Australia's cricket tour a sign of hope for ordinary Zimbabweans

OPINION – As we have seen with the recent cricket World Cup, cricket may be just a game, but it has an enormous impact beyond the reaches of any ordinary sport.

While big money has come to dominate the game, it remains the diversion of choice for millions of fans in some of the world’s poorest regions. For them, to borrow a sentiment from the great English football coach, Bill Shankley, cricket isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that. The truth of this is confirmed in Zimbabwe 

As such, the proposed tour of the Australia A test cricket team to Zimbabwe in July looms as a shining light on the horizon for many of Zimbabwe’s suffering population. It is true that our country still struggles to reconcile the notions of democracy with the atavistic remnants of dictatorship. No one is more frustrated and disappointed by such a situation than me. Yet, for this, we cannot punish the vast majority of Zimbabweans who look forward to the simple joy of watching top-class international cricket and whom, as was proven in the 2008 elections, support democracy.

In this light, attempts to force Australia out of the tour, coming from those within Australian cricket, are perplexing and damaging to the collective heart of most Zimbabweans. In fact, they are wrong.

Many Zimbabweans, including myself, have the greatest admiration for the former Australian test player Stuart MacGill, and especially for the principled stance he took in 2004 to not tour Zimbabwe as a member of the Australian test squad. Then, the situation demanded such a response. He has now become the highest profile nay-sayer in regard to the up-coming tour. He is wrong.

Cricket in Zimbabwe is in a vastly improved state and the nation as a whole has made significant strides forward, despite hardliners within Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party who have caused such turmoil. While no one would argue that the situation in Zimbabwe is perfect, it is unrecognisably better than when MacGill chose not to tour.

In many ways the situation in Zimbabwe is similar to pre and post-1990 South Africa. Before the release of Nelson Mandela, it was wholly inappropriate for sporting teams to have anything to do with the apartheid regime. After Mandela’s release, however, it was entirely appropriate that, for example, an all-white test team should tour the West Indies in 1991, well before the conclusion of the transition to democracy.

At the time the South Africans toured the West Indies, South Africa was still in a very fragile state. The entire country was wracked by violence and was being ground in the machinations of extremists. The international community supported these tentative steps to reintegrate South Africans into international sport because it was recognised that sport could be a force for good and could help the country reconcile.

Zimbabwe today is in a similar position. Our transition is fragile and uncertain. There are extremists who would like to derail the transitional government. But progress is being made, albeit slow. A constitutional reform process is under way, independent newspapers are back on the streets, health clinics are being refurbished, schools are reopen, the economy is stabilising, hyperinflation has been dealt with.

Finally, the issue of safety for such a touring party must be addressed. As I know from bitter personal experience, Zimbabwe can be a very dangerous place if one is a politician or activist opposed to Zanu PF. However, for most Zimbabweans and for those visiting Zimbabwe, the country is one of the most peaceful, violence-and-crime-free countries in the world.

Zimbabwe is certainly far safer than India or South Africa, regular venues for Australian touring cricketers. We do not have the bomb threats India has and our crime levels are way below that of South Africa. The New Zealand ”A” side toured Zimbabwe late last year and remarked how welcomed they were and how peaceful the country was.

Indeed, there is much to celebrate in today’s Zimbabwe and there is is much to underpin the support of international sporting teams to aid in the process of further unifying the country via the ”soft” nationalism of international sporting competition.

People who have opposed Mugabe’s Zanu-PF regime for decades such as Morgan Tsvangirai and myself have personally asked the international community to assist this fragile process through tours of this nature. Likewise, resolute campaigners for freedom and democracy in Zimbabwe, including well-known figures such as former Zimbabwean cricketers Henry Olonga, Heath Streak, Andy Flower (now the England cricket coach) and Alistair Campbell have all backed foreign tours to Zimbabwe. Have those who would seek to spurn all these efforts spoken to such experts regarding the role of cricket in Zimbabwe’s progress to freedom?

Senator David Coltart is the Minister for Education, Sport, Arts and Culture in Zimbabwe and a member of the Movement for Democratic Change.