Exiled Zimbabweans offered help to return for run-off vote

One week before Zimbabwe is due to go back to the polls for the presidential run-off, a major effort is under way to encourage the millions of immigrants in neighbouring South Africa to go home and vote.

A coalition of South African businesses and Zimbabwean exiles said yesterday that it is willing to sponsor registered voters to take time out from their jobs to participate in the election north of the border.

As many as three million Zimbabweans have fled the economic and political crisis in their home country and moved to South Africa, although a series of brutal xenophobic attacks have rocked the immigrant community there since the first round of voting in March.

The "Come Home to Vote" campaign launched yesterday by the Peace and Democracy Project, which mobilised voters for the 29 March poll, and the Southern African Women's Institute for Migration Affairs (Sawima) claims to have the funds in place to help thousands of would-be voters.

"It's about getting people back in to vote as long as the opposition is going ahead with contesting the poll," said the project leader, Mathula Lusinga, in Johannesburg. "A lot of people are willing to go back after the xenophobic attacks. They're asking themselves 'why don't we go home and solve our problems'."

However, a state-orchestrated campaign of terror against opposition supporters following the March vote has left many in the Zimbabwean diaspora facing a choice between an increasingly hostile host country and a return to a homeland increasingly resembling a war zone.

Despite this Mr Lusinga said that thousands were already signing up for assistance to return and vote. "There's a lot of bravery, a lot of people saying 'let's go and finish this'," he said. No one knows exactly how many Zimbabweans are living in South Africa, or how many returned for the first round. The campaign was offering South African businesses the chance to sponsor employees to make the 600 rand (£38) round trip and calling on them to grant five days of leave to those wishing to travel.

"By returning home, Zimbabweans living in South Africa will be able to provide moral and numerical support to their communities," said Mrs Joyce Dube, director of Sawima. "They will also be in a position to encourage people who were too afraid or too disillusioned in the 29 March elections to to vote."

More than 62 people have been killed in South Africa after xenophobic violence swept across the country. Thousands of immigrants remain in makeshift camps around the country after being driven out of their homes by mob violence.