The Zimbabwean elections: Behind the facade of tolerance and freedom

I met with Gift Konjana, the opposition candidate for Chegutu West on Friday, four days after Zimbabwe’s July 30 Parliamentary and Presidential elections.  He was with his team.  They looked like they had just come out of a war zone.  I could see they were exhausted. They hadn’t slept for a week.   

They had just been to the opposition party’s Harare head quarters but it was sealed off by police. They then went to the Bronte Hotel where the opposition Presidential candidate, Nelson Chamisa, wanted to hold a press conference. There were police there too, not far from one of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s election promise posters of “guaranteed freedom of speech”. The police were disrupting the press conference.

They then went to lawyers.  They had caught the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) red-handed manipulating the figures and ZEC, after a long and difficult battle, had been forced to declare Gift the winner, having at first given the ruling ZANU-PF party’s candidate the victory.  [Note: ZEC is widely viewed as a partisan institution that favours the ruling party.]

Despite eventually correcting things in writing, ZEC advised that it now has to be confirmed in the court. Lawyers didn’t have good news.  They need US$10,000 up front for the master of the High Court just to put in the petition.

I got the story of the last tumultuous week from Gift and his colleagues in dribs and drabs.

It was a story typical of all aspiring opposition candidates.  Courage, desperation, self sacrifice, sleeplessness, threats, arrests and violence all come into it.  I have seen that haunted, exhausted look of desperados, constantly on the run, many times in this country – and been one myself.  I recognise it well.

This election was the worst election for the opposition from a resources perspective, since President Mugabe’s one-party state had first been challenged by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party in 2000.

Somehow, in this impoverished country, Gift had to train up 436 polling officers, resource them, deploy them to 59 polling stations and feed them. He then had to collect two at a time from each polling booth to take them back to their own polling stations to vote.

He also had to encourage the polling agents to remain vigilant and not to take the bribes that some of them were being offered to look the other way, and get all the forms from each of the stations collated and photographed.

Gift also had to campaign beforehand – which meant a door-to-door campaign, much of it on foot as he does not possess a vehicle, and always with the threat of the possibility of violence, especially in the rural wards where friends had been abducted and tortured in the past.

He got help with 800 posters from head office, but that was about it.  Some of his precious posters were plastered over with posters of the ruling party candidate.

Gift was up against the ruling party, a party that had money and vehicles and the power to bring fear, particularly into the hearts of the rural people.  This is what the international community struggles to understand.

The politics of fear

Even many of our urban people struggle to understand the politics of fear, real fear – fear that is so tangible it becomes a part of your very being.  Fear that you live with and cannot escape from. Fear that has your mind constantly computing the risks of not supporting the one with the biggest stick.

Poor, vulnerable, hungry people who have nowhere else to go are pawns in the great power game of Zimbabwe politics. They out-number the urban people by 2 to 1.  They can be moved from their homes on a whim.

They do not own their land.  They are like the feudal peasants of Europe hundreds of years ago, not afforded the privilege of title deeds to their properties, or to be protected upon them. Their houses, mostly with grass roofs, can be burnt down at a whim if they do something that the ruling party does not like.

Gift was fortunate.  He only had three rural wards in the 15 wards in his Constituency.  The rest were urban.  He told me that those rural people were first bought with food handouts.

The old cynical saying: “make a man hungry and poor and he will eat out of the palm of your hand” is used to devastating effect in our rural areas in Zimbabwe.  The people are purposely kept poor.

They live in a time capsule, unable to develop because they have no title deeds to raise capital and invest.

When it came to the election day on Monday, the ruling party had already organised the villagers.

They did the usual trick of sending the villagers off in batches of 10.  A little more than 100 metres away from the polling station their names were written down so that they all knew that their vote was not a secret.

It is very easy to find out who voted for whom when people are voting in an order at their stipulated polling stations.

And when the consequences of the ruling party being able to discover who you voted for are understood, it is easy to understand why you would vote for the one you fear, as opposed to the one you might wish to bring a change.

Businessmen even become afraid.  A prominent white businessmen and farmer from Matabeleland, when he couldn’t show a purple finger afterwards, was asked why he didn’t vote.  “If they see my name is crossed off the voters’ roll, list they will immediately assume I voted for MDC.  I have to think of my business and the people I employ,” he replied.

I know of numerous others who thought and acted on the same lines.

For rural people living without property rights, dependent on being on the right side of the authorities to get food aid, and with the threat of homes being burnt down, or being kicked off their land or worse, they had to do their sums like the businessmen/farmer who didn’t vote.

And in the event that they were forced to vote, decided that it was not worth their while to vote for the opposition.

As Election Day came close, Gift said that even friends became afraid to talk to him in those rural wards.

Changing the numbers

After the vote came in and the numbers on all the V11 forms [the V11 forms summarise everything that would have taken place at a polling station] were counted, Gift was aware he had won his constituency within hours.

It was only on Tuesday evening, just after dark, that the results came out.  Before they did so, the ZANU-PF candidate was already celebrating.  Gift was confused. He knew that some figures must have been changed.

By Wednesday morning his team had discovered where the figures had been changed. He went back to ZEC and pointed it out.  Even then ZEC resisted.  They were afraid of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) personnel in there.

It was only after displaying considerable anger that ZEC agreed.  By Wednesday afternoon, there had still been no official renunciation.

The people of Chegutu got impatient.  They started to march.  At first the police accompanied them and were protecting them.  Then riot police arrived on the scene.  Gift went to their leader and asked if they were doing anything illegal.  He was told they were “under orders”.

The protesters were laid into and had to flee.  Some of the slower ones were caught and taken into custody.

Meanwhile a large ZANU-PF mob was sent under cover of darkness to Gift’s house.  They intimidated Gift’s wife.  She managed to get hold of police but they didn’t come.  The gate was smashed down.

Gift had heard they were after him and had already gone on the run.  The mob stopped the car he was hiding in and wanted the driver to join them, but they got away in the darkness.

He heard that all three roads had police road blocks on them so he hid at a safe house while police raided other safe houses trying to find him. His own house was visited by police twice during the night.  The intimidation was intense.

We now wait.  Is all this going to be whitewashed once more?  Are we going to have to wait another five years?

Despite so much evidence to the contrary, President Mnangagwa’s message to the nation on his Facebook page read:

“… On July 30th, we went out in our millions to shape our future. For this we must be proud. This was a celebration of Zimbabwean democracy, a festival of unfettered freedom. With the eyes of the world upon us, we delivered a free, fair and credible election, as we always promised. …”


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