Harare, Zimbabwe | Adulation and scorn for footballers often are two sides of the same coin, as demonstrated in Zimbabwe over the past month.
To begin with the most recent developments, eight players—six from CAPS United of Harare, two from Highlanders FC of Bulawayo—absconded after an exhibition between the two teams in Bradford, England, on Sept 17 (“UK to Smoke Out Zimbabwean Footballers,” NewZimbabwe.com). The match was a so-called money game to attract the Zimbabwean diaspora, which has made enough of an impact in the British Isles to force NewZimbabwe.com columnist Daniel Fortune Molokele to ask if the former colonizer is now being colonized (“Has Britain Become a Zimbabwe Colony?” Sept 26).
“Is it not rather tragic and ironic that barely a century after the British South Africa Company launched its colonial investments project at Kopje Hill on 12 September 1890,” writes Molokele, a lawyer based in Johannesburg, “many Zimbabweans are scrambling to get a foothold on the rather cold island nation?” The working theory is, in fact, that the footballers are taking advantage of the six-month visas granted for the friendly to join Zimbabwean athletes before them in seeking low-wage, yet ultimately better paying, jobs in England. Even President Robert Mugabe‘s nephew, who played soccer for the national team, now lives in the UK, according to Molokele.
One empathizes with the athletes after reading comments like that from CAPS United general manager Joe Makuvire in the state-run Herald. Makuvire had stayed behind in England with a team publicist to join what was described as a makeshift posse of Highlanders supporters, immigration officials and private investigators in the search. “You understand that players are the biggest asset that we have as a club and we will always try to safeguard our investment,” Makuvire said (Robson Sharuko, “CAPS Officials Return Home,” Sept 27 September).
The situation of CAPS captain David Sengu, one of the missing players, illustrates the sometimes precarious position of these athletes. Scrambling to obtain his travel documents in the two weeks before the England trip, Sengu ultimately had to pay his own airfare, for which he needed to sell his Nissan Sunny automobile. As another example of how quickly admiration turns to scorn, Sengu had received the car as a gift for leading CAPS to the league title.
It is difficult not to read the players’ predicament in the wider context of the “urban tsunami” undertaken by Mugabe’s Operation Murambatsvina (Shona for “Operation Drive Out Rubbish”). The United Nations reports that 700,000 have lost homes or jobs as the result of the Mugabe regime’s four-month-old land-reclamation scheme, which has driven political opponents into the countryside or into homelessness. A film on the Amnesty International website depicts townships being bulldozed.
Eighteen of the newly created plots last month were offered to members of Zimbabwe’s national soccer team, with promises of more to come if their successes continued with qualification for the African Nations Cup finals (accomplished) and the World Cup (mathematically still eligible) (Andrew Meldrum, “Zimbabwe Rewards Soccer Heroes with Cleared Land,” Guardian, Aug 20). Several members of the Warriors were affected by the land-clearing, yet Zimbabwe Football Association chief executive Jonathan Mashingaidze remarked, “We can’t have our ambassadors living in slums and shacks.” None of the recently disappeared players was in the lineup for Zimbabwe’s most recent World Cup qualifier, so we do not know if they would have been in line for housing. It seems unlikely now. But they might be in a position to better appreciate the ironic voice of Musaemura Zimunya‘s “Hooray for Freedom“:
After nine years of singing
nyika iyi ndeyedu vatema
‘Avaunt, you suckers of our sweat!’
we wake up to find
an invasion of farmlands
by big black aristocrats
benzocrats and brothermen
with independence torches
burning down squatter villages.
Hooray for freedom!