Our Burning Planet


Blowing the whistle on sportswashing

Blowing the whistle on sportswashing
Composite image: Politicall Aweh

Love football but hate pollution? Then this episode is for you!

Comedians KG Mogadi and Céline Tshika dish up the facts with the punchlines whilst dissecting the dark underside of sports sponsorships and what companies such as Total Energies get out of sponsoring events like the African Cup of Nations (Afcon).

According to Benjamin Mole who has been researching sustainable system change with a focus on climate justice and southern African sport for his PhD:  “Sport is one of those things that is often considered as inherently good. … It’s also certain companies that think, wow, it would be amazing if we were attached to that..”

There is overwhelming agreement among scientists that extracting and burning fossil fuels, and products derived from them, are irreversibly threatening planetary systems. The fact that there is any “debate” on the issue of fossil fuel-driven climate change and environmental destruction is because powerful public relations firms help polluters create the illusion that there is something to debate about.

A hilarious satirical sketch written and starring Céline Tshika skewers a certain global public relations firm that has a known history of enabling fossil fuel industry deception. Fossil fuel companies can go to “Evilman PR” to have their reputations polished “faster than [their] pipeline leaks into critical water bodies.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Ambitious campaign rises to kick TotalEnergies out as a sponsor of Africa Cup of Nations

Sports stars like Siya Kolisi are being used to sell the impression that these companies care about their impact and are transitioning to renewables, yet the truth is far from that. The reality is that globally, the fossil fuel industry is investing only about 1% into clean energy. “That’s the amount of faith we had in Bafana before AFCON this year,” jokes KG but the jokes are on all of us if their polluting actions can just be washed away by co-opting the positives sport brings to the world.

One of the major narratives being spun is that “it’s Africa’s time” to benefit from fossil fuels.

Yet if you follow the money flowing from fossil fuel extraction, processing and distribution, little of it is improving the lives of people in impacted areas, rather than benefiting shareholders living comfortable lives on the other side of the world.

“We call it neocolonial extractivism because you can see the…  so-called development that they’re doing in the African continent is just primarily for their own profits and with total disregard for… the environmental and social impacts. … These are multi-billion dollar companies which… have an option to go in a different way. But they choose to lie to us and choose the most destructive and extractive way of…  so-called development in Africa,” explains Tracey Makheti, from Greenpeace Africa.

“They had their chance and they did it the wrong way. That’s why the whole climate change business started in the first place.”

The solutions are unpalatable, require sacrifice and maybe seeing things through a different lens. The amounts of money would test anyone’s ethical compass, and those who don’t toe the line when it comes to powerful sponsors are usually punished for acting on their principles. Amy Steel, a former player in the Australian netball side, The Diamonds, explains what can happen when athletes stand up to powerful but ethically compromised sponsors. “It was too difficult not to do something,” she shares, though the cost of playing without a logo was $15 million. For her, logos on sportswear should have a different purpose: “I have a little bit of a pipe dream where we would give that prime place of logo towards a certain organisation or charity who’s doing the type of good in the world that’s productive and values aligned.”

The first step to being able to push for change is lifting the veil on what’s going on. And in the words of conspiracy theorists the world over, doing our own research on the brands we just accept as being part of sport. Where do we draw the line when it comes to enabling industries that are knowingly causing existential threats? Is it worth a great game of football? Finding alternative sponsors to invest the same amount in sports is not going to be easy. This may seem like a mammoth task, but hey, if Bafana Bafana can reach the AFCON semi-finals, anything’s possible. DM

For more from Politically Aweh, subscribe to their YouTube channel, or follow on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok or X.

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