Johannesburg: South Africans are at loggerheads over calls for Zimbabwe's exclusion as a cricket World Cup venue, recalling sports boycotts of South Africa in apartheid days. The government is strongly in favour of matches being played in its northern neighbour, the opposition just as vehemently opposed. "We cannot have a situation where cricket authorities are now being pressured to reverse a decision that could jeopardise the staging of this global event in Africa," said Sports Minister Ncgonde Balfour.
That prompted Afrikaner Unity Movement leader Cassie Aucamp to ask on Tuesday, "Has the (ruling) African National Congress changed its well-known slogan of 'no normal sport in an abnormal society', as applied against the apartheid government?" The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), noted, "during the apartheid era the International Cricket Council (ICC) was one of the strongest proponents of the sports boycott of South Africa." "It should now boycott Zimbabwe in the knowledge that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe will use any World Cup matches played in that country as an affirmation of his leadership," said DA spokesman Donald Lee.
The governments of Britain and Australia have called on the their teams not to play World Cup matches in Zimbabwe, but stopped short of ordering the squads to withdraw. They argue that playing matches in Zimbabwe would be tantamount to endorsing Mugabe's regime, which stands accused of myriad human rights abuses and rigging presidential elections in March. The Pretoria government has warned the "undue pressures" could jeopardise the tournament. "It is of concern to note that undue pressure is now being put on cricket authorities in Australia and England to abandon their commitments in Zimbabwe," said Balfour.
"With the World Cup due to be played within six weeks, it is important that all countries scheduled to play in Zimbabwe should honour their commitments." Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Aziz Pahad agreed. He told reporters in Cape Town, "This political decision at this late stage is not in the interest of world cricket and not in the interest of trying to find a solution to the problems of Zimbabwe." South Africa's biggest daily newspaper, the 'Sowetan', with a mainly black readership, Tuesday came out in favour of a ban on Zimbabwe.
"The exclusion of Zimbabwe as a venue is intended as a moral statement, emphasising our collective outrage over Mugabe's disregard for democratic norms," it said in an editorial. "By ensuring Zimbabwe is left out of the international cricket loop, the world would signal its utter disdain for Mugabe's unwillingness to reform and restore his country to a constitutional democracy." Ali Bacher, the South African executive director of the 2003 ICC World Cup, told the state broadcaster the cricket boards calling for the ban had no leg to stand on. "What is happening ... is unacceptable," he said.
The cricket showpiece begins on February 8 in Cape Town. Most of the matches will be played in South Africa, but Zimbabwe will play its six group matches at home, and two matches will be played in Kenya.