In the summer of 2010, South Africa will host the first-ever World Cup in Africa. The opening ceremony and all of its festivities ought to be a moment of pride for the continent and the international community, but the conditions in neighboring Zimbabwe ought to weigh on the world’s conscience.

The South African government will do its best to keep focus on the soccer spectacle, understandably so: What is going on in Zimbabwe is reprehensible and much of the responsibility lies at the feet of the South African government. But the rest of the world is not immune to criticism, as well. When the atrocities and injustices committed by the Zimbabwean government rightly led to its downfall, we should look back with shame.

Don’t get me wrong; the lack of reaction is, sadly, not too surprising. The genocide in Rwanda occurred 15 years ago, and both Sudan and Somalia are in the throes of similar civil wars and chaos as we speak.

But the reason Zimbabwe stands as perhaps an even greater tragedy lies in the extent of its fall. Before Robert Mugabe became president, Zimbabwe was regarded as the “breadbasket of Africa.” Now, the average life expectancy for men is 46 years; for women, it’s 45. Currently, 1.8 million Zimbabweans live with HIV-positive.

There are many developing countries with similarly appalling numbers, but the United States and western Europe have been far from unified in taking concrete action to condemn Mugabe and in putting pressure on South Africa to do something about it. South Africa, for its own sake, must begin by condemning Mugabe’s regime and recognizing the human rights abuses that have resulted from his leadership, or lack thereof.

A cholera outbreak and hyperinflation (Zimbabwe’s monthly rate of inflation before the currency’s revaluation in February 2009 was 79 billion percent; the Zimbabwean dollar is dead and buried) have led to massive legal and illegal immigration into South Africa. Some have identified this mass migration as the largest in Africa from a country not at war. Although there are no reliable exact figures on illegal migrants, it is estimated that 3.4 million Zimbabweans, or nearly a quarter of the population, have fled their country. In 2007, the South African government deported 165,000 illegal immigrants in an attempt to lessen the pressure they have placed on South African society.

South Africa’s official compliant stance with Zimbabwe’s government magnifies the struggles facing Zimbabwean immigrants. Since the South African government has not officially recognized the human rights abuses of Mugabe’s regime, those seeking refugee status face a long, drawn-out, bureaucratic process and the omnipresence of the *gumagumas*, who pose the greatest threats to the refugees. These criminals operate as thieves and rapists for those who travel through the bush.

President Obama can make a difference in the matter. For better or for worse, he possesses greater credibility with regard to African affairs than his predecessor did. While President Bush had a noteworthy record of donating American aid to the Mother Continent, Obama has the upper hand.

As he put it to the audience in Accra, Ghana, during his first speech as U.S. President in Africa, “I have the blood of Africa within me, and my family’s own story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story.”

Obama ought to be forceful on this issue as we approach the 2010 World Cup by pressuring South Africa even more than he already has. He needs to deliver stronger statements of condemnation, provide support to regional neighbors who take a stance against Mugabe and use the full influence of the American presidency to alleviate the situation. It is of more importance than perhaps anyone can realize.

It is on this issue that Obama can leave behind a legacy that so many presidents desire, and make his significant historical impact. He can play a role in the future prosperity and freedom of Africa.

Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, said, “The World Cup in Africa will go well, there is no doubt . and the man who said, `Yes, we can do it’ will be there.” I hope that when he arrives, he realizes his presence means more than a spectator’s. And if he forgets, I am sure the refugees in the streets can remind him.

William Bejan is a sophomore in the McDonough School of Business and a community member of The Hoya’s editorial board.

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