England's November and December 2004 cricket tour to Zimbabwe has been receiving extensive coverage in the British press. Last week nearly 60 000 words were printed on it in the London-based tabloids alone.
The whole matter has been a fiasco to say the least with particularly the South African and British governments flailing about the issues with no clear direction being given.
The South African government is deathly quiet. The British government is prevaricating about taking firm action. The various cricket authorities seem to be ducking the issue and pointing the finger at each other.
But, given the desperate situation in Zimbabwe, the time has come for some leadership on this matter at the highest governmental level.
The British government say they are opposed to the tour, given Zimbabwe's track record on human rights. But they claim that they risk being sued if they forcibly prevent it. They also say in a democratic country they cannot tell sports bodies what to do. They divert attention from their own dithering by blaming the International Cricket Board for not taking a moral stance by calling a halt to the tour and for threatening to impose stiff penalties on England if they fail to appear.
The South African government allegedly continues its so-called backdoor diplomacy with Zimbabwe, a strategy which is tantamount to implicit support.
The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has continually looked for a way out of the moral dilemma of playing in Zimbabwe given its dodgy human rights record. But they are yet to confront the issue head on.
For the World Cup match between Zimbabwe and England in 2003 they conveniently used the issue of team security as a way of abandoning the game. The Zimbabwean government almost gave the ECB another pretext for withdrawal this time round by banning a number of British journalists from entering the country.
But Mugabe is sharper than that. His government quickly overturned the ruling. Mugabe is a master of this sort of manipulation and the cricket is merely a helpful distraction for him from the real crisis in Zimbabwe.
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network estimates that 2,2-million rural Zimbabweans are in need of food aid. The security budget will increase from about US$16 million in 2004 to US$70-million in 2005. The economy is in freefall.
Human rights violations are undeniable. These are set to increase before the elections in 2005, especially because human rights groups will be prevented from monitoring such abuses under the Non-Government Organisation Bill. Given this and the general situation, cricket is a minor issue to most human rights organisations right now.
Mugabe is playing the world for a fool. He can get away with this because the South African and British governments who can do something decisive about the Zimbabwean situation both have their own reasons for not rocking the boat too much.
Mike Selvey, writing in the Guardian recently, noted that the inaction of the two governments at different moments in time is partly linked to other sporting events.
During the Cricket World Cup, South Africa, despite its power as host nation, did little to deal with the Zimbabwean question. This was because it feared losing Zimbabwe's and potentially other African nations' votes for its Soccer World Cup bid if it acted against Zimbabwe. With London's 2012 Olympic bid being launched recently, the British government is in a similar position.
Selvey concludes that for the South African and British governments the stakes attached to their various international sporting bids 'in financial and prestige terms' seems to be 'higher than a handful of morals'.
Given their colonial history in the region the British government also do not have a solid moral foundation to use as a platform for taking any resolute steps. They seem fearful of ongoing accusations by Mugabe of racism and of him dragging their exploits in Iraq into the mix.
The South African ANC government, on the other hand, seem to be wedded to the notion that they owe the Mugabe government something because of their support during the apartheid struggle. Who they really are indebted to, however, is not Mugabe but the Zimbabwean people who are better off without him.
But the reality is that the only way the British government is going to react decisively is if there is growing domestic and international pressure. This pressure should mount first from the Southern African region. Surely we would want to find a regional solution to the Zimbabwean situation, rather than relying on the British government to try and sort it out first?
The key to this is the ANC. If they begin to criticise Mugabe explicitly and robustly the floodgates could open. As a result, the domestic pressure on the British Government would become untenable, forcing them to get off the fence and take a firm stand supporting a boycott.
This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 3 December 2004 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.