Zimbabweans voted on Monday in the first polls since Robert Mugabe was ousted in November last year, but the legacy of his 37-year rule cannot be overlooked. They simply cannot imagine defeat.
Crowds of Zanu-PF supporters streamed into the national stadium in the capital, Harare, last Saturday morning and every person I spoke to had the same conviction: Emmerson Mnangagwa, who succeeded Mugabe as president, was going to win. And win big.
“It’s gonna be an absolutely resounding victory for Emmerson Mnangagwa,” said Stanley Bote, a young businessman from Harare.
“You have to consider all he has achieved since coming into office.”
Many others simply laughed when I suggested the possibility of an opposition victory. Inside the stadium bands played, rappers rapped. The party went on. Zanu PF has massive financial resources, control of the state media and immense powers of patronage. In the nearly 40 years since Independence, winning by fair means or foul is a Zanu PF tradition.
At the heart of Mnangagwa’s campaign laid an implicit confidence that Zimbabweans would be willing to forget, if not forgive, his own and his party’s appalling record of misrule and human rights abuses.
His party’s campaign literature and rhetoric stressed the imperatives of the present: investment, jobs, education and health care. In fact, all of the things that were steadily ruined in decades of Zanu-PF rule. But Mnangagwa believes people should be grateful because he and his co-conspirators in the army rid the country of Mugabe last November.
The mantra “Zimbabwe is open for business” was repeated ceaselessly as the ruling party presents itself as the guarantor of investor-friendly stability. Ever since the military intervention of last November, the new president has been at pains to avoid apologising for the abuses of the past because, as he claimed to me recently, he was “always for peace”.
I asked if he would show humility and acknowledge his own responsibility. He refused, insisting to me that he had never been ruthless, but was “as soft as wool”.
This is the essential fiction for a man trying to persuade the international community and his own people that he represents a different Zanu-PF to the one they knew and feared. Yet Mnangagwa was as close as it was possible to be to decisions that inflicted terror and misery.
In recent days I travelled to Matabeleland in the south of the country to meet survivors of the massacres of the early 1980s when soldiers of the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade carried out a campaign of torture and killing.
Attacks by dissidents opposed to Mugabe opened the way for waves of terror directed against the perceived political enemies of the government. This category was expanded beyond the dissidents to include thousands of members of the Matabele people from the same ethnic group as Mugabe’s opponent at the time, former Vice-President Joshua Nkomo.
Mnangagwa was then state security minister. His close ally, Perence Shiri — the current Agriculture minister — is remembered in Matabeleland as commander of the Fifth Brigade, with the nickname of “Black Jesus” because he could decide who lived and who died.
Sinikiwe Ncube was 12 years old when two strangers appeared at the door of her family home near Balagwe village. “They asked my father to come with them and we never saw him again.”
Her father, Samson Ncube, was a teacher and may have been targeted because he was an educated man, the kind of figure whose words were trusted by locals.
I asked Sinikiwe if she was willing to forgive those responsible for his disappearance.
“How can we forgive when the perpetrators have not acknowledged what they did, when they have not apologised? Let them come and say sorry and then we can forgive,” she said.
Campaigner Dumisane Mpofu, of the human rights group Freedom First, thought the memory of past atrocities would prompt voters to reject Mnangagwa. “Definitely . . . it is a given,” he said.
“It is likely to influence people to think differently, knowing they might bring into power a political party able to build sustainable peace for their future.”
But in several encounters I found wariness. “I have nothing to say,” a young shopkeeper responded when I asked how she felt about the election.
I tried to take a sample of opinion on the dust-blown main street of Maphisa, a small town near the notorious Antelope Mine where bodies were dumped in the 1980s.
A group of men were waiting outside a cafe, hoping to pick up casual labour. But they were unwilling to speak. Two women on their way to an opposition rally shook their heads and walked away when I asked for their views.
On the wall of a hut in Bhalagwe village, I noticed a flag bearing the face of Mnangagwa.
“So you’re a Zanu PF supporter?” I asked the woman living there. “Not at all,” she replied, “that’s just my shield in case they come calling.”
The experience of the Matabeleland massacres is confined to an older generation in a distinct geographical area. But more recent excesses linger in the minds of voters across Zimbabwe. The crackdowns that followed the election of 2008 saw murders and beatings.
According to Human Rights Watch, up to 200 people were killed, more than 5 000 suffered violent abuse and more than 30 000 were displaced. This time around there has been nothing like that violence. But there are persistent complaints of intimidation, the politics of quiet but persistent threat in small villages. There are hundreds of international observers deployed for these elections but can they hope to uncover what happens when a traditional leader or ruling party official warns villagers in remote places?
The idea that the ruling party saw and heard everything was carefully fostered in past polls.
This election was a test, not only of political support, but of individual freedom. The MDC Alliance has accused the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission of bias and arrogance.
It has complained repeatedly about irregularities in the voters’ roll and the security of ballot papers. — BBC.
Keane is BBC Africa editor.