Desperate Zimbabweans clutching at straws of change

March 25th, 2008 - 10:17 am ICT by admin  

By Clare Byrne
Harare, March 25 (DPA) Four days before millions of Zimbabweans go to the polls to select a new president, House of Assembly, senate and councillors, the country is convulsed by talk of change. A group of around 25 people sit in a semi-circle on the veranda of Mary Ndlovu’s home in Bulawayo listening to David Coltart tell them why they should vote strategically March 29 if they want to end the repressive rule of President Robert Mugabe.

Mary is the widow of Edward Ndlovu, a liberation war hero, who was imprisoned and charged with treason during a brutal state crackdown on the opposition in the 1980s known as Gukurahundi.

Coltart, a tall, reed-thin lawyer, who has served seven years as an MP with the MDC is now aiming for a senate seat.

But the breakaway faction of the MDC to which he belongs is supporting ex-finance minister and former Zanu-PF politburo member Simba Makoni over MDC founder Morgan Tsvangirai for president. It’s a decision that requires some explaining.

“If you’ve had the same coach since 1980, and the team has dropped back to fourth division and you have no goalposts and the grass is that high,” he says, measuring a metre off the ground with his hand, “you’d fire your coach”.

Laughter breaks out among the racially mixed group of mostly professionals.

“It simply is time to change the coach,” he says of Mugabe, who is seeking to extend his rule by five years despite presiding over an economic nosedive on a scale unseen in a country not at war.

Coltart believes Makoni, as a former Zanu-PF insider, is best placed to topple the 84-year-old leader and halt inflation of over 100,000 percent and widespread food and fuel shortages.

The sense of a tipping point being reached in beleaguered Zimbabwe is palpable.

“If things don’t go well for us in this election we will die! We are hoping for change,” a 41-year-old man says, surveying a dozen or so stalks of unripened maize in the yard of his tiny tenement house in Bulawayo’s poor Makokoba suburb.

“There are days when I think, ‘What am I doing here?’” says a former white farmer in Harare, whose lands were expropriated in 2002 and now relies on black-market foreign exchange deals for a living. “But now, there’s this buzz.”

The excitement is caused partly by the relaxation of repressive security and election laws agreed to by Zanu-PF at talks with the opposition in South Africa last year.

In Harare, youths in white MDC T-shirts saunter down the road in Highfields township, past riot police heading for the stadium to guard a football match.

Eddie, a taxi driver, blows his horn at the group and gives them the raised-hand party salute.

“Three years ago (during the last parliamentary elections) they (the police) would have smashed your car for that,” he says. “It’s much better this time.”

Both Tsvangirai and Makoni have been allowed to campaign in the ruling party’s rural strongholds and afforded a little space in state-controlled media in what some fear is the “the calm before the storm”.

Threats by Zimbabwe’s police chief that he will not allow a ‘puppet’ regime (Mugabe refers to both Tsvangirai and Makoni as puppets of the West) to take power and the government’s threat to exclude Western journalists are seen as further indicators that Mugabe will not relinquish power without a fight.

Few Zimbabweans appear to have the appetite for violence if the election result is manipulated. “There will be no Kenya here,” Coltart says curtly, when asked.

But warns the owner of a guesthouse in the tourist resort of Victoria Falls darkly, “It’s like a vicious dog standing between you and a plate of steaming food. If you get hungry enough, eventually you’ll lose your fear of that dog. We’re at that point now in Zimbabwe”.

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