When I left school I went farming and one of my first jobs on a farm was to erect a fence line. Difficult to describe to a person who does not know Africa, these fence lines stretched across the country for miles and miles.

Building a fence in such conditions requires quite a team - first we had to cut the bush in a wide swathe down the middle of which the fence would be built. Then we had to put in the corner posts and the straining posts. This was followed by driving in the standards at set intervals and then stretching the wire. This was done with a tractor - a dangerous game if the wire snapped, it would fly towards the straining crew with astonishing speed and force.

Then once the wire was up, the droppers went in. This required strong hands and tough fingers. Each dropper was attached to the wire by short lengths of soft wire, which was wound around the dropper, and then the wire.

The end result; a straight line of steel, wood and wire, which was able to control the movement of game and cattle. An essential part of veldt management in the semi arid savannah regions of Africa.

This week I saw something that stirred up the spirit of hope in me - a line of fencing where someone had replaced the droppers that had been burnt by fire or eaten by white ants. These droppers were neat and straight and all the same length - a clear sign that they were the work of a professional farmer and not a squatter. It was a declaration of ownership, pride and management. Things that are in short supply here right now.

In a true democracy it is the administration of the process of capturing and recording the votes of the average citizen that matters. Right now in Zimbabwe everything that can be done to ensure that the next election is not managed to reflect the wishes of the electorate, is being done.

I know that the general sentiments of the people are very negative towards Zanu PF and it has puzzled me that Zanu is so confident that they will win this contest. It also puzzled me that their hold over rural voters seemed so immutable. Then at the weekend we had dinner with a couple that had lived through the 2000 election in a rural Mashonaland constituency. They told us of their experience.

They had helped with the poll and were in the room where the final count was being conducted. The pile of votes for the MDC rose steadily and at the end of the initial phase of verification, the MDC pile was much larger than the Zanu PF pile. Then there was a power cut and the Police cleared the room. When they came back, the Zanu candidate had won by a scant 34 votes. Being just ordinary citizens - law abiding for most of the time, they were astonished and wondered how it had happened. Only much later - after the 2002 Presidential elections, did they realize they had probably witnessed one of the early efforts by Zanu to fiddle the count. MDC challenged the result but the Courts have never finalized the case.

In this same constituency I knew the EU observers and found out later that they had not been able to track down a single mobile polling station in the District - and there were several. We now know that the mobile stations were used for the purpose of ballot stuffing in both elections.

So the question is how do we stop these malpractices this time? Well we have got the powers that control these things to do away with the mobiles and to hold the election on one day. But this means thousands of new or additional fixed polling stations - many in remote areas.

To give emphasis to this aspect we secured a preliminary list of polling stations in one remote rural constituency and checked that we knew each location. There were several we did not know and we sent out a team with a truck to find them. One was deep in the bush and took all day to find. It was in fact a headquarters for the so called "war veterans" who were responsible for the local farm invasions. It contained the usual meeting hall and a number of temporary thatched huts.

The vote this time is going to be captured at each of these thousands of polling stations - some in remote areas that are difficult to get to and find. The vote will be counted there and the result transported at night to the constituency control center. There these results will be collated to give a result for the constituency.

In this same constituency a Zanu PF supporter has told us that the CIO is "already voting". This means that the armed forces are being forced to vote in advance of the election under supervision - as they were in 2002 and also that blank ballots are being filled in and got ready for ballot stuffing at selected polling stations.

The Government has yet to invite international observer missions to observe the election and we are sure that this will only be carried out at the last minute and then only for a handful of "friendly observers".

Then we hear they are going to target our MDC polling agents. We are obliged by law not only to register these people with the electoral authorities but also to publish their names and addresses in the newspaper. The threat is that the authorities will target these people as soon as their identities are known to prevent the MDC giving full coverage of the election.

On the day you can also be sure that there will be roadblocks out in the rural areas preventing the movement of polling agents and MDC support staff from deploying to target polling stations. Unsupervised and unobserved, it is at these remote and isolated polling stations that the "election" will be decided. Not by citizens voting freely but by shadowy figures in the security forces acting under instruction from the highest levels of government.

Its like a fence line - it is only effective if all your droppers and standards are in place and holding the wire. Any break, no matter how small, renders the whole line ineffective for the task it has been given. Can we cover every polling station? At this stage I think the answer to that is no. This is why Zanu PF is so confident of victory. It also explains why after years of war and struggle to gain "one man one vote", the great majority of our people now think that voting is just a waste of time. Quite frankly I think talking to the SADC leaders about this is also a waste of time. What a hopeless collection of clowns! So far they have not delivered one single thing that might help to make this sham a real contest. Can you believe that we are just 45 days from the election and we still have no access to the media, no coverage for the campaign, hardly a commercial printer in the country will accept our copy and everyone is scared stiff to be seen supporting us in any way. Our candidates are being arrested and detained at will, our meetings disrupted and denied any fund raising frozen by fear of retribution.

And these guys show no shame. In my constituency the Zanu candidate is saying at rallies - "are you hungry? Vote Zanu PF and be fed." Each rally is accompanied by food distribution care of the Grain Marketing Board and funded by the State. It is a disgrace.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 12th February 2005.