With nothing moving on the streets, you could hear the rumble of the engines before you could see the approaching column. At least 15 troop carriers, topped and tailed by a police escort, were heading for the centre of Bulawayo.
Even this naked, daytime show of force had, however, to be given some disguise, however flimsy. Attached to the door of each of the brand new Chinese-made trucks was a single white sheet of A4 paper with the letters "UN" stencilled on it. But these were not peacekeepers and this was not a foreign mission. The soldiers carrying heavy weapons in the back of the truck were wearing Zimbabwean army uniforms.
As a nationwide two-day strike came to a close yesterday, President Robert Mugabe's regime was taking no chances. The government, already braced for a backlash against its campaign of mass arrests and the destruction of street markets and shanty towns, stepped up security as anger threatened to turn into mass protest.
A senior official in the Bulawayo mayor's office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the situation had reached boiling point and a single event or gathering could lead to serious clashes. "They [the government] have deliberately provoked the situation because they want to have an excuse to declare a state of emergency, get rid of the rules and deploy the arms they spent millions buying," he told The Independent.
In the townships outside Bulawayo, the atmosphere was tense. Police put up roadblocks on all the exits of the city. Anyone seen with a camera, or gathering in a group of three or more persons, faced arrest. On every street corner, plainclothes police and soldiers were on the look-out for any sign of opposition activity.
Graham Shaw, a rights activist and former Methodist pastor, said government informants had infiltrated every sector of society, from church groups to opposition parties. "You can feel the fear; you can feel it almost through the pores of your skin," he said.
The paranoia is fed by a burgeoning secret police force, known as the CIO, which has a budget equivalent to 12 per cent of the overall health spend.
On the surface the "stay away", orchestrated by a coalition of unions, church groups, rights activists and the opposition party, failed to make much of an impact. David Coltart, a leading member of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said it was not, however, a failure. "The shops and the factories were open, but the owners had no choice. It was clear many of the people who worked there had heeded the call to stay away," he said.
With unemployment is running at over 80 per cent, most anyway rely for survival on the informal economy, despite it being battered in the recent "clean-up" operation.
At the fleamarket in Emgwamin township, locals made their own stand, defying the police by setting up stalls only days after hawkers were chased away by baton-wielding police, their produce stolen by the state. On the walls nearby, anti-Mugabe graffiti declared what most were too scared to say: "We need fuel, maize and sugar, let's fight now. Mugabe must go."
Every petrol station in Bulawayo told the same story of an economy in crisis. Queues of parked cars stretched for miles. They have been there for up to five days and the rare deliveries of petrol or diesel have sparked clashes in some areas.
One man standing near the front of a queue in the district of Hillside said he had had enough. "We've put up with this man's shit for years. Now we must stand up," he said.
Municipal officials estimate that three-quarters of the city's cars are out of fuel and parked in petrol queues. The government has told owners to remove their cars from the queues and threatened to send in the riot police to clear them. "They want to keep the surface image OK so that no one can see how bad things are," a source at the mayor's office said.
Most families in Bulawayo, the capital of Matabeleland and the traditional stronghold of opposition to Mr Mugabe, remember losing loved ones in the Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s. People know that the odds are stacked against them. The last media outlets still critical of the government, the Daily News and SW Radio Africa, have been closed down.
The army, meanwhile, has been reinforced. In the run-up to the March poll the 81-year-old President ignored the critically depleted foreign reserves and looming food shortages to lavish millions of pounds on Chinese jet fighters and armoured personnel carriers.
The shipment, which sidestepped a US and EU ban on arms sales, was moved in secret via Mozambique. It included heavy assault rifles, military vehicles, riot equipment and tear gas.
One leading opposition figure had a note of caution for those considering an uprising. "Remember these towns were built by white colonialists who were expecting insurrection and planned very effectively to counter it," she said.Reuse content