The will of the suffering masses versus the gritty determination of Robert Mugabe to stay in power — that, in a nutshell, is the contest taking place across Zimbabwe this weekend.
This time the people’s yearning for freedom appears greater than any force, including Mugabe’s desperation. It must be so. Change is in the air. Everywhere I go, people are saying: “It’s our turn. Change!” On Saturday, it does not matter which side the heavyweights in Zanu-PF are on; the people, for once, have the power. We are our own heavyweights.
There is no doubt that were the people able to freely express themselves on Saturday this would be the end for Mugabe. The air is pregnant with great expectations for change. But Mugabe has a time-tested bag of tricks that could frustrate the will of the people once more. He must not be allowed to and those in our country as observers and journalists must keep their eyes peeled so that the era of hope is not frustrated.
Mugabe’s campaign has lacked the energy and bombast of previous years. His most persuasive weapon, violence, has been relatively absent, largely because few are still prepared to maim and kill in his name. His message is tired and uninspiring, with no relevance to the wretched existence of many Zimbabweans. He can win this election only by rigging it.
There is no reason to vote for him. Official inflation is at a whopping 100 580%, while independent economists and the International Monetary Fund believe the figure is more than 300 000%. Unemployment is more than 80% and life expectancy is down to 37 years. Malnutrition and school dropouts have become common occurrences in a nation that once prided itself on being the breadbasket of the region and offering a world-class education.
It is not uncommon for people to go without electricity and water for up to six weeks. Fuel is cripplingly expensive, with very little around. A black market for basic commodities, such as mealie meal, salt, sugar, cooking oil, milk, beef and toothpaste, is thriving as price controls take their toll on manufacturers and retailers.
The rural areas, considered Mugabe’s stronghold, have been worst affected by price controls and the acute shortage of basic commodities. Seed and fertiliser have been in short supply and Mother Nature has delivered two poor agricultural seasons in a row.
Mugabe is a victim of his own ill-advised policies — he has limited resources to buy rural votes on a nationwide scale.
But there are still some who see him as a hero because they know no better. The preponderance of state media against a small but vibrant independent media also means that victims of government propaganda will vote for him, despite their personal circumstances.
Those in receipt of Mugabe’s patronage in the military, police, traditional chiefs and government will work hard to deliver him victory so that they can continue looting. Some voters will succumb to the seductive effect of free tractors, computers, buses, combine harvesters and food. The huge salary hikes for public servants was also meant to purchase their support.
But many more will see Mugabe’s latest acts of generosity for what they are — desperate attempts to buy their votes. While accepting these gifts, they will realise that they will not change the economic fundamentals. People are tired of handouts and being made to depend on a manipulative president. They want their lives back, not self-serving gifts. Many Zimbabweans in the towns and rural areas have come to realise that Mugabe is the problem, not the solution. How, then, can he claim victory?
It is important to remember that rigging is not an event — it is a process. For 10 years Mugabe has worked to create an uneven political playing field for the opposition. The process will climax on polling day, specifically in the counting of the ballots. The announcement by service chiefs that they will not accept any result other than a Mugabe victory is both a sign of panic in Mugabe’s camp and an act of naked intimidation. But the people are likely to challenge this.
The last throw of the dice was the announcement that presidential results will be announced at a central command centre, while the rest of the votes will be counted and results announced from constituencies.
Announcing presidential results in the constituencies would rob Mugabe of a great rigging opportunity, hence the sudden directive. The few election observers on the ground and the opposition must resist this.
The last-minute decision to allow police into and around polling stations on the pretext of helping the old and infirm will also be abused to favour the incumbent. Only in January did Mugabe remove this piece of legislation as a concession during President Thabo Mbeki’s mediation. That he now needs it shows how desperate he is.
Mugabe has ensured there are fewer urban than rural polling stations, which will see a repeat of the long queues during the last presidential election, with many urban voters unable to cast their votes. He has ignored opposition calls to rectify this. Yet rural voters might surprise him.
So often across Africa oppressive rulers standing in the way of change have been humiliated. Remember Malawi’s Kamuzu Banda. And Kenneth Kaunda. And Polokwane, of course.
Apart from Mugabe’s bottomless bag of rigging tricks, the only other hurdle in the way of hope and change is the fear that the two opposition candidates, Morgan Tsvangirai and Simba Makoni, might split the vote of hope and let Mugabe back in by default. The two men will require deep gifts of accommodation and consensus should this happen. They must give serious consideration to a united front, for this will be an expression of hope. But that is a debate for next week.
This week has the look and feel of the end for Mugabe. Even if his bag of tricks helps him temporarily subvert the will of the people, it will be the beginning of the end.
This time the people’s yearning for freedom appears to be greater than any other force.
Trevor Ncube, a Zimbabwean, is proprietor of the Mail & Guardian