July 3, 2008

The politics of morality

The West's hypocrisy over Zimbabwe may feel obnoxious, but the BCCI has to decide whether it wishes to be the patron-in-chief of a dysfunctional and compromised cricket body

Robert Mugabe's reign over Zimbabwe continues unabated © AFP

In the late-seventies, when governments in southern Africa came in white racist flavours, Robert Mugabe was a hero. Leftist undergraduates in my university preferred him to Joshua Nkomo, his rival in the Rhodesian resistance movement, because he seemed more unequivocally red. And in the matter of winning liberation from white tyranny, Zimbabwe led the way: it achieved majority rule in 1980, more than ten years before its larger neighbour, South Africa. Just thinking about that time raises ancient memories: the wonderfully named first president of Zimbabwe, Canaan Banana; the leader of the Patriotic Front, Bishop Muzorewa; the new place names - Zimbabwe, Harare - that seemed so unlikely then, but which so swiftly replaced Rhodesia and Salisbury in our maps and minds.

If Mugabe was a famous resistance hero then, he's a notorious third-world thug now. On the face of it, in this he doesn't seem exceptional. North Korea's deranged Stalinist regime, Saudi Arabia's fanatical kleptocracy, and Libya's one-man state are measurably further removed from representative government than Mugabe's Zanu-PF rule, which at least takes the trouble to hold elections before it steals them - as Mugabe has just done. Loathsome though he is, it isn't clear that the state he runs is less democratic than China, which is going to host this year's Olympic Games, an event which every country in the world will attend.

But Zimbabwe has been singled out by western countries as uniquely obnoxious. Queen Elizabeth has withdrawn the honorary knighthood granted to Mugabe on the advice of the British government, and Britain and America have imposed economic sanctions on Zimbabwe. Britain's Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, has instructed the ECB to cut bilateral ties with Zimbabwe, and specifically to cancel Zimbabwe's cricket tour of England next year.

This has led to some heated argument about western hypocrisy, shored up by familiar accusations of inconsistency and partiality. Why hasn't the West asked for Saudi Arabia to be banned from the World Cup, given that it's run by fundamentalist despots? Why isn't Israel sanctioned for brutalising the West Bank and relentlessly stealing Palestinian land? Why hasn't Burnham instructed the British Olympic association to boycott the Games in the context of the Chinese "occupation" of Tibet and its moral indifference to genocide in Africa?

This debate is relevant to Indian cricket in the context of the impending ICC meeting that will discuss, among other things, a proposal to strip Zimbabwe of full membership of the ICC and disbar it from playing international cricket at the highest level. The BCCI has declared that it will support Zimbabwe's current status as a Full Member. The thinking behind the BCCI's stand is straightforward: Zimbabwe's board is a reliable supporter of the BCCI's South Asian bloc in the conclaves of the ICC and one vote in ten isn't to be sneezed at.

In the debate about the rights and wrongs of sanctioning Zimbabwe, several thoughtful commentators, including John Traicos, a white cricketer who played Test cricket for both South Africa and Zimbabwe, have argued that excluding Zimbabwean teams from international matches would be to punish sportsmen for the sins of politicians, an argument that seems to shore up the BCCI's position. They have also argued that banning Zimbabwe is a low-cost way of feeling self-righteous, but one that will do nothing to hasten the end of Mugabe's regime. The fact that the main critics of Zimbabwe tend to be Western politicians and cricket administrators, notable for their selectively sensitive consciences hasn't helped the boycott cause either.

The views of the ECB and David Morgan on this matter are unimportant: what should be decisive for Pawar and Modi as Indians is the position taken by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who have both in recent days condemned Mugabe's leadership.

From an Indian point of view, there are two problems with the argument for keeping politics and sport apart. The Indian government, the Indian intelligentsia and the BCCI were in the vanguard of the campaign to ostracise South Africa and South African cricket for half a century, so we can't now start being principled about the autonomy of sport. The question we need to answer is this: is Mugabe's thuggish and predatory regime as evil as apartheid South Africa? In ideological terms, if we compare the regimes in terms of their ruling philosophies, the short answer to this question is "no". But if we were to compare the quality of life under the two regimes, the answer is less simple.

Under Mugabe, the life expectancy of Zimbabweans, male and female, has been nearly halved, from 60 to the mid-30s. Ten per cent of the population is HIV positive, 20% if you look at the band of people between the 15 and 49. Its agriculture has collapsed, its money is worth nothing, and there is a real danger of widespread hunger and starvation in a country that was once the most efficient grain producer in Africa. The redistribution of agricultural land, disproportionately held by white farmers, has been done corruptly and arbitrarily to enrich Mugabe's political cronies and is one of the main reasons for the economy's collapse.

Peter Chingoka, the president of Zimbabwe Cricket, is, unsurprisingly, close to Mugabe's regime. Zimbabwe Cricket in the last few years has presided over an exodus of its best players and the weakening of the national team to the point where it has less competitive credibility than Bangladesh. An audit of its finances revealed serious irregularities. Under pressure from the BCCI, the ICC has done nothing to hold Zimbabwe to account.

The BCCI has to decide whether it wishes to be the patron-in-chief of a dysfunctional, politically compromised - and in the light of the audit, very likely corrupt - Zimbabwean board. It has to work out whether it wants the ICC to continue to financially subsidise such an organisation, a subsidy that, in effect, makes the ICC and the BCCI complicit in the violence of Mugabe's regime (of which ZC is a client). It shouldn't be a hard decision to make.

The views of the ECB and David Morgan on this matter are unimportant: what should be decisive for Pawar and Modi as Indians is the position taken by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who have both in recent days condemned Mugabe's leadership. When the two greatest political leaders of South Africa's struggle against apartheid are driven to disown a man who was once a comrade-in-arms in their struggle against racist tyranny, it's time for the BCCI to take a break from ICC realpolitik and follow suit.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Andrew on July 6, 2008, 9:00 GMT

    I believe that Zimbabwe should have been relegated to associate status for numerous reasons not just political ones. If we take the political argument out of the mix (agree or not, it did help bring about change in SA)then there is still the major issue of the Zim Cricket Board being responsible for "financial irregularities", the exodus of many talented players, outright racism (two wrongs don't make a right) and blatant disregard for the facilities and professional set up. These other "charges" should be sufficient reason for relegating Zimbabwe.

  • Chinmay on July 5, 2008, 22:02 GMT

    I would say the writer is more or less spot on in his assessment of the situation. Great article. Zim should have been relegated to associate status.

  • graham on July 4, 2008, 22:32 GMT

    Musul Kesavan and other similar commentators are masters at twisting arguements and using any justification to explain a shambles, but it won't work forever. Blame the colonial countries, apartheid, Ian Smith etc as much as you want, but the african people had far better lives under them, better futures, administration that worked, growing economies and sport, art, business that worked. This is not about Mugabe or apartheid, this is about getting Zimbabwe to be able to field a team and take its place in world cricket. The ICC is responsible for the contributions, and their responsibility is to ensure it is used to administer cricket in Zimbabwe. They are failing miserably, and Musul somehow manages to support them. Chingoka, Bvute and obviously the BCCI are getting their hands on the money, so Zimbabwe cricketrs suffer. Marvellous. Let's see if he comes back with something the rest of us can believe.

  • Jack on July 4, 2008, 13:02 GMT

    Sano_Reddy, your comment:"on interest of white minorities whose excessive land grabbed by Mugabe?" is utterly absurd! FYI, Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of Southern Africa, until Mugabe became totally insane. The Commercial Farmers Union there was one of the most productive in the world, regarding crop yields! Zim used to export over 50% of their maize crop, because it was surplus to domestic requirements. The fact that most of these farmers were white is irrelevant. They did their job and they did it exceedingly well! Now the good farmers have been expelled, without conpensation, and farm production has fallen by about 90%. The population is starving! Mugabe has destroyed his own country, but he and his cronies are the only ones not suffering! BTW, many of the farms are now owned by the cronies, and are unproductive. Please think before making extremely ignorant comments.

  • Matthew on July 4, 2008, 12:46 GMT

    hahaha TheEnticer are you serious??? "Aus has a far worse track record of human rights than any other country" that is one of the most ridiculous things i've ever heard!!! Australia has an excellent record of human rights, as you said, google it!!!

  • Bruce on July 4, 2008, 9:57 GMT

    I was wondering what qualifications one needed to be able to judge what is more and what is less evil. This is a joke, honestly who does this person think he is to be saying this or that is more evil or less evil. Sure apartheid was evil i fully agree with that and it ruined South Africa and only in the last +- 15 years has the rebuilding started. You know its funny that aparthied is brought up every time, i think alot of that has to do with it being the most recent evil government or regime or whatever you like to call it. Also the racist aspect of Apartheid im sure stands out in people minds. It makes me wonder when people are going to move on with there lives and try and go forward like all South Africans are now trying to do. No one talks of what the Australians did and still do to the aboriganees or the fact that the Americans still have reservations or the countless other bad things happening around the world like the ones mentioned in the article.

  • sanjeev on July 4, 2008, 8:25 GMT

    The point is: will it solve the political problem of Zimbabwe by banning them from sport event? it will demoralise the people even more.

    can some one tell whats the solution to this problem? because west cant invest on war without future returns on it.

    why western media is so busy in manufacturing consent on Zimbabwe issue leaving behind many worst problems in the world? on interest of white minorities whose excessive land grabbed by Mugabe?

  • The on July 4, 2008, 6:41 GMT

    Spot on Mukul, missed you in your absence. You have presented both sides without blaming anyone. You have exposed the hypocrisy in England's position and Australia tagging along. You have also exposed the First world sense of justice plaguing these countries. I dont agree with your conclusion though. I would care less about what happens in Zim or anywhere else for that matter, I want India to retain power and control even if it means ignoring phony pleas of justice from Eng and Aus. Aus has a far worse track record of human rights than any other country (google it ifyou dont believe me). Please dont let these snake oil salesmen pull a fast one on us, this is about cricket politics. If England was serious about Human rights, they would not participate in olympics and they would not attend it. So lets put this in perspective.

  • Thilina on July 4, 2008, 6:17 GMT

    Thanks Mukul for the enlightening article. Where morality matters conscience must come into front. If the "Independent Audit" indicates a prima facie case of fraud and/or corruption, then ZC must be sent a charge sheet first with a defined timeframe for responding. If ZC continue to ignore the charges, then tell ZC to put it right and aks them to that they are clean. It is perfectly alright for ICC to tell ZC, "Adios until such time".

  • J. on July 4, 2008, 3:17 GMT

    I don't really understand the quandry here. Zimbabwe's cricket authorities have, by independent audit, been found to be fiddling the books. Co-incedentally their cricket has gone to pot in same time frame. Forget the politics, the ZCU has been defrauding the ICC (and by extension the BCCI and India's fans) out of tens of millions of dollars.

    That alone should be reason to suspend or ban them.

    If you found an employee or business partner robbing you of cash wouldn't you get rid of them?

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