Voices of the clarion: Tripping on democracy

Visit to Africa gives reporter new appreciation for right to vote

Posted: Sunday, April 10, 2005

Approaching the Beitbridge border crossing on the South Africa and Zimbabwe border two years ago in a bus, a headline in a newspaper I was reading caught my eye. It said certain areas of the country only had supplies of fresh water to last for a couple of days. The country needed help. Why did I decide to come here, I wondered?

Fast forward to last week, when Zimbabwe held its parliamentary elections which, not surprisingly, are widely suspected to have been rigged to keep the ruling party in power.

Soon I will have a chance to exercise my right to vote in borough elections. Situations like the one in Zimbabwe remind me how important it is to vote, thus contributing to a healthy democracy.

Robert Mugabe was the leader of the Zimbabwean African People's Union and helped negotiate the country's independence in 1979. Mugabe was then elected prime minister and later president. He is still president and his ZANU-PF party is still in power.

In 2000 and 2001, Mugabe initiated a fast track land reform program. It was designed to restore lucrative farm land owned by white farmers to blacks to lift them out of poverty. So, traveling around the countryside, ZANU-PF war veterans from the revolution from drove white farmers off their land. Agriculture was a huge part of the Zimbabwe economy. This crushed their economy.

In 2002, Mugabe and his party won in elections, which also were widely believed to be rigged.

Back to my bus trip.

When I arrived at the Beitbridge border station, I was told to fill out a form that told exactly how much money I had in foreign currency. The group I was traveling with were the only foreigners on the bus.

After a skirmish with a police officer who wanted to confiscate my camera, I was back on the bus moving through Zimbabwe.

The road was a straight line cutting through the green flat countryside. It had the appearance of once being a well-maintained, smooth road. But it was bumpy, cracked and crumbling from neglect. The bumpy ride made my stomach hurt.

Then the bus stopped. The driver informed everybody that police wanted passengers to get off the bus. Women were instructed to line up on one side of the road, men on the other. The police looked at the forms we had all filled out telling how much money we were carrying. Then everybody had to show their cash. The amount of money one woman was carrying did not match her form. The police took her money.

When we arrived in Bulawayo, one of the major cities in Zimbabwe, we were overwhelmed with drivers and money changers wanting to sell us services. We found a hostel on the outskirts of town and found a ride out there.

With enormous inflation, people changed money on the streets to get better rates. But this was illegal and likely to land people in jail. The problem was, changing money through legal channels would end up making a Coca-Cola cost about $80 in U.S. currency.

As I spent time in this country, I learned there were certain key words that made people cringe and whisper words of warning. "Mugabe," "foreign exchange (forex)" and "dollars," we were told, were all likely to land us in trouble with authorities.

Petty crime was visible in the streets, and nobody talked about politics except for in hushed voices in their homes and backyards.

When we arrived at the hostel, we found a British family who was holding on to their home in Zimbabwe while their friends and family had moved to foreign countries for a better life.

It was a beautiful home in a neighborhood falling apart around it.

The plan was to stay there for a day while we found a place to change our money. Then we wanted to travel to Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe and Zambia border.

Our visit at the hostel turned into a three-night affair. The owner of the hostel told us he was being monitored by the police and was having trouble finding us Zimbabwe currency without running into problems with the authorities.

When we finally got our hands on currency, we each changed $100. That filled a backpack with ZIM dollars.

We were off. The owners of the hostel dropped us on the side of the road where we hoped to find a ride to Victoria Falls, more than a nine-hour drive away. A friendly coal truck driver picked us up. We spread out in the bed of the truck leaning on small piles of coal to relax.

At this point, we were starting to get used to encounters with police, but they were still scary. Halfway through the journey, the truck stopped and we heard loud banging on the side. Police scrambled over the side telling us we were in big trouble. Why, we did not know. They searched our bags while we stood there tight-lipped. Then they went away.

Victoria Falls was a welcome sight at the end of that trip. While still a tourist destination, the town was dirty with high adventure businesses trying to eke out a living in a destroyed economy that was getting worse.

I hesitate to say this was a good adventure, but it was. Never had I witnessed a crumbling country of people who were forced into silence by tyranny and an illegal system. It was interesting and sad.

A healthy democracy would give these people a chance to collectively determine the destiny of their communities. However, it appears that corruption may have stripped them of this right.

As borough elections approach this fall, I will remember the Zimbabweans who are struggling for democratic rights while I cast my vote.

Mark Quiner is a reporter for the Clarion.

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