HARARE – Like many ordinary Zimbabweans right now, Joy Mviro is adamant that things have changed for the better.
“We can now talk openly,” she tells me confidently, as we stand outside the Edith Opperman Maternity Clinic in the heart of Mbare, the biggest and oldest township in Harare.
“Before Mugabe was ousted, I would have thought twice about talking to a journalist or answering their questions, but not now,” Mviro insists.
Just 21 years old, Joy still has most of her life ahead of her, as does her six-month-old daughter Keisha, who she has brought to the clinic as part of a regular check-up since the baby was born around the time that President Robert Mugabe was overthrown in November last year.
Like the many other mothers queuing up outside Mbare’s maternity clinic, Mviro says she is looking forward to Zimbabwe’s forthcoming elections scheduled for sometime this coming July or August.
An official announcement of the precise date is expected any time now, which will see the country’s party political machinery go into overdrive in a ballot the significance of which would be hard overstate.
For most Zimbabweans it is hoped the result will mark the beginning of a new political dawn, putting behind them once and for all the authoritarianism, corruption, human rights abuses and widespread poverty that have plagued their lives for years.
Unseating Mugabe and replacing him with fellow Zanu–PF party member Emmerson Mnangagwa last November, was only the start of such a process.
For some, Mugabe’s ousting was little more than a military coup, while for others, including the African Union, it was described as the “legitimate expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people.”
Whichever definition one accepts, it was certainly seen as a new start for a country that now earnestly shows a desire to get democracy back on track.
Few doubt that the coming ballot will be the true test of civil liberties under the leadership of Mnangagwa, a politician who earned his nickname among Zimbabweans as “The Crocodile” by surviving a turbulent political career with a mixture of cunning and ruthlessness.
For the moment at least Mnangagwa is the political flavour of the month, even here in Mbare, long known as a bastion of support for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), arch rivals of the president’s Zanu PF’s party.
With its rundown high-density housing and bustling informal street markets and vendors, Mbare stands in part as testimony to the slump in Zimbabwe’s formal economy under Mugabe’s rule.
Zimbabweans joke that in Mbare, you can buy anything, including the parts they stole from your car the night before, but real jobs here are genuinely scarce.
Under Mugabe’s 37-year rule, the rate of unemployment rose to more than 80%, forcing many people to eke out a living by hawking on the streets, giving rise to Mbare’s Mupedzanhamo Market, loosely translated from the Shona language as “end poverty”.
Not surprisingly as resentment against Mugabe’s Zanu PF regime grew in this impoverished community, so support for its bitter rivals the MDC grew in tandem, miring Mbare in incidents of political violence, especially in the run- up to elections.
Fears that such violence might this time around be repeated as Mnangagwa’s Zanu PF and the MDC along with hundreds of candidates from other parties go head-to-head appear though unfounded.
Over the past week after speaking with many ordinary Zimbabweans as well as political activists, not once did I hear fears expressed that the coming electoral contest would spill onto the streets in violence.
“There may be the usual few young hot heads, who usually after drinking try to stir up trouble, but that will be about as bad as it gets, I’m certain,” one activist in Mbare told me, echoing what I was to hear time and again from other citizens both in Harare and outside the capital.
If such a tolerant attitude prevails in Mbare, something of a potential political flashpoint, then this, say observers, augurs well for Zimbabwe as a whole.
In Mbare township uncollected refuse, overcrowding, rampant petty crime and widespread health and sanitation problems tell a sorry tale of the years during which the Mugabe regime let the township and much of Zimbabwe rot.
In the process it made Mbare not just the epicentre of political unrest, but prone to typhoid and cholera outbreaks along the way.
“Mbare is a tough place to live, you can see that for yourself just standing here,” says Joseph Masenda while his sister nearby fills a bucket with water from an open communal pipe at the foot of a block of dilapidated redbrick flats where many of the windows are broken or boarded up.
“We need change, big change, and if Mnangagwa cannot bring it, then some new leader has to,” insists Masenda, who like so many other Mbare residents’ struggles to make ends meet in the unofficial sector as a street vendor.
For the moment though his concerns over Mnangagwa’s ability to deliver don’t seem to trouble many Zimbabweans.
Right now it seems Mnangagwa can do little wrong in the eyes of many Zimbabweans.
Just last weekend using the commonly used abbreviation “ED” the letters of Mnangagwa’s first names, Emmerson Dambudzo, the prominent Zimbabwe newspaper, The Sunday Mail, applauded the president’s recent visit to China.
‘ED returns with a bagful,’ the newspaper declared in reference to Mnangagwa’s successful securing of billions of dollars worth of investment for projects in Zimbabwe.
Others too are keen to invest especially in what they see as Zimbabwe’s chance to enhance its journey towards full democracy.
On Monday at Mbare’s Stodart Community Hall, the European Union’s (EU) Commissioner for International Development, Neven Mimica, who had just met Mnangagwa, signed an agreement with Zimbabwean officials that will see new EU-funded programmes worth 23 million euros launched to improve people’s access to health services and enhance their livelihoods.
This was the first high-level EU visit to Zimbabwe in almost a decade. Coming as it does just before the election, it says much about the EU’s hopes for the country given that such financial support comes with conditions requiring improvement in Zimbabwe’s democratic process and transition.
Only time will tell whether such confidence is justified. But for now in Zimbabwe, a country with long historical links to Scotland, a new mood prevails. As Mnangagwa himself has said; “Zimbabwe is now open for business.”