Zimbabwe’s daily grind

2008-04-10 00:00

Nothing you read or hear prepares you for the harsh reality of ordinary Zimbabwean lives. In voices that still conveyed their amazement, a group of KwaZulu-Natal Council of Churches (KZNCC) leaders related their experiences on their return from a visit to the country over the election period. They were speaking at a report-back meeting in the city on Tuesday during which they addressed fellow KZNCC members.

For Reverend Nicolas Mkaronde it was like stepping back in time. A retired teacher, whose children are doctors and engineers, summed up the situation for him when she said, “we are living in the sixties”. She spends her day fetching firewood and water. “In the old days our children left us to work in the gold mines, today they are leaving for South Africa to find work, any work to help us survive,” she said.

Mkaronde and the others who accompanied him spoke about homes they visited with cars and appliances standing idle without electricity and fuel, and taps that remain dry. They described the daily grind of people whose time is totally consumed by standing in long queues at automatic teller machines or searching for food. They walk kilometres for a loaf of bread that costs Zim$15 million and where five litres of cooking oil sets you back Zim$2 billion. In the 12 homes that the team stayed in the standard fare for supper was stiff pap. Sbu Khanyile said forget about salt, an old gogo told him that salt is like gold in Zimbabwe.

“What struck me,” said Reverend Gugu Shelembe, “is that people struggle to find bread yet every second shop is a bottle store and they never run out of beer. It also seemed as if every second woman is pregnant or carrying a baby and I worry about the spread of HIV/Aids in this situation. It seems that this moral degeneration is a way that people have found of escaping the reality of their lives and it is going to take a long time to fix.”

Rampant corruption is another concern raised by the group. Shelembe said it seems that everyone is involved in the black market from bank managers to shop owners. “I went into a shop to buy bottled water. The assistant said there was no water, yet I spotted a large pack of bottles in a fridge. She told me that the water belonged to the manager and was to be sold on the black market in the streets.”

Dr Lucas Ngoetjana and his Zimbabwean host were stopped twice by traffic policeman wanting bribes.

“At the first stop we paid Zim$700 000 because they said that our tail-light was not working. At the second stop my host said he had already paid down the way. They [the police] spotted a loaf of bread on the back seat and said ‘then give us your bread’.”

Despite these hardships, the South Africans sensed a positive attitude among the Zimbabweans and a determination for change in the build-up to the March 2008 elections. Selvan Chetty of the Solidarity Peace Trust said that people do not necessarily support the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), but that a vote for the MDC is a vote against President Robert Mugabe. Chetty, who has observed previous Zimbabwean elections, said this time the churches were very involved and there was a greater level of activism around the elections.

“We attended prayer meetings that turned into voter education workshops and everywhere people would say to us, ‘you'll see this time around there will be change in Zimbabwe’.”

According to the KZNCC team, nobody can claim that the elections were free and fair, least of all an official grouping of South African religious representatives who were accredited observers. Mkaronde said these observers stayed in their hotel for seven days and were only given accreditation on March 29, a day before the election. Chetty said they ventured out in air-conditioned vehicles returning to their five-star hotel for lunch and supper.

The team’s experiences of voting day was finding polling stations where new demarcations were introduced after people had already checked that their names were on the voter’s roll and not being told where they were expected to go to cast their vote. There were cases where people had registered and could not find their names on the roll, manipulation of food aid in rural areas to buy votes and they were shown vacant plots given as addresses of ghost voters.

In the days after the election and the non-release of the election results, the local delegation has seen hope fading and they are getting reports from their contacts in Zimbabwe of a resurgence of violence. Chetty said a woman they had met said she had been warned by a relative in the military to get out with her children as there is going to be an unleashing of violence.

“Zimbabwean activists are fatigued. They want us to understand how their optimism has turned into a sense of hopelessness and despondency, and now, most of all, they need us to be their voice. They ask why South Africa is so silent and why we don’t turn off the electricity and fuel supplies to bring Mugabe to his knees.”

The 12 delegates said they are more committed than before to challenging the government on its silence over Zimbabwe and urged South Africans not to ignore what is going on across the border. After the report back, the KZNCC undertook to be part of a country-wide solidarity campaign in support of the people of Zimbabwe. As a first step on Tuesday they wrote an open letter to the African National Congress and President Thabo Mbeki challenging him on his silence over what is going on in Zimbabwe, calling for the release of the election results and expressing their dismay at the resurgence of violence in the country and the shocking level of poverty that ordinary Zimbabweans are forced to live under.

• KwaZulu-Natal churches and church organisations have announced an international weekend of prayer for Zimbabwe between April 18 and April 20. People of all faiths are invited to offer prayers in their churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. They have called on the South African government and leaders of Southern African Development Community countries to ensure that the presidential election results are released without further delay and that the results are honoured.

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