The Right to Vote

In 1949 I stood at the fence of my school and watched hundreds of people march past with banners and making a great deal of noise. The Police and Army were all over the place - I thought it was very exciting. It was the start of the struggle in this country for the right to vote.

It started with Rhodes who said in a document that he wanted "every civilized man to have the right to vote". Who was a "civilized man" - a "man who had some education and owned some property". It was the first expression of what became known as the qualified franchise. This was applied, more or less, up to 1964 when it was finally abandoned for a racially defined right to vote. This excluded the great majority of people from the voters roll.

The African Nationalist leaders had never been in favor of the qualified franchise. They knew that when this threatened the hold on power of the white minority, the standard would simply be raised and ambitions thwarted. What they demanded was "one man, one vote." This was the strident demand of the NDP, then Zapu and then Zanu. It was the rallying cry of the liberation war; it defined the principal objectives of the struggle for power.

This past week, the Chief Justice of Zimbabwe, sitting with a full bench of the Supreme Court, said that the right to vote was not a fundamental right of a citizen. This was in response to a Court challenge brought by people living outside Zimbabwe who want to vote in the forthcoming election. The Court reserved its judgment.

So now it is out in the open - the universal suffrage that tens of thousands gave their lives for in 30 years of struggle was a sham. All they wanted was power, the right to use the State to plunder the resources of the country and to impoverish the people.

But while we may reel at such a statement, it is the lengths to which these self-serving leaders will go to preserve their hold on power that astonishes me. I was part of the transition team in 1980, helping with the changeover from the Rhodesian era to the new Zimbabwean State. We ran the first election and used the former Rhodesian administration to do so. Rhodesia was many things - but the one thing that it had was a small but very competent and dedicated civil service. The first election was conducted on the basis of a genuine one person, one vote basis. All you had to do was go to the nearest polling station and produce your ID and then vote.

And vote we did - over 85 per cent of the total population voted - many with tears of joy. The result - almost every person in the country voted for the men and women who had brought about this unique opportunity. The old regime attracted less than 3 per cent of the vote. As a result, the transition was peaceful, the planned Rhodesian army coup did not materialize and the four armies that had fought each other gave up their weapons and went home. Not a shot was fired in anger, it was an astonishing achievement.

A short while later I sat in the Stadium where we launched our new democracy and watched as units of the different forces - the Rhodesians, Zanla and Zipra, the Police all paraded and saluted the new leadership and the symbols of our freedom.

In 2000, after 20 years of Independence a new generation of leadership launched its own bid for power through the same ballot boxes that had been used in 1980. How na´ve we were then! We honestly believed that the regime, which had fought for our independence and democratic rights, would let us vote for change. We were mistaken and we paid a high price for our naivety.

The Mugabe led regime launched a programme of terror and deception that gave rise to the total subversion of the democratic values that had been fought for by successive generations of Zimbabweans. The State since then has done everything in its power to ensure that less than half the eligible population is allowed to vote, that the conditions under which they vote are neither fair nor free and that the information reaching the average voter is completely distorted by propaganda and lies.

And when we finally get to the actual day and go into the voting station, there is hardly a person who does not think that "they will steal the election" from us. It would now seem as if all the elections since 1980 have been rigged to a greater or lesser degree. The specter of helicopters flying full ballot boxes to polling stations in 2002 is still fresh in our minds.

It is no accident of judicial history that of the 38 electoral challenges launched in June 2000, only 12 have been heard and 2 finalized. That the challenge to the outcome of the presidential election result in 2002 has yet to be heard. The plain truth is that no Bench, no matter how warped by political appointees could be trusted to judicate on such matters without seriously embarrassing the State and its regional defenders.

And now the Chief Justice has the audacity to say that the right to vote is not a fundamental right worthy of protection under the laws of the country. What a mockery of our history, what a disgraceful exhibition of judicial appeasement with a corrupt and tyrannical regime.

The right to vote, in secrecy and safety, must be the most important single political right a citizen can hold. It is by these means that they can change their leaders and the policies they represent. Apart from the gun or street violence there is no other way in which they can seek to improve their lives and protect their interests.

MDC may have been na´ve to think that the Mugabe regime would allow a democratic transition - but rather na´ve than we give up and go "back to the bush" with the threat that we draw our country into the kind of morass that has enveloped Somalia and the Sudan.

We remain committed to fighting this cause in democratic ways, believing that ordinary people have extraordinary wisdom and intelligence and will know what to do when they get the chance to vote on the 31st March 2005. But as I have said before such activity takes an awful lot of money and effort - just getting the tens of thousands of polling agents out to the polling stations and seeing to it that they are trained and have the resources to supervise the poll will cost billions.

Billions we do not have. All we have is our courage and commitment to the country and our democratic values. If you want to help, but cannot vote or join us in the struggle on the ground on the day - then help us find the money we need to win.

The campaign is intensifying by the day. MDC still has no access to the State controlled media, our people are still being arrested on a daily basis for all sorts of things - image a three year sentence for three young people caught putting posters up in a small town - right next to the posters of the ruling Party! We still have to have Police approval for every kind of gathering and cannot even conduct training sessions or closed strategy sessions with activists without CIO observers present. But as Dave Coltart said - perhaps this is the only time they will be able to hear the truth!

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 26th February 2005.