Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Deep Anger in Matabeleland

Some members of the Ndebele ethnic group warn of an uprising if the election result is as flawed as they expect it to be.
By IWPR Srdan

Amid much simmering nationwide resentment of Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU PF party across the country, there is one part of this nation where a fraudulent election result this week is likely to push the people to the brink of mass resistance: the townships of Bulawayo.


Built in the days of racial segregation in the old Rhodesia, these clusters of tiny brick and corrugated iron houses in the heart of Matabeleland, the western part of the country, are home to tens of thousands of a minority ethnic group, the Ndebele, who are experiencing extreme hunger and high unemployment.


In the early Eighties, Mugabe, sent his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, made up entirely of men from the majority Shona ethnic group he himself belongs to, to quell what he claimed was a rebel uprising.


In little over two years, many thousands of Ndebele civilians were slaughtered. To stop the slaughter, Joshua Nkomo, leader of the Ndebele-based ZAPU, Zimbabwe African Peoples Union, agreed that his movement should be absorbed into the then prime minister Robert Mugabe’s ZANU or Zimbabwe African National Union. The result was ZANU PF and a one-party state, in which all power remained with Mugabe’s faction.


Touring Bulawayo’s townships for several days ahead of the March 31 vote, an IWPR contributor was told of a mood of deep anger stemming from people’s belief that President Mugabe is again cheating his way to victory.


There were dire warnings that this time, the Ndebele, who are an offshoot of the Zulus of South Africa and account for 15 per cent of Zimbabwe’s 11.5 million population, will no longer stomach rule by Mugabe and ZANU PF.


Nqobizitha, an Ndebele, is one of Zimbabwe’s genuine liberation war veterans, a guerrilla who fought for eight years during the pre-independence bush war of 1972-80.


In 1983, as Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade were slaughtering Nqobizitha’s countrymen, he returned home to the bush district of Tsholotsho in northern Matabeleland, to find that his pregnant cousin had been sliced in half by a Mugabe militiaman. It was just one of countless atrocities.


“The people here are very angry,” he told IWPR. “The youth especially are angry. They are itching for a fight. They come to us for leadership but we tell them we have no weapons, no structure, and no training. But it will happen. The Ndebele can take no more of this man’s ZANU PF.”


Bulawayo’s townships are braced for a violent clampdown when Mugabe declares victory, which he is expected to do over the weekend of April 2-3.


There is sense that people here have passed some kind of threshold, and are no longer frightened. Many told IWPR openly that they would be voting for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC - “for change”, as many put it.


George Moyo, a traditional Ndebele healer who chairs the residents’ association in Tshabalala township, south of Bulawayo, and is the most senior cultural figure in this community, said, “There is a volcano here in Matabeleland which is going to erupt. But we don’t want to jump right now; they will kill all our children. But we are waiting, and it will happen.


“The government has its instruments here already, waiting to punish us. They are everywhere, in plain clothes, pretending to be friendly, but all the time watching us. If we strike now, they will crush us. We don’t want our children to disappear.”


Moyo concluded, “ZANU PF will win - everyone is expecting that. But if we rise up now, it is like going up to a lion and saying, ‘Open your mouth, I want to get in’.”


MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, on a visit to Tshabalala, attacked Mugabe for letting the country slide into decay. He urged supporters to hand ZANU PF a resounding defeat at the polls.


Tsvangirai then moved on to Bulawayo’s White City Stadium, where Mugabe deployed his North Korean-trained soldiers to quash dissent in the Eighties. A crowd of some 15,000 supporters erupted into a rapturous roar as Tsvangirai arrived, greeting him with the MDC’s open palm salute and chanting the party slogan “Guqula izenzo” (change your ways).


Tsvangirai was scathing about the way the 81-year-old head of state has run economic policy, “Mugabe says no one can manage the economy better than he did, but where have you seen any economy where millionaires are poor?”


He was referring to the collapsing value of the Zimbabwean dollar, which has plummeted to an official exchange rate of 6,000 to the US dollar compared with around 55 to the dollar five years ago. On the black market, the US currency now buys 12,000 Zimbabwean dollars. A week’s decent week’s basket for food literally costs more than a million Zimbabwean dollars.


The opposition leader also took a swipe at ZANU PF’s campaign against British prime minister Tony Blair, calling it farcical. “While Mugabe is talking about Blair, we will be talking about how we will feed our children, and while he is talking about [US President George] Bush, we will be talking about how to create jobs for our youth,” he said. “If Mugabe wants to fight Blair in an election, he must go to Britain.”


Mugabe has been publicly at loggerheads with the British premier since launching his land reform campaign in 2000. He blames Blair for the sanctions slapped on Zimbabwe by the European Union and the United States because of the land programme, which has seen more than 4,000 white farmers driven from their properties. He also claims that Blair backs the MDC.


Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Archbisop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, who has called for an “Orange Revolution” like that seen in Ukraine, warned that violence was certain after the election.


“It may be quiet now, but ZANU PF are very violent. You are dealing with people who bullied everyone into silence in the past,” said Ncube. “Mugabe is a very, very evil man. After previous elections he told his supporters, ‘Now take your sticks and beat out the snakes among you.’”


At his final election rallies in Mashonaland, the heartland of the Shona, Mugabe dismissed his election opponents as traitors.


“All those who will vote for the MDC are traitors,” he said. And in one speech he warned, ominously, that victory in the election by the opposition “will not be tolerated”.


Chipo Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.


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