Africa | Showing Mugabe the red card proves a difficult trick

Harare, Zimbabwe | For nearly 10 years political opponents have tried to send off President Robert Mugabe, but he still has not left the pitch.

Drawing on the range of football metaphor in the Zimbabwean political process, the Movement for Democratic Change shortly after its founding in 1999 initiated a red-card campaign to retire the 84-year-old strongman, who has led the state since independence in 1980. Voters have another opportunity to reject Mugabe on Saturday at parliamentary and presidential elections.

Supporters of Movement for Democratic Change candidate Tsvangirai flash the omnipresent red cards at a stadium rally. (© 2008 MDC)

At stadium rallies over the past month, backers of MDC presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai have waved the palm-sized cards, reading “Send Mugabe and Zanu PF Off!” in reference to the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front. Since the run-up to 2000 elections, when the party surprised Mugabe by winning 57 of 120 parliamentary seats, former union leader Tsvangirai and other MDC speakers have riffed on the red-card idea. Tsvangirai invokes the “red sand of Africa” as part of his rhetorical flourishes. Red is the color of MDC—a reference to the pan-ethnic, multilingual state envisioned following long periods of tribal division.

At Rufaro Stadium in Harare on 18 Jun 2000—the site of Mugabe’s independence declaration—Tsvangirai offered supporters the open-handed “change” salute, a mimicking of the match referee’s gesture when sending a player to the showers. He told 45,000 at the stadium:

The MDC has the people of Zimbabwe behind it—we are knocking on the doors of parliament. We are walking up its corridors. We are saying away with corruption—away.

No more petrol or paraffin queues—no more.
No more hunger or crying—no more.
No more beatings and house burnings—no more.
The spirit of democratic resistance lives in our hearts.

Chinonzi regedza ndechirimumaoka chirimumoyo chirimuninga.

The people of Zimbabwe say to Robert Mugabe—we showed you the yellow card at the time of the referendum, and now today Robert Mugabe we are showing you the red card.

Get off the field Robert Mugabe—your time is over.
Get off the field ZanuPF—your time has gone.
Come liberation—come.
Come freedom—come.

Later that day, he expanded the metaphor:

The MDC is a non-racial party. Zimbabweans are a collective, we have a common history—we share the future. Our strength comes from our cultural and ethnic diversity. The red sand of Africa flows through our veins. Every group is part of the national team—every goal we score is a goal for the nation. No team has only one kind of player—it has many different kinds of players, together those differences make them powerful. Together. We are tired of sitting on the sidelines; of being expelled to the bin. We are tired of the world laughing at the old team as they fall over the ball.

We are Zimbabwe. One people. One nation. One team.

Over the years, the rhetoric and accompanying gestures have evolved, but football as referent remains intact. At a rally in Masvingo earlier in March, MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa demonstrated a new signal of party unity—“a new way of giving Mugabe the red card”: “With thousands rotating their two second fingers,” reports ZimDaily, “one finger on top of another, a sign synonymous with soccer coaches just before substituting a player, the new MDC action psyched up the masses in Mucheke” stadium (Spiwe Ncube, “Zanu (PF) Panics, Lies, after Shock Crowds at Tsvangirai Rally,” Mar 17). The vital importance of football stadia to political life in Zimbabwe, and in much of the developing world, became evident in publicity related to the Mucheke event. Government-backed media reported the crowd of 25,000 as early gatherers for a 3 p.m. football match. But independent ZimDaily countered that its news team arrived at 10 a.m. “to a full stadium, both in the terraces and in the football pitch. … Some of the supporters, hanging precariously from nearby trees hoping for a bird’s eye view of the presidential candidate … waved red cards.”

Mugabe’s edginess about such symbolism became apparent before 2005 elections, when the color red was banned on Zimbabwean TV. Guests on a weekly HIV/AIDS discussion show were told to remove red AIDS ribbons before filming (Basildon Peta, “Mugabe Bans Red Cards from TV in Further Curbs on Opposition,” The Independent, 14 Jul 04). Despite current polls showing Tsvangirai with a plurality of support, opposition parties fear that such manipulation and vote-rigging will ensure perpetuation of Mugabe’s desultory reign.

Football at Victoria Falls, 16 Sept 06. Former Zimbabwe FA chief executive Mashingaidze says, “We are a football giant that is in slumber.” (© 2006 Amodiovalerio Verde)

Tsvangirai and others charge that, in Mugabe, Zimbabweans have traded earlier colonial oppression for a domesticated variety. Reaching to the heritage of the “Great Zimbabwe” of around 1100 CE, opponents say that Mugabe has set rural and urban, Ndebele and Shona against each other, resulting in a nation in “shut down mode” (Julius Dawu, “Mugabe’s Waterloo,”, Mar 20). Hyperinflation stands at more than 100,000 percent. Unemployment is 80 percent. An estimated 3,500 die weekly from HIV/AIDS-related illness, with average life expectancy at 34 for women, 37 for men. A few years ago, Mugabe introduced an ox-drawn ambulance program for rural areas.

Some 25 percent of 13 million inhabitants have fled the country, due in part to Mugabe’s land-reclamation schemes that have displaced hundreds of thousands of political opponents, primarily in cities (see 29 Sept 05). Plots of reclaimed land were offered to Zimbabwe’s national football team in 2005 following a successful string of results, including the COSAFA Cup title.

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.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] 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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