Nelson Mandela has served as an inspiration to peacebuilders across the world, including in ZImbabwe. Image credit: Ted Eytan. Nelson Mandela has served as an inspiration for peacebuilders across the world, including in ZImbabwe. Image credit: Ted Eytan.

"Sport has the power to change the world"
On the night of the inaugural Laureus World Sports Awards in Monaco in May 2000,

Nelson Mandela spoke a simple, eight-word phrase that has since been quoted time and again by world leaders and sports enthusiasts alike: “Sport has the power to change the world.”

The South African president, a former amateur boxer who was the catalyst for his country’s historic win at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, continued, saying that sport “has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”

Standing across a coffee table, sharing tea with South Africa’s white captain Francois Pienaar prior to the tournament, Mandela experienced the power of sport intimately. He created a pact that would transform Pienaar’s life and help begin the process of racial healing in South Africa.

Across the border in neighbouring Zimbabwe, there are also athletes and sports fans who hold tight to Mandela’s words, and believe that even more than scoring goals, lifting trophies, and packing stadiums, sport can be used as a vital tool to promote peace and foster development.

At the Center for Sport, Peace & Society, we have had the pleasure to work with two Zimbabwean women, Grace Chirumanzu and Belia Zibowa, alumnae of the US State Department and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, who work every day to make this vision a reality.

Chirumanzu, one of few female sports reporters in Zimbabwe, started All Women in Sports Media — Zimbabwe, a mentorship program for aspiring female journalists. Zibowa, a former basketball player and coach, plans to launch a holistic basketball program called Now More Than Ever in late 2015.

The situation in Zimbabwe

The economic system has found most people struggling to make ends meet
“In Zimbabwe, the [declining] economic system has found most people struggling to make ends meet,” Chirumanzu said in a recent interview.

“People try to buy and sell anything they can to find profit. Companies are failing to sustain the salaries of those who are employed full-time. [These] stressful situations have cascaded into domestic violence, with women and girls on the receiving end.”

Despite gender equality amendments in Zimbabwe’s new constitution, approved in 2013, a recent report from the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency found that a significant number of citizens — 24 percent of men, and, surprisingly, 37 percent of women — still approve of domestic violence as a means of dealing with “errant wives.” And, since an upturn in the country’s fortunes after the financial collapse in 2009, the current economic situation looks bleak, with mineral prices falling and minimal foreign investment into the country.

On top of gender and financial issues, Chirumanzu said tribal conflicts that have long been veiled by the country’s independence, like the longstanding struggle between many Ndebele and Shona people, also continue to affect Zimbabwe.

“These [tribal conflicts] have been given a blind eye and sometimes resurface in forms of violence at sports grounds,” Chirumanzu said.

As recently as March 2015, a football match between Highlanders and Caps United had to be temporarily halted after fans threw missiles onto the field, and then erupted in post-match skirmishes that left at least one fan seriously injured.

The power of sport

Funding sport may be a challenge, but it is not impossible
Chirumanzu believes that sport, if used in the ways that she and Zibowa aim to use it, can help eradicate these problems. Inherently, Zimbabwe’s popular team sports—football, rugby union, cricket and basketball—focus on the importance of teamwork, concentration, determination and discipline in order to be successful on and off the field.

“Sporting projects [can also] provide women a place to find a platform for sisterhood support,” Chirumanzu said. “Sports can work as therapy to women and girls, and since most sports are goal oriented, winning will teach them they can achieve something in life.”

“Losing also can help them learn from their mistakes. It is their place to cool off from the pressures of managing the home.”

Funding sport, especially for women, may be a challenge with the current economic scenario, but it is not impossible. As a result of their participation in the GSMP, Chirumanzu and Zibowa were able to build strong support networks in the US, including their host mentoring organizations, ESPN and the WNBA, respectively. Both women are also able to apply for follow-on grants from the US State Department.

A lot can be said about the power of sport to change the world, and some of it may ring hollow. In the case of Mandela, and our two Zimbabwean partners, the belief in sport is deep and should reap success that will stretch from Harare to Bulawayo and throughout the rest of their country.

[more_info_box] Peace Direct will soon be launching a new section on Zimbabwe, with updates and profiles of local peacebuilding work in the country. Check back to find out more.