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Last Updated: Friday, 31 December 2004, 08:43 GMT
Zimbabwe's fight for a free voice
By Alastair Leithead
BBC southern Africa correspondent

Newspaper seller in Zimbabwe
Sokwanele members say accurate information is hard to come by
In a couple of months Zimbabwe will go to the polls in an atmosphere of fear and repression that has driven the simple spreading of information underground.

The independent press has been silenced, people are fed a diet of state-controlled TV and radio, and the opposition party has no way of getting its message out.

Even entering the country illegally as a BBC journalist could be punished by two years in prison.

It is up to organisations like Sokwanele, which means "enough", to get out whatever information it can - and even just to tell people there is an alternative voice.

Wrong information

"Our major objective is to make people aware of what is really happening," one of the group's leaders told me.

"You know in Zimbabwe people are not being told the correct information - they are being fed with wrong information."

Map of Zimbabwe
After months of discussion and careful vetting, we were finally allowed to go along to one of their meetings.

It was in a township outside Bulawayo and in the darkness we quickly darted inside the small house where a handful of Sokwanele, or Zvakwana, members were sitting.

On the agenda was news of other members being arrested - something that put the whole group on edge as they glanced across at the white man sitting in the corner of the room listening.

If anyone saw me entering the house they could raise the alarm - such is the culture of fear, and of informants, that exists in Zimbabwe.

A white man entering a township house could bring the police round and result in arrest and being held, perhaps for days, for questioning.

We see that there is no one in this country who is going to liberate it - we better do it ourselves
Sokwanele member
In the meeting they talked about the colour of paint they use to daub anti-government slogans around Bulawayo, and the best way to distribute leaflets at night.

They are not plotting a coup, or gun running, just handing out articles from newspapers and the internet to let people know what the alternative voice is saying.

But as the leader of the group explained, the penalties are severe - they could be shot on the spot for handing out information you could find in any internet cafe.

"We have had enough," he told me, "we have had enough."

"You know this government is just trying to keep a grip on power for too long. The country is now ruined. We see that there is no-one in this country who is going to liberate it - we better do it ourselves. Even if it is high risk, there is nothing we can do."

Food row

The state TV and radio stations rely on propaganda - showing ample food supplies and happy people dancing on the land.

But things are not as they seem. A year ago the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) was feeding 6.5 million people.

The government has a plan to starve people so as to arm-twist them to vote for it
Archbishop Ncube
Now it is down to just one million after the government cancelled this year's official food and crop assessment mid-way through.

The harvest was sufficient, they said, and the WFP's aid was not needed.

The Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, says this just is not true.

"The food situation is very bad because the government of Zimbabwe told lies, refusing the WFP to feed the people and saying we have enough harvest this year," he said.

"As a matter of fact they have only 700,000 metric tons and they claim to have 2.4 million metric tons of grain."

Grain has been imported from South Africa, appearing to back up the claim of shortage.

Archbishop Ncube puts the blame on politics.

"All they are focused on right now is the elections in March next year and they want to win those at all costs, by hook and by crook, by starvation, by beating up people, through the youth militia - by every possible evil means," he said.

"The government has a plan to starve people so as to arm-twist them to vote for it."


The opposition Movement for Democratic Change has enjoyed a great deal of support but lost the last presidential election and failed to get a majority in parliament.

In the next few weeks they will have to decide whether or not even to contest the elections.

MDC supporters
Supporters of the opposition MDC have been threatened
The Zimbabwean government signed up to African rules for free and fair elections. Transparent ballot boxes have been promised, along with a new electoral commission - but opposition MP Moses Mzila says it means nothing.

"They have been threatening people that this time if you vote MDC we will be able to see through the ballot box who you are voting for - we'll know you voted MDC and we'll beat you up," he said.

"The voters' roll is in a shambles. It has thousands and thousands of names of deceased persons and yet there are thousands or millions of people who are supposed to be on the voters' roll and are not on it."

Even if the rules are changed, there is a feeling the MDC will struggle to win the support of the people.

Archbishop Ncube explained his interpretation of the problem.

"For one thing we just don't seem to have a leader of a calibre that can give people the courage to stand up for their rights even if it means being shot. We don't have a Mandela, we don't have a Gandhi."

And at the Zanu-PF ruling party congress in December there seemed to be no sign of weakening.

The party may have its divisions, but President Robert Mugabe is still firmly in charge.

Elections or no elections, those who want change must wait for Mr Mugabe.


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