaleidoscope of colour when South Africa competed under a unified flag at the Olympics in 1992 following a 32-year absence. He called me over on that Boeing to Barcelona 15 years ago. "This is what I was talking about. Now it's normal sport in a normal society."

Today 14 elite South African cricketers are in Harare for a two-match tour of Zimbabwe. Yet the silence is deafening from the game's administrators, among them newly elected Cricket South Africa president Norman Arendse, who himself was familiar with the same anti-apartheid rallying cry of yesteryear. No normal sport in an abnormal society. Can Zimbabwe society be classed as normal?

Sending a South African cricket team, among them top international players Boeta Dippenaar, Ashwell Prince, Andre Nel and Charl Langeveldt, is also sending a message to the world that we will visit a place Australia's government recently barred their cricketers from touring on grounds of human-rights violations.

The confusing part is that Arendse, who was elected to the CSA hot seat at the weekend, and then delivered an emotional speech - including a tribute to his father - regarding a disadvantaged background, has not come out against the tour. Arendse knows about the struggle for normality in South Africa, but he now heads an association that is endorsing a cricket tour of Robert Mugabe's country.

At the 2003 World Cup, Henry Olonga and Andy Flower famously wore black armbands to protest the "death of democracy" in their country. They were Zimbabweans, one black, one white. Now they dare not set foot in their homeland for fear of being taken to a dark dungeon by Mugabe's violent henchmen.

Yet from yesterday, the South Africa 'A' team has been at the Harare Sports Club, where there will be plenty to eat and drink. A crisp cover-drive's distance from there the shelves in shops are empty and people are starving. Police will assault many, others will be dying - physically and metaphorically.

CSA might argue it doesn't interfere in wider politics ... which is ironic considering the level to which sport and politics are entwined in South Africa
Australia's government took a stand in May, but no one really expected South Africa's Thabo Mbeki to step in and withdraw our cricketers from this tour. Quiet diplomacy and all that. So shouldn't the governing body, CSA, act independently? And never mind the fear of "disciplining from the ICC", of which, incidentally, Ray Mali, a South African, is caretaker president?

CSA might argue it doesn't interfere in wider politics. Which is ironic considering the level to which sport and politics are entwined in South Africa. Hardly a day goes by without calls from as high as government level threatening to enforce player quotas in Springbok rugby.

In 2003 Errol Stewart was made captain of a South Africa A side to tour Zimbabwe. He withdrew on the grounds that he felt it morally wrong to tour a country so ravaged and whose people were being starved and murdered by the Mugabe government. The chief executive of what was then the United Cricket Board of South Africa, Gerald Majola (he remains in the same capacity in CSA), issued a statement "instructing selectors not to consider the KwaZulu-Natal wicketkeeper-batsman for any future representative teams".

The problem with sport and politics is that the goalposts keep moving and the rules change depending on who is playing the game. I'm reminded of that first discussion with Ramsamy and wonder if he too agrees we should be sending a sports team to play there.

Did CSA make the right decision by going ahead with the South Africa A team's tour of Zimbabwe? Tell us here

Gary Lemke is sports editor of the Cape Argus newspaper in Cape Town