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South African football club accused of 'sportswashing' after refusing to boycott Israeli team

The Orlando Pirates have been urged to honour their anti-apartheid credentials by boycotting Maccabi Tel Aviv
Orlando Pirates defender Thabiso Monyane (L) watches ball with Kaizer Chiefs forward Ashley du Preez during Premier League football match, on 29 October 2022 (AFP)
By MEE staff in Durban, South Africa

One of South Africa's most beloved football clubs will be engaging in "sportswashing", should they go ahead with a football match with an Israeli club later this week, says the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

On Monday, PACBI said the Soweto-based Orlando Pirates, known for its vehement stance against apartheid South Africa, had a moral obligation to withdraw from the fixture scheduled on 13 July against the Israel-based outfit, Maccabi Tel Aviv.

"Palestinians are not calling for charity but for the most basic form of solidarity, and that is to do no harm to our struggle for freedom, justice and equality," PACBI said in a statement. 

"Playing with a team representing apartheid Israel would normalize apartheid and sportswash it, and that would harm our struggle for a future without apartheid and settler-colonialism.

"Just as those who fought apartheid in South Africa expected international teams to heed the call from the oppressed South African majority not to play with representatives of that regime, Palestinians are asking Orlando Pirates not to play with Maccabi Tel Aviv," PACBI said.

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ANC 'concerned'

PACBI's statement came hours after the South African club, scheduled to play a series of pre-season friendlies later this week in Spain, rejected an earlier call by activists from the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) to withdraw from the fixture.  

The BDS movement is a nonviolent initiative that seeks to challenge Israel's occupation and abuses of Palestinian human rights through economic, cultural and academic boycotts similar to the successful boycott campaigns against apartheid South Africa.

The Buccaneers, as the team is widely known, said in a statement that they acknowledged the plight of Palestinians but said it was bound by "rules", which meant it had to proceed with the fixture. 

"There is no cultural boycott or boycott of any form by either the South African government, FIFA or the host country that Orlando Pirates can base its refusal to play against Maccabi Tel Aviv on.

"Heeding a call from any other body would create a conflict within Orlando Pirates that would undermine the club’s values and history irreparably," the statement read. 

PACBI's statement came as the ruling African National Congress (ANC) waded into the debate.

Nomvula Mokonyane, ANC deputy secretary general, said on Monday that the party was concerned about the fixture but added that it could not place pressure on the club at this stage.

"We have been in touch with Orlando Pirates and our comrades in Palestine."

"We note what has been a call from civil society calling Orlando Pirates not to play the match. We want to register an important discussion about a cultural boycott," Mokonyane said.

Mokonyane's comments were followed by a statement by the South African BDS Coalition, which said they appreciated the acknowledgment of the Palestinians' plight but also urged the club to reconsider.

"They should live up to their struggle history, once again defy rules that serve to 'sportswash' apartheid and refuse to play an apartheid Israeli team".

The Orlando Pirates did not immediately reply to Middle East Eye's request for comment.

'Break off diplomatic ties'

Earlier in July, the South African BDS Coalition called on the South African government to take decisive action at the UN, "calling for the reinstatement of the anti-apartheid mechanisms towards international sanctions and an arms embargo against apartheid Israel”.

“We further demand that our government declares the apartheid Israeli Ambassador in Pretoria persona non grata and breaks off diplomatic and all other relations," the coalition body said.

The South African government recalled its ambassador to Israel in 2018, following the killing of Palestinian protesters by Israeli forces during the Great March of Return in Gaza.

Earlier this year, South Africa's parliament voted to downgrade its ties with Israel.

After its fixture with Maccabi Tel Aviv, the Orlando Pirates is also scheduled to play Independiente del Valle from Ecuador (15 July) and UD Las Palmas from Spain (19 July).

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