Fear keeps South African exiles away

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Munyaradzi Matuku knows the stakes are high and every vote will have to count if Robert Mugabe is to be dislodged from power this weekend.

But Mr Matuku will not go home to vote even though he wants to see an immediate end to Mr Mugabe's long, traumatic reign.

"Mugabe is not about to abandon his habit of stealing elections. So why waste my time going back?" asked the electrical engineer who migrated to South Africa last year.

Mr Matuku, 30, is just one of thousands of Zimbabweans who will remain in Johannesburg this weekend despite their votes being much needed by the opposition.

Zimbabwe's civic leaders have been conducting a "Go Back and Vote Campaign" in South Africa, which hosts more than five million Zimbabwean exiles. But even they have conceded that there won't be any significant move by Zimbabweans back into the country to vote. "The majority of folks here [South Africa] are scared to go back because they believe South Africa won't allow them to come back after the elections ... Many of the folks are asylum-seekers and are not documented," said Tapera Kapuya, who represents the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), which seeks constitutional change in Zimbabwe, in Johannesburg.

Mr Mugabe rejected demands by the opposition to give votes to Zimbabweans based abroad because he feared they would vote for his opponents. Other civic groups, allegedly working with the main opposition MDC in Zimbabwe, tried to provide free transport as part of the effort to get Zimbabweans to go back and vote. But the plan lay in tatters yesterday after one of the buses carrying would-be voters was stopped by the police and army soon after it had crossed the Beitbridge border into Zimbabwe.

Mambo Rusere, a spokesman for the Zimbabwe Political Victims Association (Zipova), said his organisation was unsuccessfully trying to locate where the bus and passengers were being kept but believed they would only be released after voting today. He said Zipova believed the bus was impounded after its driver failed to provide a permit allowing it to ply the South Africa/Zimbabwe route.

Those who had swum across the crocodile-infested Limpopo River to settle illegally in South Africa said they did not think it was worth taking the risk again by going back to vote and then trying to return.