As I sat in Zimbabwe’s national art gallery talking to Jessie Majome, one of the smartest young politicians in the country, all around us were small signs of change.
Clusters of young professionals chatted over cake and cappuccinos in the cafe, while students tapped away on computers and couples walked arm-in-arm around a powerful photographic exhibition.
There is no doubt that as the election looms tomorrow, Zimbabwe is in a far better place than the last time voters went to the polls in 2008. Then, the nation was ravaged by hyper-inflation that officially peaked at 231,000,000 per cent, leaving shops closed, families hungry and even hospitals locked up; life expectancy plunged as Aids ripped through the population.
Little wonder that for all their usual threats, abuse of patronage and ballot-rigging, Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party was trounced in 2008. Mugabe was, reportedly, ready to stand down. Instead, the generals and goons who really run the country and rip off its resources unleashed a campaign of extreme violence while they fiddled the vote to keep their man in power.
The result was hundreds of opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters killed, thousands injured and, after foreign diplomatic intervention, the creation of an uncomfortable coalition between the rival parties. Having clung to power, Mugabe’s contempt for the arrangement was shown in the way he unilaterally announced the election date, contrary to coalition agreements, with a very short campaign that even an 89-year-old cancer-ridden despot could sustain.
There is little doubt the MDC, for all its flaws that have been exposed in government, would win a fair election. But no one should be fooled into thinking this election will be remotely fair – which is why Majome, an MDC minister, told me she faced this week with a mixture of fear and optimism.
As I revealed with a dossier of documents from senior intelligence sources in Harare, Mugabe and his generals are engaged in blatant ballot-rigging to keep young and urban voters off the electoral roll, while training up armed militia and preparing torture rooms in case they need to resort to violence again. Their Chinese-backed campaign is funded by a dodgy collection of business people, diamond firms and African dictators.
The scale of the rigging is grotesque. In 63 constituencies, there were more registered voters than inhabitants, while there are also 109,000 centenarians allegedly preparing to vote despite an average life expectancy of 51.
This is the backdrop as Mugabe pontificates about free elections at his rallies while ranting against homosexuals. People told me they were forced to attend up to five ‘re-education’ courses each week in the run-up to the election, where they must scream slogans against the opposition and are warned they will lose their jobs and homes if they do not vote for Zanu-PF. Despite such tactics, police had to close the gates to stop ‘supporters’ leaving one presidential rally at the weekend.
For all this, many Zimbabweans remain hopeful. “All of us still living in Zimbabwe are optimists,” said one leading rapper, who had earlier told me nine in ten of his school classmates now lived in exile. “Otherwise how else could we still live here?”