Africa | Showing Mugabe the red card proves a difficult trick

But, for the most part, Zimbabwe’s international and professional football structures have suffered along with the other institutions. The Pioneer Column of Cecil Rhodes‘s British South African Company brought football and rugby to the area beginning in 1890, although locals likely did not play until mineworkers took the game to Southern Rhodesia. Township clubs, such as Highlanders of Bulawayo, formed by grandchildren of Ndebele king Lobengula, were established in the 1920s and ’30s. Football has expressed racial, regional and political differences. Highlanders, for example, has maintained close ties to South African football. Its supporters created songs, according to Richard Giulianotti, to commemorate post-independence massacres against the Sindebele-speaking population in Matabeleland, when perhaps more than 20,000 died in the mid-1980s.

ZANU-PF works to control the mechanisms of the national football association. ZIFA chief executive Henrietta Rushwaya, who ascended to the country’s top football job after Jonathan Mashingaidze was fired for alleged involvement in a World Cup ticket scam, last year became a provincial party leader in ZANU-PF and publicly backs Mugabe (Darlington Majonga, “Zifa Boss Gets into Zanu PF Structures,” Zimbabwe Independent, 18 May 07). But the ruling party still looks on uncomfortably at large stadium gatherings. When MDC supporters made the open-hand salute at a home match versus South Africa in July 2000, police reacted with tear gas. Thirteen died in a resulting stampede.

Last week, police canceled organized football in the country until Apr 4, fearing pre-election violence.

The open-handed salute, delivered from an ambulance, was Tsvangirai’s first public gesture following 48 hours of police assaults last year. He was left with one eye swollen shut and a suture on the side of his head. Such persistence has helped fuel the enthusiasm at his stadium rallies, where one chronicler said the intensity was such that “I felt a power drill was penetrating the ground beneath my feet.”

Much more quietly, those left destitute during Mugabe’s rule—such as Maria, a former hair salon owner now working as a prostitute in a Zambian border town—also ask for change. She saw her niece, a TB sufferer, die for want of food and blankets; for the burial, family members had to break down a clothes wardrobe in order to construct a coffin. Asked for her message to Mugabe, Maria backs the message of the red card: “Please just retire.”


Richard Giulianotti, “Between Colonialism, Independence, and Globalization: Football in Zimbabwe,” in Football in Africa: Conflict, Conciliation, and Community, ed. Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti (New York: Palgrave, 2004), 80–99.

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  1. The Global Game | Africa | Destroyers v. Rebuilders, a Zimbabwean allegory:

    [...] its supporters red cards to flash at stadium rallies to demand Mugabe’s sending off (see Mar 28). As the anonymous correspondent says: The captain of the Destroyers was shown a red card numerous [...]

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