Durban: While England has defied its government by pledging to play its World Cup match in Zimbabwe, a lone South African player has announced his refusal to tour the country.
Errol Stewart has made himself unavailable for the South African 'A' team's tour to Zimbabwe, saying he hoped his boycott would draw international attention to the plight of Zimbabweans. "My cricketing career will end some day but I'll have to live with my moral conscience forever. I was therefore not prepared to forego my morality so that I could be a substitute at the World Cup," Stewart said.
His decision to skip the tour that started this week has jeopardised his chances of being selected as one of the five substitutes to the 15-man World Cup squad. Six World Cup matches will be played in Zimbabwe and the governments of Britain and Australia have in vain pressurised their teams to withdraw from the games. They argued that playing matches in Zimbabwe would be tantamount to endorsing Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's regime, which stands accused of a myriad of human rights abuses and rigging presidential elections in March. Stewart said his actions were supported by some of his provincial team-mates as well as members who are in the current 'A' team in Zimbabwe.
"Despite the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) decision, I'd think that many members of the English team are probably going through the same moral soul searching that I experienced before making up my mind not to tour." Stewart said he realised that while his was a "purely individual cricketing decision", the English players needed to balance their moral dilemma about playing in Zimbabwe against the costs of refusing to play a World Cup game there. "Hopefully, my refusal to travel to Zimbabwe under the present circumstances will help focus attention on the crisis there and, in a small way, contribute to that country being restored to a full democracy."
The 33-year-old batsman and wicket-keeper, who has represented South Africa in six One-day Internationals in a career spanning sixteen years, said his decision was a 'very personal one' and was motivated by political and moral considerations. "Cricket has served me very well but there are some things in life which are much more important than cricket." A qualified attorney, Stewart has also been capped 35 times by the Natal Sharks rugby team and has a private pilot's licence. "As a lawyer, the rule of law is most important to me but over the past few years Mugabe has systematically removed judges and lawyers who have opposed him and replaced them with people who are more likely to do his bidding," Stewart said.
"I was not prepared to bury my head in the sand and ignore the plight of ordinary Zimbabweans who do not have access to the most basic foodstuffs and fuel," Stewart said. His decision has received wide coverage in the South African media. The weekly 'Mail'&'Guardian' newspaper called on South Africa's cricket Board not to apply any sanctions against Stewart, but instead to take note of the loyal and skilled player's strong stance, and suggested he would be a valuable cricket administrator himself.
"Good on you, Errol Stewart", said a column in 'The Mercury' newspaper in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province. "He is the first cricketer in the world to publicly announce that he will not tour Zimbabwe. "As an intelligent and articulate person, his conscience will simply not permit him to play ball with Robert Mugabe while ordinary Zimbabweans are suffering persecution. If only more sportsmen showed such courage," the newspaper said.