Philip Barclay and Grace Mutandwa

Zimbabwe

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Monday 09 June, 2008

Respect for life is invaluable

I found myself recently wishing we had the gift of prescience.

If we knew what the future held in store for us we would be better prepared to deal with some of the problems that face us today.

We would know whom to vote for with certainty. We would know the consequences of some of our decisions. We would know when trouble was headed our way and we would avoid it.

Being helpless is debilitating. Having no control over your present or future is a frightening thing. You go to work and in a normal society you expect that your family will be safe at home and that you will also safely re-join them after work.

A week ago I was torn up because one of my aunts visited some relatives in the capital and found out they had not had a proper meal in two weeks. They were surviving on boiled sweet potatoes and avocadoes.

On visiting yet another branch of the family, she found they too were existing on the same diet. They had for two months failed to get cornmeal to make our staple sadza (thick porridge).

In the extended family system we share what we can get. It is painful to see your relatives suffer. It is even more so, when you yourself cannot offer any help. Our earnings belong to the whole family and its various extensions.

Grappling with a lack of adequate food is one thing, but being faced head on with the brutality visited on one's members of  family is another.

I am sure someone somewhere figured that if you want to break a person's spirit, you burn their home and beat them senseless. You do not stop there - you burn their grain and cause whatever harm you can to their livestock. This is what is being visited on people perceived to have voted the wrong way. But what does such senseless violence hope to achieve? Roots in families run deep. You kill or brutalise one family member and the whole family stands against you.

These are stories some people see on television but some of us have to live with. Only people who have experienced this bashing of spirits and burning of homes will fully understand what Zimbabweans who are not seen as being politically correct are going through right now.

In all this, we all still have to go to work, our children go to school if they can and carry on as if everything is normal. Friends and relatives who have lost homes, been brutalised and displaced need our strength and help to carry on but we feel sapped and at most helpless.

No, this is not a normal life. We never signed up for this. Belonging to a country must mean more than being bashed every now and then. Governance and democracy must stand for the protection of every member of society irrespective of their political affiliation.

Now is the time for everyone to realise and accept that a political rival is not an enemy. Difference of thought, perception and association is what makes a people and this is not a crime. We should embrace our diversity as a blessing that can be harnessed for the greater good.

And on the 27th of June Zimbabweans will go back to vote in the presidential run-off. My sincere hope is that we will all vote for respect for life and greater respect and understanding of our political and social diversity. A nation and a leadership without empathy is lost. We desperately need to regain our respect for life.

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Friday 18 April, 2008

Judges and Fudges

There's a right way and a wrong way to approach a cordon of Zimbabwean riot police. It's not clever for example to don an MDC t-shirt and ask the plod for the results of the Presidential election.

I usually try and carry it off with a self-confident swagger, as if a line of big cops in crash helmets and heavy boots carrying nasty sticks is an everyday hurdle. I try to look like a man who has proper business in Zimbabwe's High Court, rather than what the state media portrays me as: a colonialist who is sabotaging Zimbabwe's economy because he wants to restore white supremacism. As I reach the thick blue line I manage a cheerful:

"Good morning! How are you sirs?",

in the Zimbabwean style. This usually elicits some tentatively cheery responses and a gap in the cordon big enough to walk through. And the technique works today.

I note that there are no officers in the line, which is good as it means there's nobody to order the cops to start hitting me. But then again if they do start hitting me there's no one to tell them to stop.

Enough bravado. The risks we pampered British diplomats run are pretty modest. The worst we see are occasional flashes of temper from the regime's tame media. Last year a columnist said a female colleague of mine might go home in a body bag. The brave man who issued those threats hides behind the pen name Nathaniel Manheru. But beyond bluster of that sort we simply do not share the risks that ordinary Zimbabweans face.

Since 29 March, the regime has launched its youth militias - drunken mobs of indoctrinated thugs - on the poor rural people who dared to vote for the opposition on 29 March. We can't corroborate many of the rumours of violence we hear. We are certain that 150 people have been attacked and at least one killed. And we fear that the real toll of abuse could be much worse. Yes, we diplomats get it easy.

Anyway, back to the High Court. Inside the police cordon is a scrum of journalists, observers and lawyers all struggling to get into a tiny room to hear a judge rule whether Zimbabwe's election results should be released, more than two weeks after the people voted.

A long wait. Boiling hot. The judge appears, flings a copy of a written judgement at the lawyers and runs for it. The judgement is 15 pages long - enough reading time for the judge to escape the building. It says that the election authorities must act legally, but that the courts cannot question the authorities' decisions. So if the authorities want to delay announcing the election indefinitely, that's fine. It's a fudge by a judge who's been bought; and then threatened.

Outside the court, the scrum re-engages. I hare across the road to avoid the cameras and trip over a man sitting on the roadside selling apples (20 Million dollars each). He doesn't have any doughnuts, unfortunately:

"What is going to happen to us, sir? I am waiting and waiting and I cannot sleep. I am sure I will die if we carry on like this."

Sadly he's probably right.

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Friday 11 April, 2008

The Waiting Game

I have been comparing notes with friends. We have all been waiting for the presidential results to be announced.

Decisions have been put on hold. We all need to know what the future holds for us. A day after the much publicised harmonised elections I was glued to the television - watching programmes dished out by the State run broadcaster.

Under normal circumstances nothing would induce me to watch local television. On Sunday 30 March, I learnt about Chinese gardening, saw a replay of a 1974 World Cup soccer match, watched a re-run of a West African drama, a wildlife programme and discovered there were more than 100 varieties of tortoises and an even bigger number of different snakes. I also learnt about how to care for my snakes!

The inane programmes we were fed on that day, a day when all we wanted was to hear the parliamentary and senatorial results, were ridiculous, bordering on the insane. A friend who had waited for the results the night when voting ended, told me she had learnt about Japanese haircuts. I am sure in another place at another time we could all find those crazy programmes useful.

When the results finally trickled in we were all mesmerised by the fact that the two main contenders were running neck-to-neck. Only in Zimbabwe can such a miracle happen. No-one among my friends and colleagues has been able to explain this amazing development.

Eventually the results for the two elections were in but the counting of the presidential ones seems to have hit a major snag. It seems the figures are not adding up or where they do, they are not what they are supposed to be. We the voters of course have no right to know what has happened to our votes. All we are being told is to be patient and remain peaceful.

Zimbabweans are an amazing people. They ought to be in the Guinness Book of Records for their patience and great sense of humour even in times of hardships and adversity.

As we wait we have of course put our mobile phones to good use, sending each other text messages of encouragement and joking over our predicament. We are good at waiting. We wait in queues for money, bread, milk and we wait to vote and then of course wait patiently for the results to be announced. As I write it is 12 days after we voted and we still do not know the results of the presidential election.

We just do not know the official result but technology has ensured that resourceful Zimbabweans collected results posted at the various polling stations and have been circulating them. We are just not saying it but we already have an idea of how the voting went. We are even told of the possibility of a run-off. And again only in Zimbabwe can you talk of a a run-off without first announcing the results. We are incredible!

The waiting continues and national radio plays revolutionary music and airs programmes on various liberation war heroes. We are told this is to remind us of their sacrifices, which we must always remember every year around 18 April when we celebrate our independence.

I am still waiting for the presidential results but as I do my work I cannot help but wonder what all those heroes think about us, we the people they sacrificed so much for. I wonder if they would approve of everything going on now. Do you think they would approve of withholding results and keeping everyone in suspense? And still the radio and television are broadcasting from another planet. They are not on the same page with listeners. We wait uninformed.

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Monday 07 April, 2008

Pisa in Bikisa

The light from the candle on the trestle table catches Tobias’ face, casting Rembrandtesque upward shadows from his features. A big-eared bug lights on his shoulder, but Tobias is concentrating so deeply on the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission manual that he doesn’t notice the creature, which appears to be peering down to study the impenetrably bureaucratic guidance too.

Tobias inhales.

“Now we can open the seals on the ballot boxes. But first I must warn our foreign observer from the British Embassy that once I break these seals you cannot leave until the counting is fully complete.”

I nod. Some fiddling with keys and sealing wax; and suddenly a pile of ballot papers pours onto the table. Slumbering polling officers spring to life and grab ballots chaotically, shouting out and flinging papers at each other:

“ZANU-PF!”

“Makoni!”

“Tsvangirai!”

Tobias tries to referee the frenzy and finally persuades his colleagues to collaborate in producing three piles, one for each of Zimbabwe’s presidential candidates. I am so captivated I find I’m holding my breath. The piles take shape. One is just a few papers; the second is a decent pile, about as tall as a doughnut. The third is a tottering, towering Pisa of papers.

I am in a tiny place called Bikisa, deep in rural Masvingo, where Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party has won every election that has ever been held. (Ian Smith did not believe in elections for black folk). So my assumption is that the big pile is Mugabe’s.

But I am wrong. The presiding officer asks for the votes to be counted. The smallest pile is Simba Makoni’s – 11 votes. The middling pile is Mugabe’s – 44 votes. Amazingly, incredibly, the Pisa-pile belongs to Morgan Tsvangirai. The polling officer gets tongue-tied at ‘one hundred and twenty-seven’ and loses count. She sighs desperately and starts again. 167. Tsvangirai has won with about three-quarters of the vote.

I force myself to keep breathing steadily; fainting at this point would not become an officer of Her Majesty’s Government. Though I suppose I could plead hunger. Anticipating that I would be locked into the count for hours, my bag is full of chocolate and other essential rations, but I feel too self-conscious to stuff my face while this little piece of history is happening right in front of me.

Bikisa, of course, is only one of 9,400 polling stations. So my result is just one small head of mealie in a very big field. But it’s suggestive, and as I travel round other polling stations and speak to British Embassy and DFID colleagues in remote parts of every province, it’s the same story. Tsvangirai has done well and his Movement for Democratic Change has made gains in areas where its activists used to be beaten for wearing a party t-shirt.

Tobias, like a million other Zimbabweans is a decent and principled professional, who has done his job scrupulously and well. This election may be fiddled, but not by him. By the time he releases me it’s the early hours of Sunday morning. The Milky Way stretches over me. Weakened by lack of chocolate I am overcome by whimsy – I see a starry pathway to infinity paved with hope and new possibility. Definitely time to take a breath and eat some chocolate. Not, sadly, a Milky Way.

A policeman sidles up and whispers in my ear:

“Mr Philip, we are so pleased you are here, but do you really think there is hope?”

Tonight the answer is yes. Tomorrow, who knows? Will they ever dare to release these results? How does a country that has only ever transitioned by violence accept peaceful change? Next week’s questions. Now to bed.

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