Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
War of Words on Campaign Trail
If the mood in the impoverished small town of Bikita, in Masvingo province, is anything to go by, Robert Mugabe may yet begin to regret the slight loosening of the noose that had been placed around the opposition’s neck.
President Mugabe’s strategy, with parliamentary elections now only a week away, appears to be to ease back on the widespread oppression that marked the last parliamentary and presidential ballots in 2000 and 2002 – but rig the polls to secure a clear victory for his ruling ZANU PF party.
He then expects the carefully invited observer teams - selected to ensure that none are critical of the conduct of the campaign - to declare the ballot “free and fair” some time after the March 31 polling day.
However, there are signs that Mugabe is not having it all his own way. For it was the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, leader Morgan Tsvangirai who received the biggest welcome when both men descended recently on the small town of Bikita 250 kilometres south of Harare - a once traditional ZANU PF area. Here, white commercial farms have been wrecked, peasant crops have failed and the population is riddled with HIV/AIDS.
In Bikita itself, Mugabe addressed a small, subdued crowd with a denunciation of past land injustices and white racism and a reminder of previous ZANU PF election victories in the constituency.
Meanwhile, Tsvangirai attracted a crowd of 15,000 – three times the number who attended Mugabe’s rally - at the nearby village of Nemamwa.
“The whites want us to be slaves,” thundered Mugabe - a familiar campaign theme, although there are barely 20,000 whites left in Zimbabwe from the quarter million resident at the time of independence in 1980.
The president also accused white-owned businesses of deliberately closing their factories “to force blacks onto the streets and turn them against their government”.
Tsvangirai’s rally was dominated by young people who wore red “No To Violence” stickers on their foreheads, while the president’s gathering was attended by middle-aged ladies wearing dresses and t-shirts imprinted with the leader’s image.
Tsvangirai said that on March 31, he aimed to complete the “process of change” begun at the last parliamentary election five years ago when the newly formed MDC came from nowhere and won 57 of the 120 electoral seats. He said land reform was necessary, but not the most important issue - unlike Mugabe who said his confiscation of white farms was a fulfilment of his promise during the independence struggle to restore land to the black people of Zimbabwe.
“The first priority is food,” said Tsvangirai, speaking to people who have experienced food shortages since 2000 and whose paltry crops are this year withering in the burning sun following a failure of the annual summer rains.
He accused Mugabe of worsening an already serious food situation by slamming the door on international food agencies - claiming Zimbabwe had so much food that the people would choke on donated grain.
Tsvangirai reminded the crowd that Mugabe had promised to distribute confiscated white farms to needy peasants, and instead given them to trusted ministers, military officers, judges, other professionals and even churchmen who used them for little more than weekend barbecues.
"We are saying ‘one person, one farm’ and we will give you all the necessary support to farm, but if you fail we will remove you from the farm and [replace you with those] who are productive," Tsvangirai told the gathering.
“The most important thing about land is being able to farm and produce. Mugabe chased away all non-governmental organisations that were feeding people. What kind of cruelty is that?"
To loud cheers, whistles and the massed open-hand salute of the MDC, he said that if the MDC won the election, it would again allow international aid agencies to operate in the country. He added that reorganising the farming sector in strict accordance with the law would create employment for the rural poor and help attract foreign investment again.
Mugabe, who has declared this election an “anti-Tony Blair” one, reflecting his particular hatred of the British prime minister, denounced Tsvangirai as a “tea boy” of the British government.
Recalling the liberation struggle against the white minority government of Ian Smith and his own years in jail for opposing minority rule, he accused Blair of harbouring “neo-colonialist” aspirations in Zimbabwe.
“What is his business here?” Mugabe asked to cheers delivered on cue. “How can the prime minister of Britain behave like a street kid? The MDC are a rabble of British stooges, a party of murderers.”
He accused the UK premier of lying about human rights abuses by ZANU PF. “We are not liars like Blair and [US president George W] Bush,” he said. “They lied that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in order to find a pretext to invade that country.”
Mugabe made one passing but important reference to food. Confronted by the fact that government silos in the whole of Masvingo province ran out of the country’s staple food maize at the beginning of March, he said, “We are aware that many people have nothing in their fields. The government will not let people die of hunger.”
He said the government had enough grain in stock elsewhere to last for three months, but it was difficult to get it to rural areas because of transport problems.
At a later Tsvangirai rally further north, near Bindura, the MDC leader provoked loud laughter when he said, “Whenever Mugabe speaks he’s always going on about Blair this, Blair that. If Mugabe wants to campaign against [the British prime minister] he should go to the UK.”
Leaving the Nemamwa rally, Blessing Gwinya, a 29-year-old unemployed welder and his friends said they now believed the expulsion of white farmers from the district’s commercial properties had been a mistake.
“I could go there and get work,” said Gwinya. “I could buy seed from the farmer and plant it, just enough for my family.”
Samuel Chiambiro, a 67-year-old who ran a carpentry business and raised fifteen children by two wives, said he was extremely hopeful when Mugabe came to power. “The Europeans, they treated Africans unkindly,” he said. “Ah, but this [situation] was not the thing we were fighting for. [Mugabe] must go.”
Chipo Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.
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