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SA Rugby president cites ‘security threats’ for ousting of Israeli team in Mzansi Challenge

SA Rugby president cites ‘security threats’ for ousting of Israeli team in Mzansi Challenge
Gabriel Ibitoye of Tel Aviv Heat (left) in action during the Rugby Europe Super Cup 2021 Eastern Conference match against Black Lion at Avchala Rugby Stadium in Tbilisi, Georgia. (Photo: Levan Verdzeuli / Getty Images)

Amid the backlash recently received for its invitation of Israeli team Tel Aviv Heat to the revamped Mzansi Challenge, SA Rugby president Mark Alexander says they had to prioritise safety and exclude the side.

According to SA Rugby president Mark Alexander, security threats are the main reason for the organisation opting to rescind its invitation of Israel’s rugby team Tel Aviv Heat to the Mzansi Challenge.

SA Rugby announced a week ago that it was injecting new life into domestic franchise rugby with the invitation of five international teams — the Diables (Spain), Simbas (Kenya), Welwitschias (Namibia), Tel Aviv Heat (Israel) and Goshawks (Zimbabwe) — to clash with the six local sides in the Currie Cup second tier — the First Division.

That segment of the competition has been renamed the Mzansi Challenge.

Days after the announcement, the mother body of South African rugby announced that it had withdrawn the invitation of Tel Aviv Heat to play in the tournament, following “representations from multiple stakeholders”.

There were also alleged death threats against members of SA Rugby.

“Sport, at its most [effective], is a vehicle for social cohesion. It unites and it should never divide… By law, in this country and the major events act, South Africa Rugby is responsible for the security of the tournament. Plus the safety and security of the players, management, coaches and the spectators,” SA Rugby president Mark Alexander told Daily Maverick on Monday.

“We would be wrong to host a tournament where there are threats of disruptions and unrest.  Real threats to the people involved.

“If we’d gone ahead [with Tel Aviv], we would have to put a major security plan in place. We’re not the state or anybody else who can do that. If we’d gone ahead that would have been tempting fate. We would have been ignoring a very real danger. We would have been placing the participants of this tournament under threat.

“We don’t want to hold events that divide us. Sport is the one thing that people hold on to in this country, to bring people together. If there is a threat of disruption and threats to the safety of people, we need to take those threats seriously.”

Opposing views

With South Africa’s divisive history in mind, the country is generally expected to sympathise with other countries that may experience similar circumstances.

This includes Palestine — which has been at odds with Israel as far back 1948 — in a conflict that had been sparked by clashes between Jews and Arabs, as early as 1920 in that region of the Middle East.

“It is incredulous [sic] that a post-apartheid South African rugby organisation chooses to invite a team from a settler colonial state that continues to occupy Palestinian land, and uphold a brutal system of apartheid against Palestinians,” read a statement from the South African arm of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) coalition — one of the Palestine solidarity organisations.

“SA Rugby claims it has transformed the rugby sporting code from the brutal and repressive days of the racist apartheid regime in South Africa. It has exposed itself as having done no such thing by inviting a team from a racist apartheid state.”

But there was anger from the other side: “The decision of South African Rugby to withdraw its Mzansi Challenge invitation to the Tel Aviv Heats is disgraceful and frankly embarrassing,” a statement from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies read.

“It is appalling that the governing body of SA rugby has caved in without a fight to those whose sole aim is to boycott Israel in every possible forum, even to the detriment of South Africa itself.

“Threats, bullying and intimidation have of course always been the modus operandi of the BDS movement and so it was in this case as well, with Saru members even reportedly receiving death threats. Such thuggish tactics are a direct attack not on how rugby is administered in South Africa, but on democracy itself. 

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“Instead of taking a firm, principled stand, however, Saru capitulated immediately. As if that was not bad enough, it has since sought to justify its stance by citing concerns over safety and security to players, spectators and all others concerned should Israel be allowed to participate. 

“Far from being any kind of “justification”, this simply hands an easy victory to those who shamelessly rely on threats to cause violent disruptions and on instilling fear into those whom they wish to cow into acceding to their demands.

“Having taken a decision that constitutes outright discrimination and by its very nature causes divisiveness and ill-feeling, Saru further makes the preposterous claim that it was acting in the interests of maintaining “social cohesion”.

“A few years ago, BDS conducted a virulent campaign aimed at preventing Miss SA, Lalela Mswane, from participating in the Miss Universe pageant in Israel.

“To her great credit, Lalela stood firm against these bully-boy tactics and went on to represent our country with honour and success. What a pity that in the face of similar pressure, SARU failed to display the same backbone.”

A statement from South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, whose leaders have ironically turned a blind eye to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said:

“We hope this decision will serve as a reminder to Israel that its illegal occupation of the Palestinian land is an injustice that should not be tolerated. The ANC continues to call on all progressive forces of the world to continue putting pressure on Israel to go back to a peaceful dialogue around the two states’ solution and ultimately end one of the most protracted conflicts in the Middle East.”

Rugby matters

According to Alexander, the most important thing in the furore is the sport of rugby and its role in South Africa.

“We’re not saying which group is correct, that is not the point. The point is ensuring that at whatever events we stage, the people participating are safe,” the SA Rugby leader told Daily Maverick.

“I must make sure that while rugby is played, it’s not a divisive sport. I must ensure that the people participating and enjoying it are safe. There are pressure groups from different angles, and threats on my life. It will happen and will continue happening. But as an organisation, we must act responsibly.”

The Mexican Rhinos have been earmarked to replace Israel’s Heat, pending approval from the organisation’s general council. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    Funny how the hypocrites at BDS have nothing to say about the wargames at sea or the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Just posturing and extremism at its best.

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