By Peta Thornycroft
Harare — This past week it was surprising for some journalists to be invited to attend a press conference at national police headquarters, not far from Zimbabwe’s old and elegant State House.
Apart from so much other harassment and outrageous media restrictions, most foreign or privately-owned media were barred from attending most state press conferences for the last 18 years.
The police at the conference are part of the election task team, we were told. They were pleasant and helpful. Even police national spokesperson Charity Charamba was approachable. She smiled. For years she rarely answered her phone and if she did she always said she had no information. And hung up.
But the police are in an odd position now.
One way or another – and we don’t know how, or why – they appear to be largely restricted to their stations since the coup d’etat last November which brought Emmerson Mnangagwa to power.
For the last couple of years, police were everywhere, running unofficial roadblocks and fleecing drivers for spot fines. Their incessant roadblocks put off many tourists visiting resorts, such as Victoria Falls.
The coup ended the dreadful roadblocks.
Police were confined to barracks and eight months later are hardly seen in public, so Harare’s traffic, along its appalling roads, is wild, dangerous, lawless.
But the police will be back in the public eye, and will be on duty at elections on July 30 and will guard the ballots and attend to matters at more than 10 000 polling stations, some in the inhospitable distant countryside.
Zimbabwe’s constitution makes it clear that no member of the security forces may promote any political party at any time, even in plain clothes and off duty. There is a long report from an NGO, the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, which claims that the military is around, in numbers, especially in rural areas, and that many villagers are intimidated by their presence.
Several other well-travelled professionals who travel weekly for work in huge chunks of agricultural rural areas and villages say they have not noticed any army presence anywhere “out there”.
Several middle-aged people in three small villages, who need government food aid, and who live 60km east of Harare said they haven’t seen the army at all since last year, but would be nervous if it (the army) began (illegally) canvassing for Zanu PF in their area.
Zimbabwe has hardly known democracy since it was born in 1980, after a cruel war against minority white rule, and inherited a powerful, hostile southern neighbour (South Africa), chronic debt, and a long-established black market between local and foreign money.
Former prime minister Robert Mugabe wanted a one-party state. And it wasn’t until the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC nearly won elections in 2000 just months after it was born, that the struggle for democracy matured beyond the nationalism of the past.
The party and many of its followers and supportive civil rights organisations, including the media, suffered greatly at the hands of Zanu PF’s securocrats, including Mnangagwa, until the unity government of 2009.
But now, on the eve of these elections, there is still a widespread relief that “the old man” (Mugabe) is gone, even among the 67% of voters living in poverty within a feudal society in rural areas.
Most have never known any political party beyond Zanu PF and have no memory of previous white minority rule.
Zanu PF is in control of every aspect of life – the central bank, the judiciary, nearly all infrastructure, nearly all media, including the only TV channel, the vast civil service, and the enormous, chaotic and largely bankrupt parastatals.
Crucially, the Zimbabwe Election Commission, hostile and arrogant to criticism, or even questions from the media, appears to have no memory of why almost everyone is suspicious of it: its predecessors shamelessly rigged elections. No one is sure about the new biometric voters’ roll, even though it is being checked.
Few of its staff and commissioners are not in the Zanu PF camp: so they have no record of impartial management of anything, even they know they must deliver a credible poll.
And yet despite the extraordinary level of state control of almost every aspect of life, and deep wells of nepotism which continue to infect many key institutions and enterprises, there is optimism, that maybe, just maybe, Zimbabwe will take its place in the world.
There are ever increasing arrivals of foreign observers. They are busy.
They were out there on Thursday evening when police, who will be on duty on election day, secretly began postal voting.
Few democrats have much respect for observers from SADC or the African Union. They remember them from the past – supportive of Mugabe. No one even mentions that South Africa appears missing at these elections.
And there are still nearly three weeks to go and Zanu PF has all the resources. But its leader, Mnangagwa, is at least in public, different from Mugabe.
He has abandoned many of Mugabe’s slogans and he has a sense of humour.
So Zanu PF is doing many state-funded rallies, and the opposition is dead broke and chaotic, but its leader, Nelson Chamisa, is energetic even in rural areas where the party never went to before.
One of the MDC Alliance’s main hazards is the split vote. Many of its best-known politicians are standing as independents which might deliver unexpected victories for Zanu PF.
Since the massive upheavals in Zanu PF last year, the party has many new candidates standing for election, many unknown outside their own home areas.
A few newcomers emerged with known profiles. One of them is Ozias Bvute, standing in a semi-rural constituency 30km east of Harare who is not a good example of the new Zanu PF.
He destroyed Zimbabwe’s once profitable and successful cricket world. He bankrupted it in a few years and made a personal fortune at the same time. Zimbabwe cricket was progressing and developing hugely in underprivileged communities, but it shrank and was engulfed in scandal and corruption and is now hardly able to field a decent team or pay players their salaries.
But insiders say there are newcomers in Zanu PF who are hard working, honourable and will not be dictated to by older, corrupt Zanu PF politicians who rose to dominance under Mugabe.