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Africa Confidential, April 2005

Zimbabwe Elections 2005
What happened in Matebeleland?

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One of Africa Confidential’s special correspondents sent this blow by blow account of election day in and around Bulawayo (also available shortly as an AC Special Report).

Dateline 31 March - Bulawayo

6:30 a.m.  I woke up early and looked out of my window.  Across the road from my hotel, you could already see a small queue meandering its way around the white pillars marking the entrance of Bulawayo town hall.  I went out onto my balcony to get a better look.  The sun was beginning to break across the street. It was going to be a hot day.

7:30 a.m.  I turned on the TV news.  Both ZANU-PF and the MDC were busily  predicting convincing victories.  A high-voter turnout was also expected. I looked across the road again. The snaking queue of people had grown considerably.  Perhaps the news would be proved right, I wondered.

9:00 a.m.  One of the hotel cleaners told me that she intends to vote for the MDC when she gets off work at noon today.  She complained about the prices of food and public transport.  She said that now she didn't have money to pay the rent.

10:20 a.m.  A man approaches me to complain that the ink used to mark voters’ fingers [so that they can’t vote again] is easily washed-off.  He explains that it took him and his wife five minutes with household bleach to rub the ink off.

10:30 a.m.  On the road now. The atmosphere is quiet but tense; there is an air of expectation.  I visit Hamilton Primary School poll in Bulawayo South.  There is no queue.  There is hardly anybody here.  I ask one of the ZANU election agents about the ink problem. She replies that she doesn’t know what I’m talking about.

12 Noon.  I am in Nkulumane district.  The polling stations are generally on the edge of dusty townships.  The officials at the polls are wary of journalists. They are sceptical when I produce my ID card as proof of my accreditation and ask to talk to some ‘ordinary citizens’ after they’ve voted.  They refuse my request and tell me that I can speak to the election agents if I want.  I meet the ZANU agent at Mandwandwe school. She says that the election has been running smoothly so far.  At Maqhawe clinic a voter approaches me to talk but we are separated quickly by the presiding officer.  The female officer explains that I must leave immediately else she will be ‘in big trouble’.

2:00 p.m.  I have now moved onto Pumula Luveve.  The sun is blazing at full strength.  Nevertheless that does not deter voters at Ngwalongai Primary School, who are doing their best to shield themselves from the sun’s glare as they wait patiently beside the poll entrance.  I am informed that I may speak to the election agents after some wrangling with the presiding officer.  The agents concur that, so far, turnout has been low.  However, it is also agreed that the elections have been the most peaceful so far, with none of the violence of  2000 and 2002.  The MDC agent takes me aside and talks to me about the ink they’re using at the polling station.  I tell him that I plan to look into it.

3:00 p.m.  I go back to the centre of Bulawayo.  The queues at the town hall have tailed off and now there’s only a trickle of people.  I talk to Michael,  an IT consultant who voted for the MDC.  He explains that politicians ‘are like  nappies – they need to be changed one and a while.’  Afterwards I visit the  regional office of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and ask them  whether the voting ink is readily washable. The woman behind the desk replies that it lasts ‘for two weeks’.

5:15 p.m.  I tour Bulawayo East and South for the last time before polls close at 7 p.m.  Hardly anybody is at the polls anymore.  Instead people seem to just  go about their business nonchalantly: hawking, chatting or drinking beer.  Today is a holiday so there is no official work.  At a primary school I visit in the township of Makokoba I am surrounded by some ZANU-PF youths who demand to know what I am doing.  I explain that I am a journalist – just observing – and am not there to interfere.  They tell me, in no uncertain terms, to get out immediately.

8:30 p.m. I phone up MP for Bulawayo South David Coltart of the MDC.  He says that there have been widespread irregularities: people being turned away for no good reason, MDC election agents thrown out of polling stations and a few reports of voters washing off the ink on their fingers. I tell him that I will call him back tomorrow.