|The ZIMBABWE Situation||Our
thoughts and prayers are with Zimbabwe |
- may peace, truth and justice prevail.
of change blows through Mugabe heartland
Crowds gather from far and wide to hear Zimbabwe's embattled opposition leader, reports Peta Thornycroft
They had walked for miles, barefoot and hungry, across the remote plains of rural Zimbabwe where President Robert Mugabe's dominance was once unquestioned.
Yet this ragged crowd of 1,500 people had not gathered to cheer Mr Mugabe or any other figure from his Zanu-PF party but to hear Morgan Tsvangirai, the embattled leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
Defying years of violence and intimidation, Mr Tsvangirai is taking his campaign for the parliamentary elections due on March 31 into Mr Mugabe's rural heartland.
Yesterday's MDC rally in the shadow of Mount Devedzo, 140 miles south-east of Harare, would once have been impossible. This area supported Mr Mugabe during the guerrilla war against white Rhodesia in the 1970s and its votes have sustained him in every election held in independent Zimbabwe.
But the crowd's enthusiasm for Mr Tsvangirai demonstrated that the President can no longer assume their automatic support. "Morgan, we are hungry", they sang as the opposition leader rose to speak.
"Here as everywhere else we can see there are no crops and the land is not being used," he said. "We know people are hungry."
The plains around Mount Devedzo provide visible evidence of the cost of Mr Mugabe's policies. This fertile area, known as Hwedza, holds some of the best farming land in Africa. Yet the fields are empty of crops and choked with weeds. All the white-owned farms have been seized and largely abandoned by their new owners.
The land seizures have also emptied the countryside of people. Tens of thousands of black labourers once worked the white-owned farms around Hwedza. They lost their homes and jobs when their employers were dispossessed. Now they are among the countless thousands of Zimbabweans uprooted and displaced by the country's economic collapse.
The hardship has bred a renewed sense of defiance. "Zanu-PF still come door to door to threaten that we will be kicked out of our house if we don't vote for them but we don't care now and we teach our parents not to fear," said Batsirai Muzondo, 24, who had walked eight miles to see Mr Tsvangirai.
This was Mr Tsvangirai's 19th rally in rural constituencies since Feb 25. He plans to address another 31 before polling day.
For the first time since the founding of his party more than five years ago, he finds himself leading a political campaign that seems almost normal. The violence that peaked before the disputed presidential polls of 2002 has subsided. There is less of the brutal intimidation that formed a central part of Zanu-PF's electioneering manual.
For the first time, Mr Tsvangirai has been able to move beyond the cities where his support is strongest and campaign in rural areas.
Why the regime has allowed this to happen is a question that mystifies the MDC.
It appears that Mr Mugabe is supremely confident that he will win the election despite the fact that Zanu-PF's leading figures are incompetent, apathetic and obsessed with infighting.
There could be a sinister explanation for his confidence. For the first time, the polling stations will be run by the army and police who are loyal to him.
Moreover, the authorities have placed a new hurdle in the way of independent observers. Each will have to pay the government a £10 fee to monitor a polling station.
Fielding observers at every one would cost between £60,000 and £90,000. The MDC does not have the money, so most polling stations will lack any independent scrutiny. "No one will see the rigging," said one member of the MDC leadership. He predicted that each polling station would be "overwhelmed by soldiers drafted to run the elections".
Most of the MDC leadership does not grasp the possible consequences of this. As in previous contests, they are filled with optimism that may prove to be hopelessly naive.
Yet the anger that Mr Tsvangirai's audience felt towards the regime was palpable. "We have no textbooks, teachers are not qualified, and I will never get a job if Zanu-PF stays in power," said Noel Jaya, 19. "My parents now see that Zanu-PF cannot give us a better life."