Soccer diplomacy to help ease political rift

[Zimbabwe] Zanu-pf political rally, Harare, April 2001.
Zimbabwe will hold legislative elections on 31 March (IRIN)

On a hot Sunday afternoon in a suburb of the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, two unlikely football teams run out onto a dusty pitch.

Like Sunday soccer everywhere, the players are mostly middle-aged, pot-bellied and, to be honest, pretty useless. But they are cheered on each week by an enthusiastic crowd that can number more than 2,000.

This is not your average boozers' league. The matches pit officials and supporters from the ruling ZANU-PF against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) - with each team decked out in their party colours - a development unimaginable in the immediate aftermath of the controversial 31 March legislative election.

The matches represent a real attempt to bridge a political divide that has polarised the country since the first violence-scarred elections in 2000. At stake at the end of 90 minutes is not political power or a constituency seat - just team pride and Zim $500,000 (about US $25) in prize money.

The football games are the brainchild of two men: Job Sikhala, the burly MDC's Member of Parliament for St Marys - who doubles as coach and substitute for the opposition - and Last Chiyangwa, a popular musician who supports the ruling party.

"We believe that the people of Zimbabwe need to go through a process of healing - these challenge soccer matches are a way of promoting peace and stability in the area. As residents and leaders in the community, we cannot sit back and watch people beating each other up," Sikhala told IRIN, as he prepared to make a tactical change by going on himself.

"We should create a culture whereby we respect the political opinions of others and still be able to live in harmony together," he added.

Chiyangwa, in between bellowing instructions from the ZANU-PF team bench, concurred. "A large number of supporters watching this match are wearing political regalia of their choice, but that harmony does not exist in some parts of the country, and we hope what is happening here can spread throughout the country."

The comedy of errors on the football pitch certainly had the crowd laughing in unison, and after each match both camps share mugs of traditional beer bought with the prize money.

Webster Zambara, a conflict resolution expert, said the challenge match series not only brought former enemies together on a field of play, but was a process that went beyond the politicians.

"This move is not just being done by political leaders, but with the participation of ordinary members of the two political parties," Zambara explained.

The new spirit of rapprochement appears to be receiving tentative support from some sections of the government, which has a comfortable parliamentary majority after the 31 March poll.

Tichaona Jokonya, the new information minister, seems to have deliberately set a different tone from his belligerent predecessor, Jonathan Moyo.

After his appointment in April, he called a meeting with all editors, including those from the privately owned media, who in the past had been branded as members of the opposition.

The career diplomat hosted a cocktail party for journalists, to commemorate World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, where he called for critical and balanced reporting.

"You should not say I am doing a wonderful job when I am not. You can disagree and argue with me as much as you want, but as long as you are factual. My office will be open for individuals or groups of journalists who may have concerns on some aspects of media laws."

Zimbabwe's Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) has been a key bone of contention between the independent press and the government, with the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe, a coalition of the country's major media bodies, calling for its repeal ahead of World Press Freedom Day.

Since its introduction in 2002, four newspapers have been shut down and scores of journalists have reportedly been arrested and harassed, although there has never been a successful prosecution under AIPPA.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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