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Orlando Pirates was once known as the People’s Team and, in later years, the Happy People. Today I can safely say they are neither. No one who values freedom and democracy is happy with their decision to play in a match dubbed an international friendly against Maccabi Tel Aviv. It is a stab in the back of the cause of justice and liberation for Palestinians. The BDS has been clear from the start that there is nothing friendly about playing with those who kill, maim, dispossess, occupy, imprison and demolish homes of Palestinians with impunity.

In terms of football competition and Pirates’ preparation for the new season, the unfriendly match is of no real significance. It doesn’t even feature among football fans in Spain where it is being played. It’s significance is what is does for Israel and its state propaganda machine. Israel is clear about what it wants – to end the boycott and isolation of racist Israel. So, why would a team like Pirates permit itself to be caught up with such sportswashing and normalisation of a regime that is truly a global pariah state for those that value freedom, democracy and peace? Is it all about the money?

While the Christian Zionists (ACDP) have come out in support of Pirates, civil society groups from the unions to political parties have been united in their condemnation.

Orlando Pirates has the second biggest social media following in the country. Picture by Thabang “Sjukie”Lepule/Orlando Pirates Football Club

To get behind the thinking of Orlando Pirates chairperson, Irvin Khoza, presumably the strategist behind their position, let us visit the club’s official statement. Strangely, the statement relies on their history in resistance in SA, their support for a just peace in Palestine, and finally comments on the rule of law that they have to abide by (Safa, Fifa, RSA etc.). Under the heading, “The Plight of the Palestinians”, they assert that “as a club that has its roots in a conflict-ridden South Africa and has been an active participant in the dismantling of apartheid, Orlando Pirates is naturally conscious of the plight of the Palestinian people”.

It follows that they do not have to be told of the UN resolutions condemning the state of Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. They do not have to be told by the Gazan/South African, Haidar Eid in his open letter that he is living under a siege that has “inevitable consequences for our lives including that of our sports persons. We suffer shortages of all kinds due to the 16-year long illegal and genocidal siege imposed on the people of Gaza by the Zionist state. This collective punishment is in complete violation of article 33 of the Geneva Conventions and international human rights law”. 

A United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Francesca Albanese has accused Israel of having transformed the occupied territories of Palestine into an “open-air prison” by detaining Palestinians en masse.

They do not have to be told about the killing of a talented footballer, 23-year-old Ahmed Daraghma, who was murdered six months ago. His dream was to play for Palestine, and he hoped to jump the many checkpoints and hurdles to do so, but it was not to be. Ahmed was an attacking midfielder for the West Bank premier league club, Thaqafi Tulkarm.

According to news reports that quoted his coach Mahmoud Daraghma, it was a day where the people as usual were defending their home and area of Nablus after the settlers – with the army as support – invaded their city.  “As usual, the people of Nablus were defending the area,” Sayyaj said, in reference to the armed confrontations that often take place as a result of Israeli settlers using the army’s protection to invade and takeover Palestinian homes, villages and towns. The inhumanity to a fellow footballer is worth quoting Middle East Eye in full: “First, he got shot in the foot. Then, when he tried to escape, the soldiers shot him another three times in the back. They killed him on purpose; this was not self-defence,” he added. “And after they shot him, the Israelis would not let the paramedics treat him.” During the confrontation, Israeli soldiers used live ammunition, rubber-coated bullets and teargas, wounding 24 Palestinians, Wafa reported.

Pirates clearly do not have to be told because they know that Gaza has a national team of amputees, thanks to the violence and destruction meted out on the regular incursions against the people of Gaza. The team of 20 players, all from Gaza, is both sad and a mark of resilience of the Palestinians. The documentary and the write up by Al Jazeera tells the story of Ibrahim Madi (30) who recalls “the darkest days of his life” after a bullet fired by Israeli soldiers hit his leg in 2018 during a border demonstration in Gaza. “I spent 11 days in unbearable pain in hospital,” he recounted. “Doctors then decided to amputate my leg.” The amputation severely affected Madi’s life until he learned about the amputees’ football team.

The Palestine Amputee Football Association national squad consists of young Palestinians who lost their limbs, either in previous wars with Israel or in accidents. Photo from World Amputee Football Federation

The final point in the Pirates statement is rule of law. They lament that there is no international call to boycott Israel, and our government has not called on them to do so, blah blah blah. That the ruling party has not asked them not to play is not enough.

Orlando Pirates and the politics of SA’s liberation

Almost 38 years ago, there was a rebel international football team that came to our shores. Our Soweto teams and political leaders organised against it. This tour, like the rebel cricket tours, was paid for by big companies and the Apartheid government and in this case, SA Breweries. But people’s power prevailed. There is not much recorded information about it, but there is sufficient in our minds and hearts about that day. 

Another political footballing anecdote that should please die-hard anti-racist Pirates fans; researcher Peter Alegi writes about how match revenues have supported the struggle for liberation. The often quoted example involves that of Patson Banda, the Pirates goalkeeper. It is reported that he remembers a game that “was played across the border in Zimbabwe in front of more than 100,000 paying fans. The ANC received the proceeds collected at the gate.”

This contradicts their current overall assertion that they are fully committed to justice and assisted in the liberation of South Africa but not wanting to break laws and rules of the football establishment. Maybe we have to inform the leader/s of Orlando Pirates about our history of struggle. Two weeks ago was Freedom Day on 26 June. In 1952 it was the day the ANC and its allies adopted the Freedom Charter and launched the defiance campaign and thereafter, large-scale national non-cooperation to target unjust laws enacted by the South African government.

On Human Rights Day in March, the club produced a poster about human rights with the prominent inclusion of a banner calling for the boycott of Apartheid sport. Photo from OPC facebook page.

Apartheid was originally made in South Africa and Pirates say it helped to destroy it. Why can they not see it elsewhere and heed the call of Palestinians who have called on our support to assist? It is well-known that Israeli Apartheid is worse and more gruesome than what we endured, with its essential features of greed, dispossession, racial hatred, regular killings and abuse of Palestinians, dispossession of land and homes, and where Palestinians, as described by Special UN rapporteur on Human Rights, Francesca Albanese, live in an open-air prison. Ultimately it amounts to the genocide of the Palestinian people.

It is time for football clubs, Safa and Fifa to realise that footballers are humans first and that players and fans all over the world all have human rights. Fifa proclaims widely to the world its campaign against racism, yet racism in its most gruesome and horrific form thrives in Israel and against colonised native Palestinians. Fifa, Safa and Orlando Pirates FC are complicit in it as they choose to enable Israel’s Apartheid regime to normalise itself.

The people of the world need to force Fifa and Safa to adopt the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign and expel Israel. Other sport codes and in all spheres of life must do the same. Not to heed the BDS call is to support Israel’s apartheid regime.

Hassen Lorgat is a veteran activist and campaigner with experience in SA’s trade union movement, community organisations, alternative media and international solidarity for oppressed people.