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Editor’s Memo

Seeing through it all

IN 1999 Registrar-General Tobaiwa Mudede invited journalists to his office’s computer bank adjacent to KGVI barracks to show the

media how ready he was to host the 2000 polls.

Like most things Mudede, despite meticulous planning to impress the assembled scribes, there were glitches here and there which spoilt the show for the bureaucrat. The last thing Mudede wanted was to be asked uncomfortable questions.

During a brief question and answer session, I asked Mudede why Zimbabwe was not using translucent ballot boxes in the election. His response was sharp: “What for? Why would we want to waste money? I know that someone is just trying to make money out of our elections.”

There was more from Mudede. In a television interview towards the end of that year, he said that ballot boxes should be made from local materials like scrap wood in order to save resources. His sentiments were supported by political analysts who were wheeled in to attack those advocating the use of translucent ballot boxes.

The Zimbabwe government was taking a leaf from the book of the Kenyan government which in the 1992 and 1997 general elections rejected an offer of transparent ballot boxes from Norway. This was viewed by the opposition as indicative of a plot to rig the polls in favour of Kanu.

There has been a change of heart here and government has agreed to use translucent boxes in the March 31 election. The boxes are important because Mugabe’s government would like to be seen to be transparent; or is it translucent?

A consignment arrived in the country on Monday and Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa went on TV in the evening to enthuse about the boxes. He told us that the government wanted to be transparent. He said the boxes were not exactly transparent like a “mirror” but were translucent. He said interested persons could see that the box is empty, or full, without necessarily seeing what’s written on the ballot papers. That’s transparency!

Can I remind Chinamasa that in December 2001 in the run-up to the 2002 presidential poll he told us that there was “no problem” in accepting transparent boxes as long as they were donated.

Interestingly, in the 2000 election government turned down an offer by Denmark to donate translucent boxes to replace the wooden ones.

Chinamasa later changed his mind about government accepting donated boxes saying Zimbabwe was “a timber-producing country” and that the British themselves refused to use transparent boxes as voters could see ballots which had unfolded.

In January 2002, he denied that any offer of the free translucent boxes had been made by the UNDP.

This was the government line of thinking according to Chinamasa: “I believe

that there is no prejudice whatsoever to the democratic process in continuing to use opaque ballot boxes. The recommendation of the Sadc Parliamentary Forum is (only) a recommendation.”

The Sadc Parliamentary Forum, which observed the 2000 parliamentary election, had as one of its recommendations the use of translucent ballot boxes and not wooden ones. Like all recommendations which were critical of the conduct of the election, the report from the Sadc forum was ridiculed. But our government, in its quest for regional acceptance, has now taken on board long-rejected recommendations. It’s suddenly a doyen of transparency — or more appropriately translucency.

There is a reason for this. A translucent physical material shows objects behind it, but those objects are obscured by the translucent material. In short, the real picture is obscured.

The Zimbabwe government has decided to hide behind the translucent material to mask its shortcomings and lack of compliance with best electoral practice. We now have translucent ballot boxes, so our electoral system is transparent, the Zanu PF government will argue.

We must not be fooled by this subterfuge. A transparent system is when those outside are allowed to look inside. Transparency does not involve barring critical observer missions and only bringing in cheerleaders. A transparent physical material shows objects behind it as unobscured.

What is behind Zanu PF’s decision that election observers from Western countries are unfriendly and should therefore not be invited to observe the poll? It is this quest to be opaque, to mask and obscure the conduct of the poll.

It is clear that the government’s mindset has not changed at all. There has not been an attempt by the party to reform itself to embrace transparency. A party built on the foundation of democracy and openness does not bring to parliament repressive legislation like the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Public Order and Security Act.

Zanu PF seems content to remain in its wooden box. As it is constantly talking about burying people, perhaps that’s where it belongs!

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