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Saturday, 17 June, 2000, 12:04 GMT 13:04 UK
The politics of fear
War veterans
War veterans have invaded many white-owned farms
By Grant Ferrett in Harare

Fear is infectious. The factory worker I was interviewing outside his home in Harare spent much of the time looking over my shoulder. I began to do the same.

Freddie's anxiety was understandable. Twice in the previous week his house had been attacked and he'd been beaten by government supporters.

Now it was beginning to get dark, and he feared the mob would return to carry out its threat to kill him.

The latest assault had taken place just an hour or so earlier. He'd been sitting in his living room with his family when a group of followers of the ruling party burst in, smashed the windows and beat Freddie, his wife and one of his children with whips and clubs.


MDC rally
MDC supporters have been the target of violence
For good measure they used iron bars to break the padlock of a safe where Freddie was keeping his children's school fees. His offence was to be a supporter of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The attack was just one small part of an orchestrated campaign of violence against the opposition in general and the MDC in particular which has spread fear throughout Zimbabwe.

It began on white-owned commercial farms, with high-profile backers of the party being singled out for invasion by government supporters led by the War Veterans Association.

The intimidation and violence was then extended to hundreds of thousand of farm workers, deemed by the ruling party to have been brainwashed by their employers into supporting the opposition.

Next came the rural areas, where the majority of the population lives. In some constituencies there has been evidence of ruling party candidates not only condoning or organising the violence, but actively taking part in public beatings of suspected opposition sympathisers.



The opposition is repeatedly accused of instigating the violence on behalf of an assortment of racist foreign backers

Finally came the attacks on people like Freddie in urban areas, where support for the MDC has been strongest.

About 30 people have died and thousands have been beaten or raped. Hundreds have had their homes burnt down and their belongings looted. Tens of thousands have been forced to attend rallies in support of the ruling party and all-night sessions of mass indoctrination or "re-education" led by the war veterans.

Teachers have been pursued with particular vigour. As well-educated urbanites often living and working in rural areas, they're suspected by the ruling party of spreading the word for the opposition.



Zimbabwe will never be a colony AGAIN

Government campaign slogan
Human rights groups estimate that 7,000 have fled their schools for the relative safety of the towns and cities over the past few months. Some schools have closed altogether because the teachers believe it's too dangerous to turn up for work. A further 6,000 people, mainly in rural areas, are thought to have left their homes for fear of their lives.

On state-run radio and television such news is not reported. Instead, the opposition is repeatedly accused of instigating the violence on behalf of an assortment of racist foreign backers led by Britain and what the authorities call ex-Rhodesians.

Their aim, according to the government, is to return Zimbabwe to the days of white minority rule.

"Zimbabwe will never be a colony AGAIN," says one of the government's main campaign slogans.

Political spirit

President Mugabe says his party and supporters are rekindling the political spirit which brought about the end of white rule in 1980 after a protracted civil war.

He praises the war veterans for doing a good job. They are, he says, heroes of whom Zimbabwe can be proud.


Mugabe
President Mugabe says the war veterans are heroes
The question on everyone's mind is how much the campaign of mass intimidation will affect the vote. Will people take seriously the warnings of the war veterans, who threaten a return to war if the government loses?

Will they decide that supporting the opposition is simply too dangerous? Or will they turn out to express their revulsion at the violence which has engulfed this previously largely peaceful country?

The answer of course will not become clear until after the counting is over.

Consequences

But whoever wins - and many observers believe the opposition has a real chance of gaining a significant number of seats, particularly in the towns and cities - will face immense problems which have been dramatically worsened by the election campaign.



For Freddie, the economic consequences of the campaign are already being felt

Zimbabwe has almost no foreign currency and petrol is expected to completely run out again within a week of voting. Nationwide power cuts have been avoided only because of the patience of Zimbabwe's creditors, notably neighbouring South Africa.

There are growing fears that inflation, currently running at an annual rate of about 60%, will spiral completely out of control as a result of the government's policy of printing money to fund pay rises for civil servants, traditional leaders and other potential supporters in the run-up to voting.

For Freddie, the economic consequences of the campaign are already being felt. He lost his job and his home on the factory site following the attacks. His employers said he was too much trouble. He can no longer afford to send his children to school.

He does, though, still have his life, his family and his vote.

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See also:

17 Jun 00 | Africa
Zimbabwe leaders push for votes
06 Jun 00 | Africa
Zimbabwe fear spreads
13 Jun 00 | Africa
Zimbabwe hampers EU observers
16 Jun 00 | Africa
Mugabe 'misquoted' over mines
07 Jun 00 | Africa
Mugabe eyes all white farms
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