AS soon as she was in the stadium, Merjury Banda reached into her bag, pulled out a T-shirt with the open-palm symbol of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and slipped it over her head.
“I am afraid,” she said. “If the Zanu PF people catch me wearing this, I am in trouble. We are not free.”
On Friday night, gangs of ruling party youths had been covering the townships around Mbare, telling people that if they went to the stadium next to Stodart Hall in the morning, there would be war.Saturday saw MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai holding one of his biggest rallies for his party’s campaign for the parliamentary election on March 31 and, outside the poor suburb, vehicles queued for 800 metres at a roadblock as police searched them painstakingly and demanded drivers’ identity cards.
For those in the crowd of at least 12 000 people in the stadium, reaching it had been an act of bravery. When Tsvangirai appeared, the exultant roar of “chinja!” (change) that greeted him was an outpouring of desire for an end to the dread, hunger and poverty, all blamed on President Mugabe’s government.
The stadium was covered with MDC flags emblazoned with the party slogan, “A new Zimbabwe, a new beginning.”Tsvangirai spoke of the restoration of the rule of law, followed by “a new constitution to re-establish the dignity of parliament, the judiciary and clearly respect the separation of powers”.There were no extravagant promises, but warnings of violence, especially from Mugabe’s militias after the election. Almost all those present had walked from the surrounding townships.
The same day about five kilometres away, dozens of government trucks dragooned perhaps 8 000 people to Mugabe’s rally at Kwayedza High School in Highfield. It was a quasi-military operation in which the party and security force personnel controlling it exuded menace.
The Zanu PF campaign was punctuated by racist rhetoric, flags, posters and menacing men with automatic weapons. By the time President Mugabe arrived at the Kwayedza High School, the ruling Zanu PF party’s slick campaign machine had produced a crowd of about 8 000 at the dilapidated school where Mugabe donated 10 computers.
“Pasi nechamatama,” (Down with the chubby-cheeked one),” they chanted in a derogatory reference to Tsvangirai.
The night before, the suburb was awash with the Zanu PF advance team. Government lorries constantly disgorged people, many of them in new white Zanu PF campaign T-shirts.
Nearly every home, shop and school within Highfield was deserted. School children cheered when the 20-vehicle motorcade arrived. But soon afterwards, the holiday atmosphere evaporated. The area was suddenly swamped by soldiers, secret police, and aides who scurried around Mugabe as he made a perfunctory tour, wearing a Zanu PF baseball cap.
“In the last three years, Zanu PF has died,” a veteran Zimbabwean journalist accompanying this reporter said.
“They have nothing but force left.”The contrast with Mbare was glaring. The atmosphere at the opposition’s rally was happy and relaxed, the crowd’s responses spontaneous.When Mugabe speaks, it is to promise free seed and fertiliser, as much seized white-owned land as anyone wants and higher wages. He delivers bizarre denunciations of British plots to overthrow him and hurls clumsy abuse against Tsvangirai, calling him “Tsvangison”, the “black man who masquerades as a white”.
At the weekend Mugabe was at it again, threatening to punish gay groups and saying Britain was angry with him for his stance against homosexuality.British Prime Minister Tony Blair should “expose” his cabinet as full of gays before criticising Zimbabwe, Mugabe said at a rally in one of the rural districts where he donated computers.With only 20 days before the election on March 31 and the state media pumping out his simple campaign message for months, Mugabe has not stopped repeating it anyway.
The country’s parlous economy is the result of the “state of war” with Britain, which is using Tsvangirai to take land belonging to black people away from them, he says. “Whatever Blair tries to do, we will not back off,” he has declared.
The call he has been making lately for peaceful elections gets an airing, two sentences of it in English, for the apparent benefit of the two white reporters present.
“We don’t condone violence, but I am not saying that you should fold your arms if you are provoked. You must stand your ground. But please, you should not go assaulting people anywhere.”
This call was met with loud guffaws from the crowd of tough-looking, well-dressed men sitting near the podium. The presence in the front row of Elliot Manyika, the Zanu PF secretary for commissariat, sends a chilling message. He is dressed in the stiff, new uniform of the national service, the brutal militia whose members are conducting the final phase of voter-orientation before the election.
The new vernacular songs just taught to the crowd contradict Mugabe’s appeal.
“Zanu is lethal, Zanu bites,” goes one; another, “Tsvangirai, you will get a beating from the comrades.”
The programme, repeated almost identically in each election campaign since independence in 1980, has the effect of conferring a sense of invincibility on Mugabe, and undermines any hope that Zimbabweans will be able to rise above the violence and repression inflicted by him.
The MDC cannot match the resources of Zanu PF, which has no qualms about plundering the state coffers, as well as using almost every branch of the civil service and security forces to ensure its continued rule. A rally that Tsvangirai was to have held two weeks ago in the western city of Bulawayo had to be abandoned when ruling party youths took over the stadium the night before and police refused to remove them.