Rivals' Harare township rallies start final week of campaigning

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The Independent Online

The two main contenders in this week's presidential elections in Zimbabwe took their battle for votes to the capital yesterday.

Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, spoke to a crowd of about 20,000 supporters in the poor township of Highfield in southern Harare. During the four-hour rally, MDC supporters dressed in colourful uniforms whistled and cheered while their leaders slated the ruling Zanu-PF party.

President Robert Mugabe, who turned 78 last month, held his final big Harare rally in Mbare, the capital's oldest township. Speaking to about 4,000 mainly subdued supporters, his speech centred on criticism of Tony Blair. "How can the British Prime Minister, with a history of interacting well with his former colonies, behave like a street kid?" Mr Mugabe screamed. "He shows poor judgement, poor intellect and poor relations and that's what we criticise. He's a young politician with no political background compared to us. He still has lots to learn."

In stark contrast, Mr Tsvangirai's last rally in Highfield, the birthplace of black nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, was marked by music and dancing. Condemning violence, the MDC leader promised reparations for victims of state violence. "We will pay reparations when there has been justice, but there can only be justice after we have set up a Truth and Justice Commission and the truth is discovered," Mr Tsvangirai said.

The rallies came six days before Zimbabweans go to the polls in the first real challenge to Mr Mugabe's 22-year-old iron grip over the electorate. The campaign has been marked by Zanu-PF's violent methods, sometimes forcing the MDC to campaign underground.

The MDC suffered a setback two days ago when the Supreme Court ruled that voters would have to cast their ballots in constituencies where they are registered. The ruling mainly affects MDC supporters who have been forced to flee their homes after violence by ruling party militants.

More than 400,000 farm workers and their families are thought to have been driven from their homes by "war veterans" who have invaded commercial farms in the past two years, encouraged as a vote-winning tactic by Zanu-PF.

A recent Commercial Farmers' Union survey found that 70,000 farm workers ­ a quarter of 300,000 people employed on 4,000 white-owned farms ­ have been displaced. With each worker supporting on average five family members, this number soars to 420,000, a conservative figure since only half the farmers surveyed responded.

Zimbabwe's Human Rights Forum estimates another 70,000 people have been displaced by mostly Zanu-PF harassment and violence since January last year. The burning of more than 1,000 homes and 30,000 incidents of violence in the past 12 months indicates the scale of the problem.

"The situation is terrible," says Learnmore Jongwe, director of information for the MDC. "Many of these people have left home after being harassed or assaulted by Zanu-PF supporters for testifying in MDC court challenges arising out of the 2000 elections. They are unable to return to their villages or families. We've only been able to help a handful of them. Some are living in parks, others with relatives, others in rented accommodation ­ and many are totally destitute."

Others have been attacked for simply favouring the MDC, nearly 100 of whose supporters have died in political violence.

At a hide-out in a local town, an elderly white farmer who fled his land under threat of death from more than 50 invaders told me: "Generations of my family worked for what we will most definitely lose if Mr Mugabe stays in power. Our only hope lies with Mr Tsvangirai."

Zimbabwe's press reporting restrictions make it a crime for unregistered foreign correspondents to report from there. As a result, our Special Correspondent cannot be named.

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