The Boston Celtics have adopted the South African word ubuntu as a team slogan this season. It means unity, interconnectedness and literally, "we are who we are through others." There is a terrible irony that ubuntu is currently being embraced in Boston while South Africa has recently seen a viral spread of ethnic violence–the utter negation of ubuntu. Black South Africans, living in terrible poverty, have killed nearly sixty people and driven tens of thousands from their homes for simply being foreigners.
If you were born in Mozambique or Zimbabwe, you live in danger of rape, robbery or murder. The roots of the violence lie in the country’s crushing poverty and a dynamic all too familiar to Westerners, the scapegoating of immigrants. Time reports: "In November last year, the South African Institute of Race Relations estimated 4.2 million South Africans were living on $1 a day in 2005, up from 1.9 million in 1996, two years after the end of apartheid. Globalization was supposed to be the tide to lift all boats, but the evidence in South Africa suggests that millions of boats are not merely missing the tide, they’re in an entirely different ocean."
Criticism has been widespread about the lack of response by South African, not to mention Western, leaders. But there is an important, overlooked and–we can only pray–decisive tide of condemnation coming from that most global of sports, soccer. Soccer players in the African leagues often move from country to country in search of new challenges and better salaries. They are heroes on the continent, and many aren’t willing to be silent.
Gilbert Mushangazike, a star striker from Zimbabwe who plays for South Africa‘s Orlando Pirates, said recently, "We are heroes when we score goals but we are people’s enemies on the streets. Although I’m here legally, I’m so scared that I’m even afraid to walk on the streets or go visit my friends. This whole thing has affected me and many of my teammates. We are simply not taking this whole thing very well. We are all human beings and people must treat [us] with respect and dignity. There are many white foreigners out there but they are not attacked. It’s a good thing that I’m flying out to Zimbabwe for national team duty because I don’t know how I would survive, because I’m even scared to go shopping."
Forty-two-year-old South African football legend John "Shoes" Moshoeu, was born in Soweto, where much of the violence has taken place. He still plays midfield for AmZulu. "Our African brothers and sisters should be living in this country freely without being attacked," he said. "We should note that some of the illegal immigrants are in the country because of some corrupt officials at the Department of Home Affairs. Some of the police at the border gates are also corrupt and they let in these guys in exchange for money. The government should look at this issue holistically."
Musa Otieno, a Kenyan-born player for Santos Cape Town, cannot believe the devolution that surrounds him. "I have been in this country for eleven years and I have never seen such acts on foreigners. My family is in South Africa and I pray that this does not affect my children at school. What has been happening has painted a disturbing picture about South Africa. When we should be embracing each other as African brothers and sisters we are killing each other."
Despite the unquestionable cultural capital soccer players possess, there is a question over whether their message may fall on deaf ears. That’s because there is a greater concern that links these worlds of global soccer and provincial violence: the 2010 World Cup, for the first time staged on the African Continent and taking place in…you guessed it, South Africa.
Cities such as Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg will be the nexus for thousands of foreign fans and dignitaries. Meanwhile, the building of five new mega-stadiums would, according to some South African politicians, "clear the slums by 2010." Le Monde Diplomatique wrote in May about the World Cup preparations: "Construction–and corruption–is booming. But almost none of the building or the money can be accessed by the poor who live in shantytowns without proper water, sanitation or electricity." Housing prices in the twenty-first century have gone up 92 percent, while wages have risen a mere 8 percent. As slums are cleared, tensions will surely rise.
Phil "Chippa" Masinga, former Bafana Bafana forward and 2010 World Cup ambassador, has expressed the fear that the violence may scuttle the World Cup altogether. "Our action could come back to haunt us in 2009 and 2010 when we host the Confederation Cup and the World Cup. People from outside the country will not want to come and attend these tournaments to avoid possible attacks on them." Says former Bafana Bafana linkman Teboho "Tebza Ngwana" Moloi: "It is not good for us as Africans. We black South Africans were taught about the spirit of ubuntu when we grew up. The African brothers and sisters should be accommodative to each other."
Masinga may be correct, and the soccer stars are without question courageous in raising their voice against the senseless violence. But it sounds somewhat superficial to ask ubuntu from the poor, when the only ubuntu they see exists among South Africa‘s post-apartheid elite. It’s an elite that demands they silently accept the demolition of their communities for the good of both the country as well as the World Cup.
Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by emailing [email protected] Contact him at [email protected]. Comment on this article at www.edgeofsports.com