At first glance Lupane seems no different from other rural districts in Zimbabwe. Its tranquillity, coupled with a canopy of luxuriant forest, gives no indication of the recurring droughts that plague the area. Situated 170km south-west of Bulawayo, it is a place where appearance masks, rather than reflects, reality. Ironically, it is the district’s lesser revealed life and issues that the media and politicians are now interested in.
So, too, are observers and human-rights officials, who have zoomed in on the district as the upcoming parliamentary by-election — scheduled for May 15 and 16 — draws near.
Their sudden examination of the constituency is likely to reveal, among other things, a broken community disheartened by poverty. Some residents seem bemused by the ruling party’s vigorous courtship, aimed at raking in votes.
Their apathy is unlikely to affect the efforts of Zanu-PF, the ruling party. The government of President Robert Mugabe is determined to win this one seat after it lost all eight in the province to the opposition in the 2000 parliamentary elections.
Since independence from Britain in 1980 the ruling party has been unable to count on the south-western province of Matabeleland North, of which Lupane is the capital, as part of its traditional rural support base. The key to understanding this phenomenon lies buried in the history of the early 1980s, when the new government launched a brutal counter-insurgency operation. It was aimed, officially, at flushing out renegade elements of a rival opposition party rooted in the province, and two adjoining ones.
An estimated 20 000 men, women and children were killed, violated and tortured in a bizarre military operation. Several human rights organisations, such as the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe Human Rights Organisation, have described the massacres as “ethnic cleansing”, targeting southern Zimbabwe’s minority Ndebele-speaking community. Such a military operation has had far-reaching effects, extending across generations and communities.
Catholic priest Gabriel Silonda says some Lupane residents are still battling to find their parents’ remains. Others, born during this period, have not been able to secure birth certificates because of missing fathers, or a belief that they were the offspring of the perpetrators of violence. The cleric says that pent-up anger is preventing villagers from carrying on with their lives. This, in turn, has allowed underdevelopment to take root. “People here need some form of healing because they have been brutalised,” he adds.
Unable to put the past behind them, many also feel they are yet to enjoy the fruits of independence. Activist David Nyathi says that among the major grievances is the exploitation of the district’s abundant timber resources. “We don’t know where it’s going,” he says. “Since independence, there is nothing of a government project to brag about.”
But there are some signs of development in the town, which has been demarcated as a “growth point” by authorities. While streets simmer in the midday heat, Chinese engineers stand next to the foundations of a building. It is destined to become a government office complex.
Several blocks down, a registry office is nearing completion. But these efforts do not impress Nyathi, who says the impetus is the result of the opposition’s strengthening in the region.
Late last year the government announced that it would build a provincial university, with the first intake expected later this year. The proposed institution has not been met with applause. Residents have dismissed it as a grandiose project, particularly as the district lacks quality schools to provide the university with students.
The smell of fresh cement and the sense of hope, ignited by the construction, contrast sharply with pervading fear of election-related violence. In February local MP David Mpala succumbed to injuries he sustained months after being abducted and severely assaulted by Zanu-PF members. His seat is now vacant and two candidates will be competing for it in next month’s by-election.
The election is coming a month after the opposition lost a similar one in its urban stronghold, where extreme violence, intimidation and alleged rigging characterised voting.
However, Silonda says Lupane is a place where the ruling party does not need to rely on force to win because “they have a saleable candidate” who is widely respected. “He’s sensitive and no pushover, I could vote for him as a person,” Silonda says.
Political analyst John Makumbe says Lupane is a key seat for the ruling party. If they secure it, they will be one seat short of a two-thirds parliamentary majority, which the party will not hesitate to use to amend the Constitution to suit its needs, even before next March’s legislative elections. Makumbe says “the ghost” of the 1980s military operation will “seriously” affect the outcome of the election. But Zanu-PF is no longer “scared” of it as before. — Inter Press Service