MTAWATAWA- A conversation about the local Premier Soccer League ensues in this dingy bar here at Mutawatawa Growth Point, located some 160 kilometres east of Harare.
Sitting around bottle of opaque liquor, sharing it amongst themselves, about a dozen young and old men chew the cud over the latest events in the local soccer fraternity.
Then a young man, about 25, randomly mentions the leader of the opposition political party, MDC, Nelson Chamisa, driving everyone into an eerie silence.
They all look at him, as if waiting for an explanation.
“Chamisa is right that he won the election,” says the young man, in reference to Chamisa’s refusal to acknowledge his rival, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s presidential election victory in the harmonised elections held in the country in July last year.
Pointing a finger, an elderly man young man, “We do not talk about that down here. You do not know who is among us, and you know what can happen to all of us.”
The group continues with their conversation about soccer, albeit in hushed tones.
Tales of state-sponsored abductions, intimidation led by traditional leaders, intelligence and state security organs at Mtawatawa, and the entire Uzumba Maramba Pfungwe area have led the folk here into silence and self-censorship.
The ruling Zanu PF has continued to enjoy massive electoral victory in this area, with the last being the July 30 harmonised elections, where the party won, but amid allegations of use of traditional leaders to manipulate the voting process by leading them into polling stations, hounding of polling agents representing opposition candidates and the absence of observers in some of the remote parts of the area.
This year, in Maramba Pfungwe constituency, Zanu PF got 24317 votes against the main opposition, MDC Alliance only managed 929 votes in the House of Assembly election while in Uzumba, MDC Alliance lost by 1850 votes to Zanu PF’s 21405.
The Standard, with support from the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe’s (VMCZ) Investigative Journalism Fund, ventured into Maramba Pfungwe to investigate the electoral mysteries of the area, which is in one of the most marginalised rural part of Zimbabwe.
Upon arrival at Mtawatawa, Zanu PF’s dominance is immediately apparent, judging by the frequency of people wearing Zanu PF regalia as part of their daily fashion.
The rural centre, located on the edges of the main highway from Harare to Mazowe bridge, is surrounded by dozens of villages that are connected by a treacherous network of dirt roads.
The centre acts as the main link between the marginalised and remote villages and the rest of the country and world, and it is from here that State security agents, mainly the police and the central intellegence officials control the vast area stretching towards the Zimbabwe border with Mozambique.
In a prearranged secret meeting with a member of the Police Internal Security and Intelligence (Pisi), a specialised branch in the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), this reporter established the complex network of State security agents from the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), ZRP, Zimbabwe National Army and its Military Intelligence Department.
“There is systematic deployment of officials months before elections to ensure they monitor how villagers mobilise their subjects. Youth officers are also closely monitored as they are part of the mobilising matrix,” said the officer.
“One of the biggest problems in places like Uzumba Maramba Pfungwe, Mutoko and other deep rural areas is that villagers have little access to information and they do not know how they can assert their giths. Human rights bodies are also invisible here. The people here still live in the traditional way, where their village heads have direct control of their daily lives. It is therefore much easier to institute intimidation through those leaders. Our role as the security arm is to compile reports that will be used by our superiors when they sit under the Joint Operations Committee (JOC)”
JOC is is the supreme organ for the coordination of state security in Zimbabwe, and comprises of all the state security institutions.
“What happens therefore is that by the time people go to vote, they will have been intimidated and because they have witnessed what can happen to anyone who does not tow the party line, they will simply follow than risk their lives, ” he said.
A month before the July elections, opposition parties raised a red flag over the deployment of state security agents, and Police Spokesperson Charity Charamba issued a statement denying the reports and pledged that the police would ‘deal with anyone who engages in any form of electoral malpractice without fear or favour’.
“The dynamics are that by the time election day comes, the ground will have been laid way before, which is why everything appears calm and procedural.”
Uzumba Maramba Pfungwe is one of the places where – from the pre-independence to the post 2000 eras – the young and the old have witnessed the worst forms of the politically motivated violence and harassment, leaving many of them with no choice but to subjugate to the wills of the ruling party in order to live.
As a result, the locals treat strangers with suspicion and attempts to interview locals at Mtawatatawa were met with sckepticism and fear, as one young man put it, “…zvinokuvadzisa kutaura zvese zvese (it can be dangerous to give interviews)” and warned the news crew to leave the place before the ruling party activists knew about our presence in the area.
Further inquiries at Mtawatawa and surrounding villages like Dindi, Jamari and Deke revealed the same high levels of self-censorship and fear of reprisals after giving an interview.
In addition to the state security agents, Zanu PF has structures that tightly control their various areas and relay information to the villagers through traditional leaders who conduct regular indabas with their subjects.
“There is a general culture of fear, which dates back to pre-independence Zimbabwe. Tales are told everyday of what happened during the war, and every time we are going towards an election, we are threatened with death if we dare show allegiance to a party other than Zanu PF,” said one villager.
The Standard news crew had to sneak into Deke and Dindi villages at night, with the help of a fixer and managed to conduct interviews with two elderly villagers.
One of them — Temba* — is a victim of the pre-independence violence. He spoke about how Zanu PF had maintained a culture of fear in the area since then.
“Just before independence, after the ceasefire was declared to end the liberation struggle [which had started in 1964] we were told Zimbabwe was now free and there were going to be elections in which we would choose a new leader,” he narrated.
“We were ecstatic, and because we were now free to support any political party, I hoped my first vote would go to Joshua Nkomo’s PF Zapu.
“Little did I know that the war was far from over and that the same forces that were fighting for us, were now ready to fight us if we dared choose anyone but Zanu PF.”
At dawn, someday in January 1980, Temba still vividly recalls how armed guerillas broke into his village hut and beat him up, leaving him with a broken arm.
“They accused me of supporting Nkomo and told me the war would continue if Nkomo won the elections,” he said, “And I remember being hit with rifle butts, which left me traumatised.”
After the Lancaster House conference held in London in December 1979 between the colonial regime led by Ian Smith and nationalists including PF Zapu and Zanu, which were leading the armed struggle against the white regime, one of the concessions was to end the war and demobilise both the guerilla and the regime’s armies.
But the Zanu military wing, Zanla, is said to have breached the demobilisation agreement, and instead kept a signification number of its armed guerillas in rural areas like Pfungwe to violently campaign for the party and threaten to go back to war if Nkomo any other party besides Zanu PF won.
Several scholars have written about how this became the beginning of post-war violence that has kept Zanu PF in power over the years.
Contributing to the book titled, Zimbabwe: The past is the future, war veteran Duduzile Tafara said of the perception of guerillas by ordinary Zimbabweans, “The fighters seemed to be the most feared by those liberated. Even the elderly expressed concern over the former freedom fighters [and claimed that] the liberation guns have been turned against [the people].”
Temba confirmed this. “Just as it was during the war, traditional leaders have worked to mobilise people to pungwes, and there has always been systematic intimidation by the Zanu PF youth, with serious consequences to those who do not abide, and this has continued until today, and as long as it happens that way, things will remain the same” he said, “Tichirikuita senge tichiri muhondo [we are still in war mode].”
“I have always believed that the idea behind the liberation war was to make us free to choose our political leaders, and as such, I am one person who is keen to hear what the other political players’ visions are like so that I choose ndichiziva (from a point of knowledge), but we never get that alternative voice, and it saddens me a lot” he said.
Organisations like Heal Zimbabwe Trust, which have worked extensively in pushing for a peace and reconciliation process to address pre- and post independence human rights violations, have cited the lack of such a process as one of the key issues affecting the opening up of democratic space.
There has never been a reconciliation process in Zimbabwe, yet hundreds of thousands of people were killed and injured during the liberation war, over 20 000 were killed by the army’s Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland and Midlands in the early 1980s and over 200 were reportedly killed in the 2008 election violence, with remote rural areas like UMP having had the highest number of casualties.
This scenario has worked to the advantage of Zanu PF, which has not been keen to fully operationalise the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission despite President Emmerson Mnangagwa setting it up this year.
With the NPRC crippled by lack of resources, Zanu PF continued to interchangeably use its party structures and the state security agents to keep a tight control in areas like UMP.
Zanu PF’s village based chairpersons have their gangs of youths who are so efficient that strangers, or any other perceived threats to their stranglehold, are quickly hounded out of the area before they can do anything.
Towards the end of 2017, just before the vote registration began, the then President Robert Mugabe called for the reinstatement of the controversial “youth officers” to the government payroll.
These youths are known for being Zanu PF storm troopers, and they are mostly active in rural areas like UMP.
When voter registration for the 2018 elections began in 2017, The Standard gathered information that weeks earlier, there was a campaign by the party where children as young as 15 were forced to get identity cards.
“Youths, including 15-year-olds, were force-marched to Mtawatawa where they were told that they were supposed to get IDs and ensure that they vote, and they voted. In the absence of adequate observers and polling agents, many malpractices went unnoticed by the outside world,” said a police officer who operates at Mtawatawa.
The Standard could not independently verify the claims.
John*, a victim of the 2008 violence, told us in another candlelight interview, that he still vividly remembers the beatings he suffered “for not attending Zanu PF rallies”.
“After the first round of elections, Zanu PF youths started hunting down those who had not been attending rallies and I was one of those,” he said.
“I still have nightmares when I recall how those that I grew up with could be used for political reasons to savage not just me, but elderly people and our parents,” he said,
“The village heads here keep records of everyone and we have continually been told that it is easy to identify those who might have voted for other parties.”
With the 2018 elections having come and gone, it appears areas like the scars of the past will continue to haunt UMP, this isolation from the rest of the country, abetted by the inability of any other political players to get in to campaign, further assures Zanu PF landslides in the future elections.