Zimbabwe: Rural opposition supporters living in isolation and fear
I often wear opposition party t-shirts when I am relaxed at home, what else can I use them for, the campaigns are over and yeah they belong to three or more parties for that matter.
When I went to Zvishavane recently I bundled most of my campaign regalia including oversized t-shirts I got from friends in my travelling capsule, my intention being to leave them with some old friends who showed political enthusiasm when I last saw them in 2018.
Upon arrival I realised that I only carried campaign t-shirts nothing else, and you guessed it right I started wearing them, changing colours and designs to cover for the unchanged jeans and talkies.
On my fourth day I visited my aunt who stays a dozen kilometres from my rural village. To my surprise before she even greeted me she told me that my presence was making her uncomfortable. She went on to say she had nothing against the opposition, in fact she said she supported the opposition however parading that would make her life more difficult in her partially populated rural community.
What came to my mind was the recent report from Zimbabwe Peace Project and Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum which detailed partisan food-aid distribution in rural Zimbabwe.
As a development professional this invoked more interests to understand the magnitude of factors which would make one’s life “more difficult”. I thought to myself if it was just about food-aid distribution a woman who often harvest more than she wanted would not have been in a position to fear anything.
The report I referred to before highlighted that politics remains central in determining who gets what, when and in what quantities this showed that this maybe beyond food aid.
I asked my aunt what effect would it have if a passing visitor is seen wearing opposition regalia? And she answered:
“All MDC people, (…) suspected MDC people are excluded from everything, people may not say it explicitly but deep down then know who are not with them and when opportunities come they will snub you right away, they don’t care if it’s one person from a family on everything”
I probed her, what would you want from “them” anyway, you have a good piece of land, you always get agricultural inputs from your children abroad and you’re not even dependent on anyone around. She went on to say:
“Understand my son, how can one live in a community no one likes them especially the leadership (local chiefs and village heads) there are some important community meetings, they don’t invite you, even when it’s about health for example children vaccination. They even accuse your cattle or children of doing something, last time we paid a goat to the chief because our cattle were said to have eaten the chief’s farm, (…) they never did.”
I ping back this to the study I have referred to already, the study noted that the exclusion of people starts from the mapping process of the vulnerable populations because the people responsible for gathering the data technically invite people who belong to their own political party leaving out the rest. The talk of this exclusionary approach even to basic community issues prompted me to ask more questions including from the village head.
I was shocked to see how certain families are known to be supporters of the opposition, some merely because their children may have attended opposition rallies before.
Remnants of the 2008 political crisis are everywhere, victims of the 2008 state sponsored violence are still marked as the opposition even though there is no evidence to that matter.
After a dozen conversations with other people from the community, I asked the village head who is a respected individual whom I have known for years why he is seen as someone who exclude people from basic community life and engagement just because they are thought to be the opposition.
His answer was twofold, first he accused “opposition” supporters of self exclusion, saying:
“They hate us, they think they are special, they don’t want to work with the set systems, so let them be (…)”
Then he went on to the second layer of his answer which evidently has something to do with fear, the village head said:
“How can I involve them when everyone knows they are (name of a prominent MDC person who once run for parliament)‘s people, if I show love for them I will get in trouble myself and again, it’s not my fault, I told you it’s not my fault”
Notable here is how people are bundled into families, there are no individuals, despite the fact that people don’t vote as families but as individuals.
I asked two individuals from two of the most frequently mentioned “opposition” families and they indicated to me that they have lived in total exclusion for years especially after 2008.
A 28 year old man let’s call him Tatenda who is an active member of the opposition told me he no longer care about what the government is giving people or whatever the community leadership may deny him because by asking or waiting for them to help him he will see himself subjected to the politics that is against his conscience. He told me:
“I had nothing to do a ZANU PF slogan to get this or that, no I can’t, I can’t be bullied into submission”
It was a solid show of defiance of the system that excludes him however my concern from what I have heard from over thirty conversations is the family and those associated with this solid and radical young man.
His father who has been active in opposition politics for some years and decided to take a step back after he was victimized in 2008 violence told me that:
For me I thought since I am no longer in politics people will let it go, but yay even today they call me (name withheld) of MDC and so forth, we are struggling here, most people fear this continuous bad treatment and that is why they don’t support the opposition publicly.
Two other people share similar stories of fear and isolation from the community.
Nathan a long time friend who owns a small farm in one small community told me that after some time he come to realise that when it comes to aid the community leadership squeeze you to the edge for being an opposition supporter until you renounce any connections with the opposition.
On food aid distribution I listened to long sad stories on how they end up seeing people carrying bags of maize or agricultural inputs whilst they know nothing of any program providing that aid or being denied aid for illogical reasons like ownership of a asbestos roofed house.
One woman on her sixties told me they are thought to be getting money from some foreign countries so they are not in need of aid which most people think is brought by the government even if it is from international nongovernmental organizations.
After a week of conversations and some long phone calls with some young people in other rural communities I come to a few recommendations for perceived opposition supporters and those living in fear of this kind of isolation if they declare openly their support of other parties rather than the ruling party.
What can be done to solve the problem?
Commenting on the politicisation of food aid in March 2021 I wrote that since politics has creeped in all avenues of food aid delivery, food aid has effectively became a tool for political control and mobilization of electoral support, this observation allows us to approach rural community life from a partisan and electoral perspective.
At structural level nongovernmental organizations have to deploy their own teams in communities to map the people in need not to rely on existing structures because the village development committees and traditional structures have become too politicised to be effective in delivering aid.
During 2018 elections, I have been working with some organizations to prop up young people to vote and in our voter education trainings we have been highlighting the moral and legal considerations against vote buying using food aid and other things.
From the stories I head in rural Zvishavane and other places recently politicians are not the only ones guilty of vote buying to treatment of material things and favours as a way to trade votes and support. Ordinary people are equally guilty because they see these favours as necessary, ruling party gatekeepers I talked to emphasized that if one is not supporting “us” then they don’t have to get anything, if a candidate is not doing something for “us” then he/she must be replaced.
Understanding these realities new voter education should emphasise the secrecy of the ballot, it has to show people that when some politicians give them access to resources be they from the government or donors they are not obligated to return the favor by voting for those individuals. In that sense people can access these resources and still vote on their conscience.
Playing smart is key in tough environments. For the love of my aunt and her family I removed my bright t-shirt and find something else to wear, for the love of your security you can tone down your radicalism and still be part of a community and end up voting for your choice without complicating your life. I know young people we can be radical sometimes but we have to evaluate the cost of our radicalism not just to ourselves but our families and friends.
We may want to change hearts and minds of our peers and our communities by being unapologetic however we should not expect people to change to perfection in one straw, change is a process, we have to cultivate it not to declare it.
Mobilization for the opposition hence must be under the radar, winning hearts and minds whilst not exposing them to a community that may squeeze them to the edge.