Plight of the rural Zimbabwean voter

THE rural population is, perhaps, the most abused political constituency in Zimbabwe — remembered only during the time of elections. All too often, it is taken for granted that the rural communities are President Robert Mugabe’s natural constituency.

Years ago, in the early 80s, Zimbabwe suffered an excruciating drought. Crops failed, domestic animals became matungundu (rinder pest-afflicted) and perished in great numbers. At the time, people were assembled at traditional gathering points across the country. There, truckloads of grain arrived and each household received a share of what became known as Chibage chaMugabe (Mugabe’s grain).

When the kids returned to the local schools, they were offered supplementary milk and mahewu. That, too, was called mukaka waMugabe (Mugabe’s milk) or mahewu aMugabe (Mugabe’s mahewu).

And when the first rains of the new season arrived, truckloads came again, with “Mugabe fertiliser” and “Mugabe seed maize”. Even the plots on which the seed was planted are, to this day, referred as “munda wechibage chaMugabe” (the plot on which Mugabe maize was planted).

And with that the seed of allegiance to Mugabe was also planted. Never mind that the donated supplements may have come from donors unrelated to Mugabe.

That the welfare came from Mugabe’s charity became lodged in the subconscious and embedded in the everyday language of the rural communities across the country. It is hardly surprising that the control over the provision or withdrawal of welfare is a very important source of power to the Mugabe regime.

This language illustrates the impact of the power wrought on these communities by the Mugabe regime. It went beyond the mental universe, pervading even the local vocabulary, that Mugabe was the benevolent benefactor.

This Zanu PF “welfare narrative” also obfuscates the fact that the welfare came from the tax contributions of the rural people’s sons and daughters.

Yet not everyone was that lucky. There were a few zvimbwasungata — a harsh description of those that did not agree with the party, who found themselves marginalised from the welfare system.

The same tactics used against opponents in the 1980s are still used against perceived opponents. This ability to provide or refuse access to welfare in times of need has been a key source of power and control over rural voters.

Yet it remains one of the great ironies that the poorest and most marginalised are at the same time deemed to be the kingmakers in Zimbabwean politics.

The more recent controls over food aid have to be seen within this context: it is to ensure that Zanu PF remains the only source of welfare and to prevent any other party from drawing power from this key source.

Allowing alternative sources to provide food aid would be tantamount to permitting the neutralisation of the long-sown idea that only Mugabe and Zanu PF are the caring benefactors. Zanu PF cannot possibly permit an alternative welfare narrative.

The second and related source of power in the rural communities is the fear of ostracisation and violence. Not only does it mean that a mutengesi (sellout) is denied welfare, it also means that security can be withdrawn from his family.

The phenomenon of violence in rural areas has a long history, dating back to the liberation war period. While the most favoured liberation war narrative tends to paint a brighter picture of heroism, there is also another, less popular but sinister side that left a bitter taste in the rural communities on whose turf the war was mainly fought.

Much of this sordid violence took place in rural hinterlands. Stories are told of alleged vatengesi who were either maimed or killed mostly after being found guilty by kangaroo courts.

Punishments were often carried out in full view of the public. Many who witnessed the reality of violence still constitute a large portion of the rural voters.

These historical circumstances cannot be dismissed out of hand, especially when the liberation party in power still uses the language of “pasi nevatengesi” (literally translating to “death to the sellouts”).

It is not surprising therefore, that in the language of Zanu PF, Simba Makoni has now joined the ranks of Morgan Tsvangirai and MDC members as a “mutengesi”. This is a language that is designed to bring back bitter memories and instil fear in the rural communities.

Zanu PF hopes to cash in on the seed of fear sown many years ago. It is likely to increase the tempo, characterising Makoni and Tsvangirai as sellouts and tools of the imperialists.

In order to cement this reputation and the monopoly of this narrative, Zanu PF creates practical barriers to opponents in rural areas. They know that rural voters are not gullible and that if they have information from other sources, they would make more informed choices.

The deprivation of space for campaigns and information dissemination is part of an elaborate scheme, which includes the monopolisation of the media, so that rural communities are only ever exposed to the government-controlled radio and the party’s foot-soldiers.

But, surely, the failed promises and the bitter poverty they have endured for years despite voting for Zanu PF should have taught the rural voters important lessons. The breakdown of the economy has led to greater poverty and insecurity in these communities.

With not even functional shops at local townships, or unaffordable items where available, rural voters have been reduced to a primitive, hunter-gatherer lifestyle. In place of soap some now resort to ruredzo — an indigenous plant that produces slimy foam when immersed in water.

Where once there were buses and cars, they now use wheelbarrows and ox-drawn carts to ferry the sick and wounded. They travel long distances on foot to the nearest service centre.

They are, literally, on their way back to a bygone era, yet they are told repeatedly that the country will never be a colony again. Yet, in truth, they have become victims of a past they had seemingly escaped.

Nevertheless, it is a constituency that is periodically manipulated and coerced into submission during election periods. The rural hinterlands also provide opportunities for cheating, there being limited vigilance.

The true test of whether or not elections are conducted properly is the access to which the opposition is given to rural communities. It is whether they can hold rallies in those areas and freely engage in their campaign activities. That’s where the main support is and so it follows that that should be the focus of campaigns.

It’s well and fine to observe elections in urban areas but the real trickery is likely to take place in the hinterlands.

It is not simply about opposition politicians leading the campaign in those communities. It is also about the citizens participating in the process of conscientising and reassuring their rural counterparts.

The lack of media space can be filled in by information dissemination through individual citizens. Most rural dwellers have relatives who reside in the urban areas and in the absence of government support they remain their principal sources of welfare.

The urban dwellers often have access to more information and this has to be transmitted more effectively to their rural counterparts. They are not gullible; they just want assurance and confirmation.

They need to be aware that there are no hidden cameras in voting booths; that it is in their interests to do as their hearts and stomachs tell them; that their greatest fear is not re-colonisation but the return to a primitive existence.

But this challenge can only be overcome if those that are better informed can play a role to disabuse their fellow citizens of the fictional notions sown in the communities years ago. The African family unit is wide and closely connected.

Even where rallies are banned, there are many forums through which information can be transmitted — those family gatherings, those funeral gatherings, the biras etc. It goes without saying that transmitting information to rural communities and ensuring the voters exercise their free choice will be the key factor in the outcome of this election.

And for those lucky enough to be invited to observe elections, they had better focus on those poor rural constituencies, where all the unsavoury games take place, often without notice.

By Alex Magaisa

* Dr Magaisa is based at the University of Kent Law School and can be contacted at a.t.magaisa@kent.ac.uk or wamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk

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