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Crisis Casts Shadow Over World Cup Preparations

South African soccer fans worried that Zimbabwean turmoil will mar the tournament.
By Zakeus Chibaya
Football fans in South Africa are urging their government to try to solve the political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe before hosting the World Cup finals in 2010.

They say it would be grossly insensitive to stage the tournament while Zimbabweans suffer, and they fear President Robert Mugabe’s repressive policies could to lead to violence in South Africa during the event.

Pretoria officials appear to share these anxieties, but have been keen to stress that their primary concern is the welfare of Zimbabweans and southern Africans in general.

“We remain concerned not only about the effects on the people of Zimbabwe but the effect on the region as a whole,” said Aziz Pahad, South Africa’s deputy foreign affairs minister.

However, some political observers are sceptical about Pretoria’s efforts to help resolve the crisis in Zimbabwe.

An initiative led by South African president Thabo Mbeki has resulted in preliminary talks with members of the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, but there are concerns that the Harare regime lacks the political will to reach an accommodation with its rivals.

The MDC is keen to see the mediation work and warns that South Africa will be faced with a public relations disaster unless it manages to improve the situation in Zimbabwe prior to the tournament.

“Pride [in hosting the event] will be turned into shame if the World Cup is blighted by the inability of Africans to solve the Zimbabwe crisis,” said MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

With the Mbeki-mediation effort just underway, Pretoria has been quick to deny reports that it has excluded Zimbabwe from its list of neighbouring states to be used as bases by teams participating in the tournament.

Countries in the region are supposed to be accommodating participating teams before the event kicks off. Under existing rules, the 31 visiting teams can set up training camps outside the host country before the finals, moving to South Africa at least seven days before their opening match.

Certainly, Zimbabwe intends to be included. The government has started renovating the giant National Sports Stadium in Harare and other stadiums in Masvingo and Mutare in anticipation of reaping the benefits of the World Cup.

Some in the international community are adamant that this should not happen.

A European parliament resolution last year said it “strongly insists that the Mugabe regime must derive absolutely no financial benefit or propaganda value from either the run-up to the 2010 World Cup or the tournament itself; in this regard, [the EU] calls on South Africa, the host nation, and on FIFA to exclude Zimbabwe from participating in pre-World Cup matches, holding international friendly games, or hosting national teams involved in the event”.

If it is still in turmoil when the tournament kicks off, the organisers could be facing serious problems in South Africa and Zimbabwe, should it still be included as a base for participating teams.

An estimated 40,000 Zimbabweans cross into South Africa illegally every month, fleeing an unemployment rate of 80 per cent and hyperinflation of 3,700 per cent. The exodus is causing xenophobia-induced violence in South Africa, and the situation is going to get worse as South Africans and Zimbabweans jostle for jobs during the World Cup.

“Zimbabwe has been turned into a military state by Mugabe and it poses a security threat to South Africa hosting the World Cup,” said political analyst Edditon Maloba.

At the same time, there’s concern that foreign football fans visiting Zimbabwe in advance of the tournament may be harassed by the authorities. “Foreigners will be accused of spying or trying to topple the government,” continued Maloba, who also warns that many participating countries will refuse to train in Zimbabwe because of its bad human rights record.

The situation in Zimbabwe has already forced some sporting events to be cancelled - reminiscent of 2003, when a number of countries refused to play their matches there during the Cricket World Cup.

For instance, South Africans golfers pulled out of the Dale Hayes Super Golf Challenge in Harare in June, citing security reasons. In the end, the tournament had to be cancelled because of political tension in the country.

Football fans in South Africa feel their government should do its utmost to ensure that Zimbabwe’s problems are sorted out before the World Cup begins, otherwise the tournament, they fear, will be marred.

“The situation in Zimbabwe is not conducive for us to hold a successful tournament. Our leaders should try to solve the problem in Zimbabwe,” said Tapelo Mzwake from Pretoria.

“The World Cup will be spoiled if the Zimbabwe situation continues to deteriorate. Zimbabwe is slowly collapsing and people are coming in droves to South Africa. The situation needs to be solved before the World Cup 2010,” said Tebgo Mchuqini from Polokwane, north of Johannesburg.

“We are concerned very much about what is happening in Zimbabwe and the repression in the country might cause disturbances in South Africa. We cannot host a successful World Cup while our brothers and sisters are suffering in Zimbabwe,” said Mathapelo Funzi from Johannesburg.

Zakeus Chibaya is a regular IWPR contributor.

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