Page last updated at 23:54 GMT, Thursday, 27 March 2008

Zimbabwean exiles to sit out poll

By Peter Greste
BBC News, Johannesburg

Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change supporters demonstrate outside their embassy in Pretoria
Zimbabweans in S Africa have been demonstrating for free elections

John and his friends are frustrated and angry.

Seated around a table in the trendy News Cafe in one of Johannesburg's northern suburbs, they look like typical middle-class urban black South Africans - well-dressed, articulate professionals with nothing but a rosy future ahead of them.

But they are Zimbabweans - economic exiles, by their own admission, and they are in South Africa not so much to help themselves, but to save their families.

All have left family behind and taken jobs well below their qualifications, because they felt they had no choice.

All were also concerned enough about the welfare of their families in Zimbabwe to ask for their names to be changed.

Crucial election

John's friend Tinashe - a former insurance company manager, turned clerk - put the equation simply enough: "It was a case of come here or starve."

For them, this election is crucial.

We already know the result - Mugabe has won
Zimbabwean exile in S Africa

It is the best chance Zimbabwe has of turning around the economic crisis that has left 80% unemployment, and driven inflation to the mind-numbing figure of more than 100,000%.

"I don't even know how you calculate that kind of number," said one of the group.

"We (Zimbabwe) absolutely can't keep going like this," said Thandi, who came with her husband two years ago.

"People are dying because of the state of the economy."

But although all recognised the election as vital, none was willing to make the journey home to take part.

Risk of return

"There's no point. We already know the result. Mugabe has won," said John.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe addresses his supporters at a political rally in Bulawayo
Many exiles feel President Mugabe is certain to win a sixth term

"It would be worth the risk if we thought our votes might count, but he already has it arranged.

"He has all the police and the army working for him, and they won't accept anyone else as president. Our vote won't make a difference."

Some were worried that, as refugees, their formal status would be in jeopardy if they tried returning home.

The rest - those that were in South Africa on an official visa - felt there was a good chance the election would turn violent and that they might struggle to get back into South Africa.

Potential clout

The decision to sit these polls out seems to be common amongst the diaspora.

Potentially, at least, they could wield significant electoral clout.

Nobody knows how many people have left Zimbabwe over the past six years since the crisis began, but a commonly accepted estimate is that some three million now live in neighbouring states like South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia and Botswana.

That is compared with a little more than five million registered voters inside Zimbabwe.

And although there has been no reliable polling of the diaspora's political views, anecdotal evidence suggests that there is wide support for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Support split

Around the table at the News Cafe, half of the group backed Simba Makoni, the former cabinet minister and politburo member who broke ranks from the ruling Zanu-PF to mount an independent challenge against Robert Mugabe.

The other half supported the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai.

At another lunch for Zimbabwean ex-pats, all but one of about a dozen people were solidly behind the MDC.

The lone hold-out was moderately pro-Mugabe, but still undecided as a voter.

That was Eli, a jazz musician who described himself as "pro-Zimbabwe".

"I agree with some of our president's ideas about how Zimbabwe should be for Zimbabweans. We have to protect our sovereignty," he said.

"But at the same time, I realise that there have been some bad policies, and that we need to change direction. I'm just not sure who the right person is to deliver that change."

Possible backlash

And what of the country's future, should President Mugabe win a historic sixth term of office?

Could it follow Kenya's path into post-election violence with a backlash against any clear examples of vote rigging?

"I don't think it will go that way," Precious insisted at the lunch at Eli's house. "Zimbabweans are too passive, too afraid of more war to go down that route."

But they also recognised the irony of the situation. Most economists attribute Zimbabwe's continued survival to the vast amounts of groceries and cash that the diaspora - those like John, Thandi and Precious - send home every day.

Of those seated around the table at Eli's house in Johannesburg's gritty suburb of Hillbrow, each said they were supporting at least eight people back in Zimbabwe.

While they pray for an end to the crisis that has left so many of their friends and family destitute, they also acknowledge that in their own small way, they have contributed to its continued slow-burn, by softening the blow for people who might otherwise revolt.

Simba, another computer programmer, said they simply cannot let their relatives suffer:

"There's no way we can stand by and watch them starve.

"I know that we're probably helping the Mugabe regime, but we can't turn our backs on our loved ones either.

"After all, that's why we came here in the first place."

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