Sunday, 14 August 2016


This blog post links the treatment of the Zimbabwean female football team, the Mighty Warriors, to the power of sport as an indicator of moral, cultural and State failures in the treatment of its citizens.

This last week the country was understandably apoplectic over the treatment of the Mighty Warriors on their return from the Rio Olympics. Their spirited performances and dogged determination (leading them to score in each of their games) was a source of deserved pride and credit. It is fair to say that without winning a single match, they won over millions of hearts (even Manchester City Captain Vincent Kompany tweeted in their favour). Thus the nation was horrified by images of the Mighty Warriors being ferried from the airport in a school bus and claims that they were offered US$5 (or US$1 depending on what you read) and told to be on their way home.

Whilst this is disgraceful, it is not, in my view, surprising. Sport is a unique way of assessing the status of the citizen in relation to the State and State institutions. The protocol regarding travel for State leaders is well established and well-funded as an extension of their elevated status. The attendant red carpets are rolled out with police escorts; they are, of course, representatives of the people. 

Sport however, flips the script. Ordinary persons take on this representative role, and depending on their success, can garner more popular support by galvanizing entire nations to associate with the success of their feats. What is the State to do when ordinary citizens return from playing this representative role (which is often reserved for elites)? The response is normally one of acknowledgement; with the greater the success meriting more prominent acknowledgement. From this despicable fiasco of the Mighty Warriors at one end of the spectrum to Kristy Coventry returning to various pieces of largess and national salutation at the other.

Then President of the Zimbabwe Olympic Committee, Paul Chingoka joins Kirsty Coventry for the pomp and fanfare after her success at the 2004 Olympics

However, when the dust settles, the stale air of familiarity makes for a startling revelation. The sporting figure, with new found recognition and glory, is confronted with the sameness of (ill) treatment. Cassius Marcellus Clay (as he then was, later Muhammad Ali) claimed to have thrown his gold medal from the 1960 Olympics into the Ohio River after being denied a meal in a restaurant due to the colour of his skin. Even after becoming an Olympic Champion, his treatment was still predicated on race. No matter the progress made on the international plane, the stagnancy at home would ensure his glory was short lived. At the 1968 Olympics, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200 metres event. Rather than salute their national flag on the medals' stand, they raised their fists in the Black Power salute, a protest against the USA's treatment of black people. The iconic image is reflective of the irony of having to salute the flag of a State which will invariably treat one as a second class citizen. And as so often happens, the basis for treatment of a citizen is not equality and universal human rights but rather such grounds as race, class, gender, political spite of any national success on the regional/international plane. 
Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists in the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in protest against the treatment of black people in the USA

In this sense, competing in sport at a global level is comparable to the emancipating effect of the world wars on women in the work place. With most men away at war, women entered the work force and claims about women’s incapacity for work were debunked. Similarly, sport can be dignifying and assertive of people’s rights. It shows that persons can not only be representative of their countries but bring glory to them irrespective of their perceived station. A group of ordinary women can make the whole world admire and receive tweets from prominent sports-persons. This results in unspoken but real suspicion from elites who believe they have the legitimate claim to any representative role and subsequent glory. When Kirsty Coventry won her first gold medal for Zimbabwe, then President of the Zimbabwe Olympic Committee, Paul Chingoka, had to join her at the airport for the pomp and fanfare. The elites must be associated with and benefit from the feats of ordinary citizens and concordantly, distance themselves from any of their failures and retain plausible deniability. This antagonism is latent, it is never spoken, but is often the inarticulate premise for the treatment faced upon return. 

After my first journey to Europe, my project manager greeted with a snide remark reminding me that my true place was in rushing to places like Dotito, Dublibadzimu and Siyakobvu. In other words, do not let this foreign experience get to your head, you are back and we are in charge! There is a power dynamic at play, and elites feel a need to retain their place in the spotlight. We underestimate primal mammalian jealousy, more so when it is from persons who hold higher station to our own. Every time I return to Zimbabwe I am taken aback by the stale air of familiarity; the sameness, the stagnancy and the desire to reinforce hierarchy by discounting the foreign experience. That gold medal don't mean you ain't a nigger no more Mr Clay, and that global adulation doesn't mean you will be treated better Mighty Warriors.....Welcome back!! We are Mighty proud of you. However, we must apologise, as you made progress abroad we stayed the same at home….and you suffered for it. Shameful indeed. 

David T Hofisi is a human rights lawyer and writes in his personal capacity

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