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.”