Africa | Showing Mugabe the red card proves a difficult trick

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,” Worldpress.org, 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.

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