An Army of the Poor

We go to the polls here in Zimbabwe in three days time! Those of us who are deeply involved with the MDC are totally exhausted, many are hoarse from speaking at meetings two and three times a day for weeks, many are both physically and mentally exhausted by the effort they have put into the campaign.

I have often pointed out to any who will listen, that the MDC is a Party of the Poor. If you had visited a Zanu rally you would have been astonished at the variety of vehicles in the vicinity - army, police, CIO, Mercedes, BMW, every form of 4x4 and luxury twin cab you can name and few you probably have never seen. By contrast at the MDC rally on Saturday - with 35 000 people crammed into a stadium that holds 15 000, there were a handful of battered pick-ups and the now familiar armored twin cab that carries the President.

On Wednesday evening we will deploy our own army to their posts. An army of peasant farmers, widows, grandmothers and low-income workers. This army - numbering 35 000 have all volunteered to have their names printed in the newspaper for all to see, along with their ID numbers and physical addresses and will go out to witness and supervise the elections at 8 300 polling stations.

They will have to walk to their stations in most cases; many will sleep at the stations they are looking after because they live too far away. Only a handful will have their own transport and the MDC simply cannot move them to their stations because they themselves have no "wheels".

They will vary from illiterate people who cannot write their names to teachers and headmasters who have defied their government employers to help. They will carry small packs - a candle, a box of matches, some toilet paper, 2 kilograms of maize meal and some form of "relish" to go with it. Perhaps some water in a plastic bottle.

They will have to man their stations for up to 24 hours straight - no sleep as people will vote all day and in some cases well into the night. They run the risk of physical violence and intimidation and offers of money to abandon their posts or allow the operation of the station to be subverted while they are there.

After the election they have been threatened with the loss of their jobs, transfers to hostile places and the denial of food and medicine for their families. In Masvingo the Head of the Armed forces said this past week that the "bushes would become soldiers and MDC supporters beheaded".

At their polling stations they will enter a totally hostile environment. There will be police present, probably youth militia, peasant farmers will be faced with their traditional leaders all of who are paid to work for the State and Zanu PF. All the officials in the polling station will be hostile - probably drawn from the army or the CIO. Even the staff of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission will be vetted by Zanu PF and will be proven Zanu supporters and cadres.

And into this situation will march our rag tag army of polling agents - some barefoot or in sandals made out of old tyres, wearing their best clothes because this is an honor. They will be armed with two pens, some stationary and their commitment to democratic principles and a free and fair environment for our people to vote in. They will only be allowed one at a time into the polling station itself and there they will watch the whole voting process. They will be alert for any actions that may result in the returns for that station being subverted in some way.

They will have had a days training from the MDC and a couple of hours with the ZEC. They are the only way we can stop the kind of activity that we saw and experienced in 2000 and 2002 and which resulted in the election being stolen from the democrats. For that is what we are - we are the only democrats in this race - for the others, this is not a test of public opinion, it is just a front for electoral fraud on a massive scale.

What astonishes me and gives me hope for Zimbabwe and for Africa is that the commitment to real democracy at this level of our society is so strong and alive. These may be the poor, but we have found that they not only fully understand the value of democracy but also want it to work for them. Ask any group of poor Zimbabweans if they are "ready". You do not have to explain, they know you are asking "are you ready to vote?" and the answer without exception is yes!

So here you have an army of the poor, going once again into battle for their future, the future of their children and their country. A battle that they have fought twice before and been beaten - not by fair means but by foul. An army that has not given up despite propaganda, threats, hunger and worse. Hundreds of thousands tortured, hundreds beaten or even killed. They go against armed forces numbering 120 000, armed with AK 47's and strutting with pride and arrogance. They go against a State controlled system that has been designed and built to frustrate their desires and will.

They are in small groups - three per station, in lonely places, many kilometers from the nearest town. They are armed only with their principles and pens. They cannot call on reinforcements if they get into trouble and we may not even get news of them for hours after any incidents. But these are the people who are holding the line for democracy in Africa and I am so proud to be one of them.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 28th March 2005.