Zimbabwe is changing – new sense of freedom ahead of elections

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By Eddie Cross

I WAS driving down one of the main roads in the Capital, Harare. Stopped at a set of traffic lights, a grubby face appeared at my window and a street kid tapped the window. I dropped the window and looked at him and another grubby hand disappeared into his tatty trousers and reappeared holding a small coin. ‘Eddie’, he said, ‘here is my money for the campaign. Please bring us freedom and change.’ 

I was deeply moved and will keep that coin in the cab of my vehicle for as long as I am in public life – no matter in what position, as a reminder that our mandate from the ordinary people of Zimbabwe as leaders, is a sacred trust; a mandate that we are honor bound to fulfill. 

The coin is not worth much – 10 cents and copper colored – about 5 US$ cents, but to that kid, this was real money. He makes his living on the streets – opportunist theft, a bit of begging, sleeping rough at night and having to watch his back all the time. His family has probably disintegrated under the economic pressures of daily life here and the effects of endemic diseases like HIV and Malaria or Tuberculosis – diseases of poverty. He may have been to school at one time – he spoke in a mixture of Shona and English to me, but it will never get him a job. His life expectancy is probably 30 years or less. I used to call them Mugabe’s children because he was responsible for the conditions that brought these kids out onto our streets. 

It reminded me of the Widows Mite story in the New Testament where Jesus said that the penny she gave to the Temple funds, was worth more than the much larger gift of the rich man next to her in the line. 

The two main political groupings in Zimbabwe – I will not call them Political Parties because the reality is that they are now both a mixture of different factions – even organised groups with leadership, have been going through the painful process of selecting candidates to stand for them in the different Wards and Constituencies and Party lists around the country – about 2500 vacancies for men and women who will govern this country for the next five years. 

Because both groups think they are certain to win, the one led by the President, Emmerson Mnangagwa and the other by Nelson Chamisa from the MDC, the scramble to take up positions that might become a stepping stone to something more, is huge. In 2008, MDC was swept by a similar sentiment and we picked up a whole tribe of opportunists, some achieved what they wanted, a senior posting – perhaps even a Cabinet post, but once we lost in 2103 they dumped us. 

In 2006, after the heavy defeat in 2005, we held a Congress. All Morgan Tsvangirai did was to go onto the Voice of America station, Studio 7, and say that anyone who was in the primary structures of the Party should come to Harare on a Friday morning for our Congress. 

We had just had a huge split when 5 out of the ‘Top Six’ in the MDC had left the Party to form a breakaway and were also going to a Congress to select new leadership. Everyone thought we were finished, the Diplomatic Community wrote us off, we had no money – nothing. I arrived at about 10.00 on Friday and found 23 000 people at the Sports Center where we were going to hold the Congress. I called Morgan and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions were asked to go down and help. I called a few friends in business and a catering firm said they would provide food on credit. We then started the process of sorting out just who was there. 

In the end the ZCTU validated 18 000 delegates whom they said had the required credentials, the rest we sent home and on Saturday morning we started business. It was an enormous success, a real celebration of democracy as candidates vied for different posts. No violence, no money changing hands just very ordinary people selecting people who they trusted to lead them back into the battle with Zanu PF. 

At the venue there were never more than a handful of vehicles – none of them luxury signifying wealth. The team that was elected there won the 2008 elections just two years later and in 2009 became members of the GNU that ruled with so much success till 2013. 

Why was this event so successful? Because the vultures did not see it as a feeding opportunity. The men and women who sought leadership there were people who just wanted to serve, to fulfill the sacred mandate that people dispose on those who are elected in a real democracy. 

In the current round of primaries to decide on candidates, money has flowed in large quantities, even in the MDC Alliance – the core of which is the MDC and largely drawn from the poor communities in all areas of the country. The results are not very pretty – large numbers of the new candidates have beaten incumbents and we have lost some of our best MP’s and Councilors. But the overall outcome I think, is going to be a new Parliament that is much less a rubber stamp for the Executive. Both leaders, irrespective of the outcome of the elections for the Presidency, is going to have a rough ride in the House of Assembly. There are certainly going to be more independents and that will be a new element. 

What I hope will also happen – but that depends on the wisdom of whoever wins the top job, is that they will appoint a more professional and untainted Cabinet or Executive – I prefer the latter term as it embraces more than just the 20 odd Ministers. Overall I predict more democracy, real democracy in how this new administration is going to function and operate. 

Views on where we are right now, 7 months after the ‘MAT’ (military assisted transition), are mixed. The one thing that you cannot deny is that we have more freedom than at any time in my own life. We no longer have to watch what we say, we can meet with whom we like and where ever we want. Yesterday I held meetings in my Constituency, we did not seek Police permission but they attended just ‘to make sure we were safe!’ I expressed appreciation for their presence. The extraordinary events that accompanied the MAT and that gave legitimacy to what the Military were doing, have changed this country and I do not think it is reversible. 

Whoever wins a position in the new Government that is now just weeks away is going to have to contend with a very different Zimbabwe. More open, more demanding, more critical. Quite frankly I think the new leadership of this country are going to be held accountable and anyone who fails those tests is going to face more than just mild rebuke in the media. 

For that reason, and that reason alone, I am confident that Zimbabwe is going to gradually find its feet in the 21st Century after decades of dictatorial, military dominated government both before and after Independence in 1980. I have no doubt that our people will then take the lead and providing we adopt the right policies, will return this great little country to growth and stability. We need both. 

But let me remind all those who seek leadership, at whatever level in these upcoming elections, if you are elected just remember that grubby little hand with its 10 cents of life in it and know that your new position is a sacred trust, for which you are responsible both to the people and to God. 

Eddie Cross is MDC MP for Bulawayo South. This article first appeared on his website