'Hardship with Zanu, a better life with Morgan'
“It was 4am on Tuesday and under the clear Zimbabwean stars, opposition candidate Iain Kay was driving to his hometown of Marondera, 70km east of Harare.
Two rallies had been planned. But by the time the sun had set, the police had detained more than two hundred people and Kay had returned to the interrogation centre where he had been tortured last year.
The day had begun well.
Two hundred members of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had been delivered to the site of the first rally — one of several that the party is holding in rural areas. Such a gathering would have been unthinkable four years ago, when the last MDC candidate was forced to flee the town after his house was firebombed and several activists, including Kay, were badly tortured.
Although there is less overt violence than in previous years, the rural hinterland is still the stronghold of 81-year-old President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party. The supporters at Marondera sang their loudest, but not a single local person showed up. Only a few curious faces peered out from the bushes.
“The government has been bussing people away from the areas where we hold our rallies,” complained Kay, who blames Zanu-PF for preventing people from attending four rallies at the weekend.
“They force people to attend alternate events. Last weekend, they even held an unofficial rally at the same place that we had booked, and posted people around the sidelines to make sure they did not sneak off from the Zanu-PF event,” he said.
Other MDC members explained that government supporters had threatened people to stay away, and often monitored the rallies to take the names of those who attended. As if on cue, a truck marked “Zanu-PF, Mashonaland East” pulled up, followed by an unmarked vehicle. Youths in both cars circled the rally, giving the traditional clenched fist salute of the ruling party.
Forty minutes later, another lorry arrived and disgorged several men wearing Zanu-PF T-shirts and a few more in plain clothes. They were joined by another car that locals identified as Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), Zimbabwe’s feared secret police. Kay, a former farmer, is running against the former head of the CIO, Sydney Sekeramayi, now the Minister of Defence.
When the police arrived they ignored the Zanu-PF supporters and told Kay that the rally had to take place on the roadside, opposite the shopping area where the MDC had gathered.
Undeterred, the crowd moved out, and the next hour was filled with songs and speeches, always ending with the demand for “Chinja!” (Change) that has become the MDC’s rallying cry.
However, the next assembly point, on Chiperawi farm, was empty apart from three uniformed policemen and four CIO officers. Slightly discouraged, Kay led his supporters down the hill for a tea break, and it was decided to wind up for the day.
“I am voting MDC because my children have no clothes to wear,” said one woman as she clambered back into the truck. “We used to export cotton. Now we have no cotton, no food, and no jobs. We have to change this government.”
As other supporters took up her cry, the lorries and pick-up trucks wound back into Marondera. Some residents wearing Zanu-PF T-shirts shook their fists at the MDC convoy. Many more stretched their fingers wide in the open-handed salute of the MDC, or furtively flashed a grin. Some simply gaped at this open display of defiance in a town where the MDC used to do their campaign planning in caves to avoid arrest.
The appearance of two police vehicles cut short the singing. Both lorries and pick-up trucks, now silent, were escorted to Marondera police station. Many of the inhabitants had been there before.
“I was detained here on February 15, with three other women,” said one woman. “They picked us up under Posa [Public Order and Security Act, which stipulates that all political meetings need police permission], even though we were just walking down a tar road. They kept us for three days.”
For Kay, the room where he and the other MDC leaders were taken for questioning was uncomfortably close to the office where the police broke two of his ribs during a beating last year. This time, they let him go after an hour.
“First they told us we could not sing,” said Kay. “Then they tried to say that we were illegally transporting people but I told them I’d seen hundreds of Zanu-PF supporters bussed into Hwedza. We hadn’t done anything illegal, so they had to let us go.”
Silently, the trucks rolled out of the station. Quietly, they returned to Marondera. But by the time the last few supporters were dropped off at their homes, the memories of past abuses had been banished by the renewed singing: “Hardships with Zanu, a better life with Morgan”. That day, at least, the MDC refused to be silenced.