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Not playing nicely…

The decision by the Zambian Football Association to refuse to play an international friendly against South Africa in protest of the xenophobic attacks, reminds us that sometimes sport can be a useful weapon of international diplomacy and punishment. With so many other countries on the continent that flagrantly abuse human rights, Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya asks why this tool is used so sparingly.

It was not the first time that a state had used sport to register its disapproval of the actions (or inactions) of another state.

South African national sports teams were barred from being part of international sport to punish the country for its apartheid policies.

The 1994 Africa Cup of Nations champions, Nigeria, did not travel to South Africa in 1996 to defend their title because their head of state, General Sani Abacha, did not take kindly to then President Nelson Mandela making public his condemnation of the west African state executing human and environmental rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Now Zambia has also used football to boycott South Africa as punishment for its violence against foreign nationals. The irony is that Zambia is not exactly the poster boy for human rights on the continent.

The Zambian stance should be used as a reminder that diplomatic channels are not the only ways … to show solidarity with other countries.

Many Zambian homosexuals have had to flee their country or risk being imprisoned. Section 155 of the Zambian Criminal Code on “Unnatural Offences” describes the offence of “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature” as a felony, which is punishable by imprisonment for 14 years.

Nevertheless, the Zambian stance should be used as a reminder that diplomatic channels are not the only ways a state and its people can show solidarity with others, including citizens of another country. And Africa has no shortage of causes that need solidarity, starting with the Zambian LGBTI community.

Religious persecution

The oppression of religious minorities, particularly Christians, is another area.

Sudanese woman Meriam Ibrahim found herself thrust into the spotlight when she was arrested for apostasy – abandoning Islam and converting to Christianity – in 2014. She faced being executed and was saved only by the fact that she was pregnant (with her second child) at the time.

She was charged with committing adultery for marrying a Christian. The courts dismissed her argument that she had always been a Christian and insisted that she should have remained Muslim in keeping with the faith of her absent father.

The prosecution demanded, with the support of the judge, that she abandon her Christian faith, and assent to belief in her father’s faith, Islam.

The courts dismissed her argument that she had always been a Christian.

Meriam Ibrahim was eventually freed again on 26 June 2014 and took refuge in the United States Embassy with her family. After extensive negotiations to enable her to leave Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim arrived in Rome on 24 July 2014 on an Italian government plane.

Sudan has not punished only those who profess faiths other than Islam.

In 2015, The Guardian reported that 25 Muslim men, including three teenagers, were facing the death penalty in Sudan after being charged with apostasy for following the wrong version of Islam.

The men belong to the minority Hausa ethnicity, many of whom follow a different interpretation of Islam to the one sanctioned by now deposed Omar al-Bashir’s government.

They are accused of “rejecting the prophet Muhammad’s teachings”, rejecting the Hadith and taking the Qur’an as the sole source of religious legitimacy – a crime punishable by death in Sudan.

With Shabir being deposed, it remains to be seen if these laws will be changed.

Modern day slavery

The highly regarded publication, The Economist, reported last year that Mauritania, on the north-west coast of Africa, continued to have “the spirit” of slavery even though owning humans was abolished in 1981 and criminalised in 2007.

It reported that anti-slavery campaigners were jailed; some had been in prison for two years at the time of The Economist publishing the article.

“Perhaps most shameful is its reluctance to curb ethnic discrimination and slavery. Mauritania is deeply divided along lines of caste and ethnicity, and between former slave owners and ex-slaves.

Mauritania is deeply divided along lines of caste and ethnicity, and between former slave owners and ex-slaves.

“In 2017 the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, noted that two of the main ethnic groups, Haratines and Afro-Mauritanians, which together make up two-thirds of the population, are absent “from almost all positions of real power”; nearly all important positions are filled by the Beydane, or Arab Berbers,” reported The Economist.

An Iranian woman’s price for fandom

Back to sport… an Iranian female football fan who was detained after she disguised herself as a man to sneak into a football stadium to watch her favourite team Esteghlal FC play. She died after setting herself on fire.

Sahar Khodayari self-immolated early September after she found that she faced a two-year jail term for her stunt. Since the Islamic state does not have written laws specifically barring women from entering stadium, she was charged for not fully adhering to laws governing how women should dress because she did not cover her head.

Iran is a member of the international football governing body, FIFA, despite this overtly gender discriminatory policy.

While punishing South Africa for xenophobic attacks makes sense, it should be odd that the likes of Zambia, Sudan, Mauritania, Iran and many other countries that flagrantly abuse human beings, are part of the world sporting community without as much as a whisper.

While there is a good reason to conclude that Zambian football authorities were hypocritical in their decision to not play against South Africa, they have unintentionally reopened the door on the long standing tradition of “no normal sport in an abnormal society”.

The question is this: do Churches and the rest of civil society have the stomach to call out those who pretend that sport and human rights should not mix.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.