10 years ago, two Zimbabwean cricketers – Andy Flower and Henry Olonga – stood against one of the biggest tyrants ever to have existed, and made a protest on the biggest stage that they could have done. During their opening match of the 2003 World Cup they wore black armbands and in a press release they stated that they were “mourning the death of democracy in Zimbabwe”. Such a brave act brought the world’s attention to the human rights abuses that were, and still are, being conducted by the president, Robert Mugabe. The protest swiftly became the main focus of an event-filled World Cup, and put pressure on the world to take notice of Mugabe’s regime. But how much has changed in 10 years?
In making the protest, Flower and Olonga knew that they could not return to Zimbabwe following the tournament. They had burnt the bridges with their homeland in an irreversible act and both made their homes in the UK. Flower is the current England team director, whilst Olonga is a cricket commentator and singer. Both were excellent cricketers too – Flower, then 34 was coming to the end of his career but was already the most successful Zimbabwean cricketer ever, with 12 Test hundreds and an average over 50. Olonga at 26 was the youngest and the first black cricketer ever to represent his country and was rated as the quickest bowler in Zimbabwe – just three years previously he had taken 6/19 in an ODI against England in Cape Town
Yet going to the World Cup they knew that they had to make a stand to bring attention to the plight of their country. Olonga went on to say that playing would be “condoning the grotesque human rights violations that have been perpetrated – and continue to be perpetrated – against my fellow countrymen”. Such strong words condemning a man of such power as Mugabe are not to be underestimated.
These human rights that Olonga and Flower were attempting to shine a light on are the most heinous of crimes – indeed, in the aftermath of the World Cup protest, Mugabe compared himself to Hitler, saying:
“I am still the Hitler of the time. This Hitler has only one objective, justice for his own people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people, and their right to their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold. Ten times, that is what we stand for.”
Mugabe ticks pretty much every box for human rights abuses. It is illegal for two people of the same sex to hold hands, hug or kiss – an up-scale of the previous laws banning sexual activity. These laws were passed quietly through parliament in order to minimise opposition. In 1998 the first president of Zimbabwe and Mugabe’s predecessor Canaan Banana was found guilty of 11 counts of sodomy, attempted sodomy and indecent assault and served 6 months in prison – despite maintaining his innocence.
He regularly accuses the United Kingdom of white imperialism and conducted a campaign of violence against white farmers during the 2000s. Targeting the apparent riches of white people in Zimbabwe, he often accuses his opposition of being allies of white imperialists. One of his more infamous acts has been to drive the Zimbabwean economy into the ground and in the past 13 years the GDP of Zimbabwe has decreased by 40% due to hyperinflation. Just last month, the finance minister Tendai Biti announced that the national public account held just $217. Despite Mugabe was stating that “a country can never go bankrupt”, Biti has said that if Zimbabwe were a company it would have been shut down.
In 2008 came uncertain times for Mugabe and the most high profile incident regarding his tyrannical campaign since Flower and Olonga 5 years previously. He failed to win the first round of the presidential election outright, and was forced into a run-off with challenger Morgan Tsvangirai and his party the MDC – the Movement for Democratic Change. In order to ensure that he would win the run off, the militaristic control that had been the hallmark of his rule went into overdrive, arresting members of the opposition and two foreign journalists who were covering the election. A meeting was held in April of that year, and a military plan was given the code name CIBD – Coercion. Intimidation. Beating. Displacement.
Following the first round defeat there were 85 deaths caused by ‘political violence’. Gordon Brown, then UK prime minister attempted to intervene, only to be dismissed as a “little tiny dot on this planet” by Mugabe. Tsvangirai pulled out of the run off due to threats of violence and intimidation that he was being subjected to due to his high profile and Mugabe won it comfortably. Yet there was civil unrest in Zimbabwe. The people were unhappy and were rallying despite the military’s presence. In September of 2008 a ‘memorandum of understanding’ was signed, outlining a power share between Mugabe, Tsvangirai and the MDC.
This indicates light at the end of the tunnel. Mugabe is nearly 89 and his death should bring about what Flower and Olonga were attempting to highlight 10 years ago. What is clear having researched Zimbabwe and Mugabe is the bravery and bloody-mindedness that these two and countless others in Zimbabwe have showed in the face of such oppression. It demonstrates the force for good that cricket can give and the stage it can provide if utilised for the right aim.