Football reducing cultural violence

With all eyes on the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, there are some equally important football matches that barely ever come to light being played in the shadow of the televised games. Initiated by two organisations, the Damietta Peace Initiative and Caritas, with sponsorship from the South African Bishops Conference, the Peace Cup is an eight-week long football tournament taking place in the townships of Atteridgeville, on the west side of Pretoria.

Sixteen teams from fifteen different countries are competing, made up of local national and non-national South Africans along with visiting football fans who want to play in a challenging game.  There is no outright winner and yet everyone participates to teach and learn from each other.  A number of people the wealthy areas of Pretoria are also taking part, many of whom have never visited the townships before.

Antoine Soubrier, the tournament organizer, sees that divisions and tensions between groupings in this country can be diffused by sport. “Since we started this Peace Cup a few weeks ago,” says Soubrier, “many of the locals, who are the poorest of the poor, are saying how proud they are of this initiative as they have heard about the FIFA World Cup but have absolutely no way of engaging with it.  These people live with no running water, no sanitation and no electricity. There are no televisions for several miles, and so, along with having no money, these people are totally excluded and benefit nothing from the glitz of what is happening, even though many matches are taking place at a stadium ten miles away in Pretoria.

“There are rumours locally that say ‘wait until the xenophobia sets in after the World Cup’. What we are trying to do here is to bring together people from different countries who are in the townships, both South African nationals and non-nationals, all of whom have a lot they are not happy with, to build peace relationships that we hope will last beyond the end of the World Cup so that outbreaks of violence in these areas will not be as rife.”

The Damietta Peace Initiative uses sport as an uncomplicated method of helping different cultures recognise their common humanity out of which respect and friendship can grow. “We have been preparing for this event for over a year and have been creating integrated peace groups” said Damietta field worker, Martin Mande.  “We use soccer as a platform to build peace relationships between South Africans and non-South Africans.  We had initially expected there to be three groups in this tournament, but interest has grown more rapidly than we had expected.”

Fr Bertrand Cherrier of Toulouse, travelling around South Africa with a group of socially excluded French teenagers, sees the benefits of bringing such young men to compete in a tournament of this kind.

He said: “Not only are the local people here truly delighted to meet these young men, but they too get to see how significantly more difficult life can be for other people.  Here they have something worthy to share which others are appreciative of.
"Even though the team is made up of made up of Christians, Muslims and those from no particular faith group, there is a growing sense of understanding for, and unity with, one another.  Sport achieves this in a way few other things can.”

Sr Aine Hughes HC of Caritas, who is a permanent fixture on the side of the pitch, is clear that “it is not only about bringing groups together but also getting them to reflect on the experience, and particularly on their own story. What happens when they do this is that they come to realize that their stories are all the same. They see that they have the same issues and need to work together in a non-violent way, leading them to become a leaven in their own communities.  We have found that working in this way with small groups has a greater effect on the larger community.

“One of the things we are hoping will come out of this is that the local communities will begin to initiate projects together. Since the first football game, the locals have as a community taken it upon themselves to enlarge the dirt pitch and to tidy it up a bit. We hope that seeds are being sown to bring about communities built on peace, diversity and care.  The first xenophobia between South Africans and non-nationals began here in Atteridgeville so that was another reason why we chose to have the Peace Cup here.”

“Foremost in our minds at the moment is that there are lots of threats going around that, as soon as the World Cup is over, the non-nationals will be put out of the country.  These threats are being taken seriously by Caritas and we are working on creating a campaign to prevent another bloodbath such as happened in 2008 when approx 100,000 people were displaced during xenophobic riots.

“Caritas are seeking to get people thinking positively about other people. Xenophobia is rife in South Africa where South African nationals are happy to welcome the rest of the world but not their fellow Africans.  Caritas’s work is about teaching people to be proud of being African and getting them to realise that “I am Africa”.”

James Parker, the UK’s Catholic Executive Coordinator for the 2012 Games, has been present in Atteridgeville to witness a number of the Peace Cup matches. He said:  “The spirit of friendship and genuine respect is equally as tangible here among the township and visitor games as it is where the international games are taking place.  It is clear that football, and sport in general, is a most powerful mechanism that can be used by the Church, and those of other and no faiths, to break down prejudicial boundaries and bring about peace.”

Both the Spanish and Argentinean ambassadors have expressed an interest in attending future Peace Cup matches, which will continue for up to three weeks after the FIFA World Cup has finished.


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