Tag Archives: class and race

Updates: Caster Semenya, Iranian girls’ team, and Grannies Grannies

When I come across additional information or small updates to a story I have been following, I typically add it at the bottom of the original post in an “update” box. The problem with this is that nobody gets a notification, so unless you’re a new (or obsessive) reader you’re not going to see it. I’m going to try something new today: a “roundup”.

Here’s what’s going on in my world:

1) Caster Semenya has (finally) been cleared to race “as a woman”.
You all know what I think about this (for those just joining us, go here), but I do want to add that the IAAF is not disclosing any details. Their statement was brief (or “terse”, according to Barry Petchesky, author of
Explaining The Caster Semenya Decision, Because The IAAF Won’t,” published on Deadspin), which makes a wrap-up difficult. Suffice to say that I still see this as a sad chapter, and one we will regret.

2) Iranian girls team may be banned from youth tournament… again.
You will remember that back in April 2010, FIFA banned the Iranian girls’ team from competing in the Youth Olympic Football Tournament based on the fact that the players were beholden by their religion to wear hijab (head scarves). Cue (righteous) outrage. By early May FIFA had about-faced and allowed the girls to play in a game-modified uniform.

A month passes.

Iran may not send its girls’ football team to the Youth Olympics in Singapore next month because of a dispute over the players’ Islamic attire, Iranian media reported on Thursday. The deputy head of Iran’s physical education department, Marzieh Akbarabadi, was quoted by newspapers, including Khabar Varzeshi, or Sport News, as saying the newly designed dress was “inappropriate.” [The uniform] was unveiled during a practice session on Wednesday, which Akbarabadi, who is in charge of all women’s sports in Iran, left in protest.
– Nasser Karimi, “Iran girls’ football team may miss Singapore event,” Associated Press (July 8, 2010)

You know what? I said this before and I say it again, and this time with feeling: Let them play! These girls are athletes. They’ve trained (despite mighty opposition) to become good enough to qualify, yet all around are powers-that-be lining up to play Daddy to them.

I am not qualified to comment on the rightness or wrongness of hijab, but I can tell you with utter certainty that these players should be accommodated. No person should be forced to cast aside one love (football) for another (one’s religion).

3) Grannies Grannies find a way
Way back on the first day of the World Cup I wrote about Vakhegula Vakhegula (Grannies Grannies), a South African soccer team comprised of women between the ages of 49 and 84. A month ago they were hoping to inspire South African president Jacob Zuma to provide the finances to send the team to compete at the Veteran’s Cup, a tournament for teams with players of 30 years and older that takes place in Lancaster, Massachusetts (Source: “For the Love of Soccer and a Lasting Sisterhood“, New York Times, June 6, 2010). Apparently Zuma left their exhibition game without seeing their victory (8-0, defeating the Waterfall Grannie Soccer team).

Yesterday Herbalife (Yes, that Herbalife) issued a press release:

Herbalife Ltd. has teamed up with the United States Adult Soccer Association…, the Massachusetts Adult State Soccer Association (MASS), the Veterans Cup committee… and the Lexpressas women’s soccer team to help the Vakhegula-Vakhegula soccer team come to America to compete in the annual Veteran’s Cup tournament this week.
– “Soccer Grannies to Compete in Veteran’s Cup,” Marketwatch, July 13, 2010

Apparently, in return the players will play in jerseys sporting the Herbalife logo. Zuma missed a brilliant opportunity. He could have been the dream-maker. It’s a shame but it’s his loss. Grannies Grannies found a way despite his indifference.

Who’s up for a road trip to Lancaster? I hear there’s some world-class soccer going on.


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“Playing soccer makes me feel like I am alive.”

Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has organized an alternative 5/side soccer tournament called HALFTIME!, which is designed to highlight the widening HIV/AIDS treatment funding gap that’s becoming evident across Africa.

Can you imagine the massive outcry if someone stopped the World Cup after the semi-finals? Or if the referee just allowed the final match to be played until halftime only? Yet right now the battle against the HIV/AIDS emergency is being stalled before half-time, risking the lives of 9 million people in need of treatment.
– Dr Gilles van Cutsem, MSF project coordinator in Khayelitsha, South Africa, from “HIV patients refuse to be sidelined by international community in unique football tournament,” published on MSF/DWB site.

Allow me to digress here for a moment. Did anyone watch yesterday’s match between Uruguay and Ghana? Because Ghana was the last African country to have a chance to advance, the game took on a significance way larger than the Cup. The press dubbed the Ghanaian team “Ba-Ghana Ba-Ghana”, a reference to the South African national team’s name “Bafana Bafana” (Zulu for “the boys”), and a tidy way of claiming Ghana for all of Africa. In an event steeped in symbolism (and tribalism), Ghana’s performance would “prove” something about Africa to the world.

At the end of 120 gutting minutes Ghana lost in penalty kicks.

I bring this up because I see a connection between the international response to HIV and AIDS in Africa and the goings-on at the Cup (and clearly, given the many alternative events and initiatives I’ve reported on in these pages, football is an effective language to address these issues).

Predictably, the Cup has shone a spotlight on Africa and has ignited some dialogue about non-football issues facing the continent. For example, the Ghana-Uruguay match was “dedicated to the global fight against racism”, and an anti-racism message was read aloud to the crowd by the team captains. Sure, that feels good, but is it meaningful?

What I am getting at is that piece of this story the rests on Africa’s ability (or not) to “prove” something about itself. The continent is beleaguered by AIDS/HIV, yet the international response is spotty, ineffective, and slow. That’s the issue that MSF/DWB’s HALFTIME! is highlighting. Racism is part of it (in the west, testing positive for HIV is no longer an automatic death sentence; why is it acceptable to see so many Africans die of AIDS?), and it’s gratifying to see this issue brought to the Cup, even if the delivery was stilted and tokenistic. But what happens when everybody goes home?

I think that’s the pressure placed on the Ghana team, cast as they were as “Africa’s hope”. There’s the sense that a win for Ghana would have meant a win for Africa, not only on the pitch but on the world stage.

MSF’s recently released report entitled “No time to quit: HIV/AIDS treatment gap widening in Africa” reveals, through analysis of eight sub-Saharan countries, how major international funding institutions such as PEPFAR, the World Bank, UNITAID, and donors to the Global Fund have decided to cap, reduce or withdraw their spending on HIV treatment and life-saving ARV drugs over the past year and a half.  “Only one in three people living with HIV in urgent need of ARVs have access to it –so we are not halfway there yet in treating everyone. The HIV/AIDS emergency is not over and halftime is no time to quit! Millions of people are at risk dying within the next few years if we don’t do more now to keep donors to their promises. They committed to it, publicly and they knew the treatment is life long,” says Dr. Van Cutsem.
– From “HIV patients refuse to be sidelined by international community in unique football tournament

Why is this acceptable? I believe that some of the answer lies in the subtext of how the world sees Africa. Let’s not forget that there are people behind these numbers.

Playing soccer makes me feel like I am alive. Before going on treatment people were actually counting down the days until my death. Now, with treatment, people see me as a person, and not as a corpse.
– Janet Mpalume, a Zimbabwean MSF patient playing in the HALFTIME! tournament, From “HIV patients refuse to be sidelined by international community in unique football tournament

It’s easy to get caught up in the drama of an international tournament like the World Cup, but let’s remember that while we are watching elite athletes create spectacle on the brand new pitches of South Africa, there are real people waging real wars against AIDS and HIV. And that the worth of a continent or a nation or a person has nothing to do with football.

Make a donation to Medecins san Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders here.

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The people’s game

So. Much. Soccer.

I’ve been like Homer Simpson, tongue lolling sloppily while I gorge myself on game after beautiful game. The World Cup comes only once every four years but makes up for its infrequency with an endless deluge of coverage. For 30 full days. Yum.

As if this weren’t enough, this past weekend I competed in the Toronto International Pride Cup (TIPC), the fourth annual soccer tournament presented by Downtown Soccer Toronto. My history with the league and this event goes way back and is enmeshed with my trip to Africa and the start of this blog. Those curious about how these things are connected could start with this post, and those familiar with the story may be interested to hear that I have again been bestowed with (someone else’s) MVP game ball and the instruction to take it to Africa… I love it when the universe is unmistakeable in its intentions for me.

So guess what? There’s another World Cup going in South Africa right now. According to the Sowetan, the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign has launched a 36-team tournament to highlight the plight of the province’s poor (“Poor’s World Cup keeps drugs at bay,” June 21, 2010). Now this is interesting.

The Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign “was formed on November 2000 with the aim of fighting evictions, water cut-offs and poor health services, obtaining free electricity, securing decent housing, and opposing police brutality”, and is an umbrella group for over 15 organizations. (Read more on their About page).

Remember waaaay back before the kick off on June 11? There were a few stories in the papers about FIFA’s stranglehold on every element of the Cup games, and one angle that generated a lot of commentary was the ban on all vendors save for its commercial partners.

Regulations imposed by football’s world governing body Fifa on host countries stipulate that no-one but its commercial partners be allowed trade or promote their products in the immediate vicinity of all World Cup sites.
– “South Africa World Cup ‘just for the rich’,” BBC News, May 10, 2010

So Coca-Cola gets an exclusive license and the ice cream vendor loses his business.

More perplexingly, FIFA also banned the distribution of condoms and health information at World Cup stadia (“AIDS groups protests FIFA ban policy,” The Associated Press, June 5, 2010). I wonder what commercial interests this policy is protecting?

There was press. There were protests.  And then June 11 came and we were all deafened by the Cup cannon (yes it’s an obscure G20 reference) which, incidentally, sounds exactly like tens of thousands of vuvuzelas.

Remember: I am a fan. But I think it’s a shame – a missed opportunity – that these voices have been effectively silenced. The ice cream vendor’s still faced with feeding his family, the rate of HIV and AIDS transmission in South Africa is still enormous.

Enter the Poor People’s World Cup. Thirty-six teams from communities across the Western Cape are competing in the tournament which has a grand prize of R5000 (approximately $650 CDN).

[W]hile the poor people in Cape Town and in South Africa as a whole are suffering, the rich are enjoying themselves in the expensive stadiums at the expenses of the poor… All the traders and communities – that were negatively affected by FIFA related urban renewal projects and by the implemented by-laws – were invited to this tournament: a tournament that is FREE and open to everybody.
– “The First Poor People’s World Cup on African Soil,” from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign site.

The Poor People’s World Cup: yet another example of people using the people’s game to stage a response to a social problem.

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The highest profile victim so far

The BBC delivers a typically-restrained and well-edited story on the The Chosen Few lesbian football team out of South Africa. It’s only 2 minutes, 11 seconds and does a good job of presenting a snapshot of the dangers (violence, rape, and murder) that black lesbians face in the townships in South Africa.

Naturally, the story touches on the rape, torture and murder of Eudy Similane, the voice over revealing a sense of hopelessness to the situation:

“The highest profile victim so far [emphasis added], Eudy Similane, a star player on the national women’s team…”

I am glad that the World Cup is bringing these issues to light, but I am eager to see a real response mounted. ESPN, the BBC, and countless bloggers (among others) have reported the story – let’s see something of substance come out of the coverage to begin protecting these women.

Watch the BBC piece here. Read my original post on The Chosen Few here.

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World Cup 2010: South Africa needs this, now

Ticket sales for the World Cup have been sluggish. For the past several weeks there have been stories cropping up here and there reporting on organizer concerns about empty seats (read: lost revenue) and the possible causes and implications of the situation.

So why have ticket sales been slow for this world class sporting event?

Tickets were initially only available online so purchasers had to use a credit card.
This sales strategy may have suited international fans from Europe and the west just fine, but does not take into account some of the poorer local fans who may not have credit – or access to a computer. It’s a pretty massive oversight, and one that organizers should have planned for way earlier in the sales cycle.

Last Thursday, in the face of a half a million unsold tickets, FIFA opened up over-the-counter sales. As of Friday,  29 of the 64 matches were sold out according to FIFA. Looks like locals may have a seat in the stadium after all, but out of necessity rather than thoughtful planning.

Travel costs (like flights) to South Africa are high, making World Cup 2010 an unattainable pilgrimmage to any but the most dedicated and flush soccer fan.
South Africa is far away and expensive to get to. The Associated Press reported on Friday that fewer than 350,000 people are expected to make the trip. Initial estimates were for 450,000 visitors.

Europeans aren’t buying into the trip in the numbers expected – and their flight time is a mere 10 or 11 hours. Canadians and Americans are looking at journeys that span 2 travel days plus recovery time. For us, a trip to the World Cup is likely our only holiday for the year.

Safety concerns. Soccer/football is alchemy, but what will be created at this Cup? Africa has never hosted the event, and South Africa’s apartheid past hangs over the festivities.
It would be nice to think that the World Cup games will result in white cops hoisting black children clutching cups of Coke above their heads in brotherly triumph (for those who haven’t seen Invictus, it was, um… uneven). But the yin (unifying power of sport) has a yang (think soccer hoooligans), and South Africa is in turmoil. The thing is, it’s difficult to get an accurate reading of what is going on because the mainstream press doesn’t seem to be reporting on it much.

Make no mistake, though: big stuff is going down. According to an article titled “ANC orders ‘Kill the Boer’ ban” from April 7 in the Telegraph, an estimated 3,000 white farmers have been murdered since the end of apartheid in 1994. Wait a minute. ‘Kill the Boer’? What’s all this about?

African National Congress youth  leader Julius Malema has been criticised for singing an apartheid-era song that includes the lyrics “Kill the Boer”. ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe and President Jacob Zuma “spoke with” Malema and told him to stop singing the song. ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu was quoted in the press “defending” Malema and asking for contextualisation of the song. Reuters Africa ran the story under the headline, “South Africa’s ANC defends ‘Kill the boer’ song“.

All of this is happening in the wake of the murder of Eugene Terre’Blanche, historically a leader in South Africa’s Herstigte Nasionale Party van Suid-Afrikaa (a right-wing group that sought racial segregration, and adoption of Afrikaans as the only offical language of South Africa), and more recently a leader in the Afrikaner Resistance Movement. On April 3, 2010, Terre’Blanche was hacked and beaten to death at his farm, allegedly by two black workers.

No 1000-word article is going to get at the heart of an issue so entangled and inflammatory. If you’re interested in this issue, check out the print press, but don’t neglect to listen to the CBC podcast on racial tension in South Africa, originally aired April 12, 2010. It does a pretty good job of explaining the context of these events, and offers a more detailed picture of the racial divide that appears to be reopening in the political and social landscape of modern South Africa.

I find the politics of apartheid bewildering, but I come from Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. During my time in South Africa my mind was repeatedly blown by the evidence and consequences of the country’s apartheid past. Rare was a conversation that did not find its way to race. The cultural consciousness is shaped by apartheid still, and these current events would indicate that peace is a long way off.

It will be a shame if the World Cup does not reach its audience because of these issues.
Soccer/football is enjoyed all across Africa, with teams from no less than 20 African countries competing this summer. The opportunity to celebrate the sport in South Africa makes sense. Though I don’t expect the beautiful game to unify a country divided, there are opportunities here for pride, respect, and camaraderie. South Africa needs this, now.

I spent my last few hours in South Africa in the company of a new Afrikaner friend who did me the great favour of giving me Knowledge in the Blood: Confronting Race and the Apartheid Past before I boarded the plane. Written by Jonathan Jansen, the first black Dean of Education at the University of Pretoria, the book is highly personal and meticulously-researched and -written. From the back cover:  “How is it that young Afrikaners, born at the time of Mandela’s release from prison, hold firm views about a past they never lived, rigid ideas about black people, and fatalistic thoughts abut the future?” By examining his personal experience at UP, Jansen provides insight into this snarled issue, and examines the impact felt in country and beyond South Africa’s borders. Recommended.

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The saddest circus in the world

Some of you might be familiar with the story of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, the two men arrested and charged with “unnatural practices between males and gross public indecency” after they had a traditional engagement ceremony in Blantyre’s Chirimba township in Malawi, in December of 2009. Since their arrest they have been held separately in a maximum security prison, they’ve been asked to take a “test” to prove whether they had sexual relations, and they’ve been denied bail “for their own safety”.

The case has drawn international attention for its human rights implications, and because it is a very real example of the prevailing homophobic attitudes in much of Africa – attitudes that must shift in order to implement effective policy changes to meet the challenges of AIDS and HIV transmission on the continent. In this concise article posted in January on the Amnesty International site, the friction between policy and practice is made clear:

In the formulation of Malawi’s National AIDS Strategy in 2009, the Malawi government consulted widely, including with MSM [Ed. note: men who have sex with men], on ways of combating the spread of HIV in Malawi. In September, the government publicly acknowledged the need to include MSM in its HIV/AIDS strategy.

– From “Malawi: Amnesty calls for unconditional release of gay couple,” posted to amnesty.org.uk

On Friday, March 12, almost three full months since Monjeza and Chimbalanga were arrested, the Washington Post published “In Africa, a step backward on human rights,”  an opinion piece by Nobel Peace Prize laureate archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In my country of South Africa, we struggled for years against the evil system of apartheid that divided human beings, children of the same God, by racial classification and then denied many of them fundamental human rights. We knew this was wrong. Thankfully, the world supported us in our struggle for freedom and dignity. It is time to stand up against another wrong.

– excerpted from “In Africa, a step backward on human rights” by Desmond Tutu

In the piece, Tutu broadens the discussion to include not only the case of Monjeza and Chimbalanga in Malawi, but also the consideration of discriminatory legislation in Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda. And, like the Amnesty International author, Tutu exposes a link between homophobia and the struggle to find an effective response to AIDS and HIV on the continent.

Our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters across Africa are living in fear. And they are living in hiding — away from care, away from the protection the state should offer to every citizen and away from health care in the AIDS era, when all of us, especially Africans, need access to essential HIV services.

– excerpted from “In Africa, a step backward on human rights” by Desmond Tutu

When Craig drove me through Mdantsane Village way back in September 2009 I was puzzled by the presence of a massive tattered tent at the side of the road. The wind pushed against the torn grey fabric and I could hear a soft, forlorn whistling as it jettied through the holes. I turned to Craig and wise-cracked, “What’s that!? The tent from The Saddest Circus in the World?”  To my horror and embarrassment he explained that these were funeral tents, and that here in the Village people were dying in such numbers and with such regularity that sometimes they didn’t even bother to take the tents down.

I’ve been back in Canada for five months. Necessarily, my work with this blog has shifted focus. I have enjoyed concrete success in finding grassroots ways to make positive differences through soccer, and my sense of achievement has been profound. But when I think about the immense challenges facing gay and lesbian and transgendered people in Africa, and the numbers of people dying from HIV and AIDS – and the way those things are connected – I think that indeed, this is the saddest circus in the world.

And except for adding my voice to the protest, I’ve no idea how to help. There are some things, it would seem, that a soccer ball just can’t fix.

Related Facebook groups:

Statement by African Civil Society on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda
Protest Jon Qwelane’s Appointment As SA Ambassador to Uganda!
Free Malawians Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga
The Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation


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Aaaaaand scene…

…sort of.

Part of the challenge of this project was that I tried to write it in real time. While I was away, this meant that I took every second or third day to report on recent events, to catch you all up. And since I got back I have been writing “from Africa”, until the most recent post which closed the narrative part of the story.

Because of the way I took on the project, certain elements never found their way into the writing. My self-imposed deadlines required brevity and clarity, and some themes take their own sweet time to mellow into something understandable or interesting. So now I am back in Toronto, both in real- and blog-time, and I want to tease out some of those ideas. I hope you enjoy the autopsy, and I also hope that you will take the time to give me some input.

Yeah, you heard that right: I want input from you. Don’t think I didn’t obsess over my readership stats every single day – I know you’re out there: hundreds and hundreds of readers hitting my blog thousands of times. And though I heard from many of you both in the post comments and through direct email, I want more. What do you want to read more about? You can tell me. After all, I did take you to Africa.

And I was glad to have you there. No matter what the day held (usually puff adders, but sometimes more nebulous terrors like loneliness or self-doubt), coming back to my laptop to read your comments became a source of comfort… mostly. This kind of writing – so immediate, so personal – feels like running around naked. Online. With your parents watching. When one or more of you would take the time to respond I would feel light, the elation carrying me from room to room of the Kennaway. But there were times when I would post… and nothing would happen. These times were stormier.

After a while I began to pay attention to what kinds of posts elicited responses and which were swallowed by the void. You guys sure do like pictures! I could post about nothing at all (Ghost Pops) but you’d still visit for the pictures. And I noticed something else: the posts on race and class were widely read, but not widely commented on. At first I was irritated by this. Here I was tackling a terrifically complex and charged topic (and I must be honest – every time I would post on race I would be assaulted by anxiety), and you all just sat back and listened. But you didn’t, not really. I realized that these posts drew private responses. When I wrote about race I received many thoughtful, complex, and touching direct mails, so thank you.

Thank you, in fact, for all your input: the critical, the encouraging, and the downright odd. It was always appreciated. It helped me come to a very basic realization about myself: I am a writer, and like all writers I crave an audience.

I have a quote taped to my bathroom mirror. It was torn from a book of essays, author unknown, and it reads, “Writers are like those screamers who yell at you in the street, shouting the same phrases, the same words again and again and again, convinced that someone will stop and reply if they can only just get it right.” That you took the time to stop and reply made me feel like finally, I’d got it right.


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