Funerals are important in African society, so when Elizabeth Mujaji heard last week that her brother-in-law had died in the Chikombe area of rural Zimbabwe, she made plans to travel from Harare to attend the ceremony.
First, however, she needed to buy a membership card from Zanu-PF, Zimbabwe's ruling political party. President Robert Mugabe's "war veterans" and youth militias have set up illegal roadblocks between most of Zimbabwe's towns, where they assault anyone failing to produce a Zanu-PF card and send them back to where they came from to get one.
But the main party headquarters in Harare had run out of cards. Mrs Mujaji (not her real name) then sent her three sons into Harare's townships to try to buy one for her, but all returned empty-handed, forcing her to give up her plan to get to yesterday's funeral.
On Friday, an elderly, white, farm manager whose area has been closed off by militia checkpoints explained why he had acquired a party card. Without one, he said, "you are humiliated. We were made to kneel in the road, beg to be let through and sing slogans." He asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.
Without the vital card, rural Zimbabweans are finding it impossible not only to travel but to get medical treatment, seeds and other agricultural aid for peasants, or school places for their children. People hoping to be assigned property confiscated from white farmers under Mr Mugabe's controversial land policies have no hope of succeeding unless they produce proof of Zanu-PF membership.
In some of the areas worst affected by political violence, such as Gutu and Zaka, traditional headmen and chiefs are asking shopkeepers to sell goods only to those who can show Zanu-PF cards. Those who sell to "opposition renegades" risk having their premises burnt down.
Last week Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said Zimbabwe was already engaged in a "low-intensity civil war".
Such forms of intimidation, affecting almost every aspect of daily life, are commonplace in the more remote parts of Zimbabwe, where most of the country's 12.5 million people live. As the March presidential election approaches they are spreading to the towns, creating far more public concern than the controversial bills now going through parliament which will muzzle the press and make criticism of Mr Mugabe a crime.
"At this rate Zanu-PF cards are now an equivalent of the water that we drink and the air that we breathe," said a business executive who was humiliated at an illegal roadblock when he failed to produce a card while driving his children to a boarding school.
Apart from acquiring a Zanu-PF card, Zimbabweans are also finding it prudent to learn party slogans and liberation war songs from the 1970s. Many who have been unable to chant these on demand have been beaten up.
The rush to acquire cards has cut supplies to vanishing point. Officials at Zanu-PF headquarters said that while they were doing their best to print more to meet demand, they could not cope. A "parallel market" has sprung up in which cards are changing hands for up to nine times the official price: while the party is supposed to charge Z$34 (about 45p), unscrupulous Zanu-PF officials are charging up to Z$300 (about £3.70).
Although many Zimbabweans are buying the cards purely for convenience and are unlikely to vote for Mr Mugabe at the 9 and 10 March presidential election, their money will boost the coffers of a ruling party that also enjoys the use of state funds.Reuse content