Battered opposition are afraid to wear the T-shirt

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The Independent Online

A little girl, chewing sugar cane and skipping barefoot, across the dirt compound, behind the political banner, was not afraid to say why she supported the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). "Tomorrow I want change," she said, parroting the party slogan. Then, as an afterthought, she added: "Mugabe is a dog."

The February referendum, in which Zimbabwe voted against Mr Mugabe and his one-party ZANU state for the first time, proved that mostadults in Chitungwiza had the same opinion as the child about Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. But at yesterday's MDC rally the grown-ups, with votes, did not turn out in force. Only 100 people - mainly young men - came to listen to St Mary's district, MDC candidate, Boniface Manyonsan.

Across the dirt square, drifted the chants of 50 or so ZANU supporters - all women - singing revolutionary songs. Their decision to hold a rival rally ousted the MDC from its original spot beneath the broad shady trees. Between the two camps, electoral inequalities were obvious. The ZANU women all sported fresh white party T-shirts and sat on benches before a "top table" decorated with flowers and a train of Mugabe-print cloth. The MDC candidate arrived in a battered car, bumper decorated with little MDC stickers, and addressed the standing crowd from a makeshift platform.

Back in February, even as they were celebrating their political breakthrough, MDC leaders were warning that the fight against Mr Mugabe was just beginning. And they said it would be bloody for Mr Mugabe was a "wounded bull" and they are always the most dangerous. Expecting the worst, of course, does not mean you can match it and Mr Mugabe's subsequent campaign of terror is really hitting home.

MDC supporters yesterday left their T-shirts at home. Plain clothes, explained one man, are more useful if ZANU attacks. Some agreed that yesterday turn-out was small. It was a depressing indicator given that today's big May Day union celebration was also cancelled because of fears that it would be targeted by ZANU supporters. The trade unions are the bedrock of support for the MDC, founded just seven months ago.

ZANU meanwhile is triumphant following the announcement on Friday of a "deal" between white commercial farmers, most of whom had been supporting the MDC, and ZANU war veterans and activists who have invaded their land. That deal appears to have neutered white farmers, put ZANU in the driving seat on land and most crucial, tightened ZANU's political stranglehold on rural areas.

Speculation that the battered opposition has been hemmed in was fuelled yesterday when Morgan Tsvangirai, MDC leader, did not address any rallies.

He did, however, give an interview to Reuters in which he said Mr Mugabe had taken Zimbabwe to the brink of collapse and it was time he was kicked out of office.

Many in the crowd at St Mary's said that sympathisers were increasingly terrified to go public, even in MDC strongholds like theirs. "The murders of MDC supporters have made people scared," admitted Raphinos Chibwe, St Mary's MDC public relations man.

But despite the repression, and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai's warnings of retaliation last week, on yesterday's platform the local talk was not of meeting violence with violence. "We fight with our mouths not guns," said one speaker. There is some speculation that given the weakening of their position this week, the MDC may decide to play it quiet for a while in the hope that ZANU intimidation of MDC supporters eases, and fewer will be afraid to vote for the opposition come the election.

Boniface Manyonsan, 30, an energetic man with a beaming smile, warned against reading two much into public turn-outs. "When we go into people's houses and speak to them in private we know they are with us." Some even pretend to pay homage to ZANU he said. "But voting day will be different," he promised confidently.

Not that long ago Mr Manyonsan, would have been with the guys with the teargas. But the former policeman who left his job because he could not stomach police intimidation of people and MDC activists, said that to counter intimidation much support had to remain "secret". On the fringes of the crowd stood one young man, slightly nervous, who offered substance to the claim.

He had come to the rally alone though his entire family support the MDC. "They did not want me to come either," he said, because of the risk of being attacked. He stood quietly watching the speakers while others danced and sang and threw heart and soul into the rally. "Sometimes it is better just to watch," he said.

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