“My team from left to right: Pearl Nicodemus (SA), Sphiwe Dlamini (SA) and Joao Nhampossa at Mashonaland East Hwecka North poling station”.
The AFRIC team constituted of people who are active in various spheres of society including independent researchers; activists and experts who were all excited to be a part of a historic moment in Zimbabwe. General elections without the long-time ruler, former president Robert Mugabe.
My mind was marred by stereotypes and one sided news reports about the state of the nation which I tried not to internalise but chose to cross the border with as blank a canvass as I could muster. Harae’s winter afternoons mirrored its people, warm and welcoming.
On the days leading up to elections many citizens we encountered were in disbelief about the peace that was prevalent in the air. I sat down with one of our drivers who told me how in the past, election period was coloured with blood and violence, “but now it is like we’re preparing for a wedding” he exclaimed. People in the streets were free to proclaim their political allegiance without fear of intimidation from the state. A lady who did not want to be named said she is voting for the first time at the age of 30 because she feels that this time her voice will be heard.
The euphoria did not resonate with everyone. On one warm Harare afternoon, a few of us from the team went to a local restaurant for lunch and we attracted some attention upon entering because we really looked like a sample of every nation, race and age group represented. On our table sat colleagues from South Africa, India, Germany and Zimbabwe of all ages from youth to senior citizens. A group of white Zimbabweans who were sitting on a table close to us keen to know what our story was approached us. As soon as we told them that we were foreign observers, one woman among them told us her tragic tale of how her father was dispossessed of the farm he had built up over 20 years and from his livelihood. She said she is still very bitter about how their farm was expropriated without compensation.
On the day of elections myself and two other colleagues, Sphiwe Dlamini (South Africa) and Joao Nhampossa (Mozambique) were deployed in Mashonaland East and we visited eleven polling stations across three regions; Marondera, Seke and Wedza. The mood was similarly peaceful everywhere we went. “We don’t want war, we want progress” said a voter in Marondera. That was the echoed desire from everyone we spoke to.
It was only a day after the voting process had been concluded that tensions began to brew. Some citizens sensed the peace before the storm and I remember the caretaker of where we stayed turning to us and asking, “are we going to be ok?” I was certain that there would not be a civil war as purported by some media outlets and people on the streets because I had met and interacted with the people of Zimbabwe. Peace and humility oozed from them even in a political climate that is ripe for revolt, many wanted peace.
I remember assuring one voter at a polling station that Zimbabwe had entered a new dawn and that I anticipated a few instabilities post elections but it would pass. I of course did not anticipate that the army would open live ammunition on a group of unarmed protestors and civilians who had nothing to do with the protests. The opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa had reportedly claimed victory before the results were released and when the results were delayed, members of the opposition party, MDC Alliance took to the streets two days after voting day.
We take for granted the importance of access to information and infrastructure. On Election Day in Mash East, many voters were not aware that Robert Mugabe had held a press briefing at his home to proclaim that he would not vote for ZANU-PF. Even though the area is a Zanu-PF stronghold, much of the political activities and news did not reach many rural areas.
We left the country while there was still tension in Harare and as we drove to the airport, soldiers manned the empty streets.
Zimbabwe is a country with potential, skill and capacity in its people. The highlight of my trip seeing how they have retained humility, love and strength to carry on in the face of political and economic strife.