The Healing Power of Soccer

Cape Town, South Africa

The pitch in De Noon was uneven. The sparse patches of grass were like divots on the pot-holed sand. In the distance, behind the patchwork of houses and industrial buildings, Cape Town’s Table Mountain melted into the horizon.

A group of young men filed out of a minibus on to the pitch. Their shirts were baggy and shorts drooping. I’m sure it seemed like any other mid-afternoon match. But it wasn’t an ordinary game.

After a couple years of brewing tensions between native South Africans and foreign nationals in the area, these young men were probably the least likely contenders here for a friendly.

The young men came from countries across the African continent – Mozambique, Zimbabwe, the Congos – to name a few. Most of them arrived here as refugees, fleeing the political turmoil or aftermath of longstanding wars in their homelands.

South Africa is the number one destination for asylum seekers in the world, according to a 2009 report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). And although most refugees are just looking to re-start their lives, some South African blame foreigners (legal and illegal) for increased crime in their neighbourhoods and stealing local business opportunities.

As a result, most of these young soccer players have experienced xenophobia – a dislike or fear of foreigners — over the last couple years. The worst of it came in May 2008. And this area, De Noon, was the epicentre of the attacks in the region.

These foreign soccer players are trying to change that. The team, called Refugee VI, after the six nations that account for most of the refugee children in the country — Mozambique, Uganda, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Somalia, plays games in the townships around Cape Town that have been xenophobia hotspots. You can see my photo essay of the game here.

Game time

Before the game, both teams gathered at the centre circle. Ephraim Ntlamo, the refugee from Zimbabwe who conceived of the project, took the stage. He’s thin and dark and looks younger than his 18 years.

“What I want to say is that, guys, everybody probably knows about xenophobia,” Ephraim said. “Most of us are from other African countries. So we are here to socialize and get the time to chat with each other and to understand each other.”

With that short intro, there were handshakes all around, and the game began. It was an average match – with a few solid plays resulting in a score of 3-1 for the De Noon side.

On the sidelines, residents passed around the colourful pamphlets about xenophobia that were distributed by the team. The onlookers read them diligently – working their marginal English.

The World Cup and xenophobia

 There were a lot of expectations in South Africa about what the World Cup would bring to the average person. There were hopes for jobs, a way to get ahead, which probably helped quell the violence against foreigners in areas of intense competition for resources like De Noon.

But those hopes soon faded away as the World Cup drew near. With limits on vendors working within any proximity of the stadiums, South Africans realized that the big bucks, like they always do, would remain in the hands of those with plenty.

“I like the World Cup, everybody likes the World Cup, but it’s not benefitting the people,” said Andile Tsbongolo, a local boxing coach, on the sidelines of the Refugee VI game. “People expected that they would get something, like a job, but now, it’s still the same — no job.”

People are disappointed, said Tsbongolo, but he doesn’t think the attacks will restart. “[There won’t be an attack] in De Noon because the police is every day here and the people are only going to rob Somalis, only Somalis,” he said. “Like xenophobia, no. I’m not sure.”

I don’t correct him.

The hope of Ghana

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