In July 2013 an enraged Zimbabwean immigration officer at the Beit Bridge border post fixed me with a frosty glare, promptly hurled me into a holding cell and deported me back into South Africa within an hour.
I was on my way to Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, to cover the July elections which Zanu-PF subsequently allegedly rigged and won through a series of underhanded tactics, returning to power with a two-thirds majority.
Stepping into Zimbabwe without accreditation was a sacrilegious offence. Myself and former colleague Carien du Plessis had tried for over a month to secure accreditation, but to no avail.
The plan was to commute to Harare by bus to talk to everyday Zimbabweans about how they felt about that election.
I returned to Johannesburg and flew back to Harare as a tourist within a day or two, and covered the controversial election. But that was Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, the current president who was catapulted into power on the back of a military coup in November, presides over a different Zimbabwe.
It differs from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe in dramatic fashion. For the first time in almost two decades, Harare is allowing the European Union, the Commonwealth and the US to observe tomorrow’s high-stakes poll.
Mugabe’s hostility towards and frosty relations with European countries, and Britain in particular, began in the early 2000s when Harare started encouraging the invasion of white-owned farms. His animosity towards the West extended to foreign media like CNN and the BBC, which he banned from Zimbabwe ahead of the 2002 elections. Since then, they have had to rely on local correspondents.
Ahead of the 2013 election, the Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and the state-owned Herald newspaper were Mugabe’s mouthpieces, running a series of monologues about the necessity of the leader’s failed land reform programmes and his anti-West sentiments.
This week the the ZBC reported that the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Nelson Chamisa, and his lawyers had gone as far as making outrageous claims that no results other than a victory would be acceptable to them.
In 2002, 2008 and 2013 it was unheard of for the MDC and other opposition parties to campaign in Zanu-PF strongholds like Mashonaland East and West, Midlands and Manicaland. Mugabe had also banned political gatherings, unleashed a bloodthirsty militia to terrorise opposition parties, and presided over a series of bloodstained and rigged elections.
This time around things are different. The MDC is campaigning everywhere, with little or no trouble. In Norton, a town some 40 km west of Harare in Mashonaland West, posters of MDC, Zanu-PF and independent candidates appeared alongside each other.
While Mnangagwa’s de facto but benevolent junta seems to be using the shards of Mugabe’s disastrous tenure as a launch pad for a better Zimbabwe, the economy, which has been in the doldrums for two decades, has shown no signs of recovery.
Edzai Mutale (36), a resident of Katanga in Norton, continues with the frugal existence which he was forced into when Intel Marketing, a small shoe-manufacturing factory in Harare, went out of business, retrenching about 40 workers in the process some six years ago. Mutale, who now runs a tiny key-cutting business in Katanga, says things could be better.
“I have three kids and I am in arrears on school fees. Here we make duplicate keys, door locks and car keys. But business is slow. I am renting this property and I pay just a little over R1 000 to the landlord every month.”
Whoever wins the election, all Mutale is asking for is minor changes, such as banks not running out of cash – because banks and ATMs run out of cash daily.
On Friday morning in the Harare city centre, at the corner of L Takawira and Nelson Mandela streets, hundreds of people were seen queuing in front of different ATMs and banks to withdraw cash. The cash shortage has created an extra burden for Mutale and millions of other Zimbabweans.
“Most people in Zimbabwe have bank or mobile money accounts. But those accounts are useless because you cannot withdraw money anywhere,” he explains. “If you want hard cash, you have to go to the black market. If you have $100 in your mobile account, you have to go to the guys in the black market and transfer it to them. They will give you hard cash, but they charge hefty commissions of between 25% and 40%. In the end, you have worked and charged $100 for your labour, but you end up with about $70.”
He adds that “the same applies with goods in small shops or general dealers”.
“If you buy a packet of rice with hard cash, it could cost you $10. But if you don’t have hard cash and pay through mobile money, they will charge you $13, and if you pay with bond notes, they will charge you $15.”
Mutale argues that this is wrong, because the government has pegged bond notes to be on par with the dollar and the rand.
A stone’s throw from Mutale’s business, a band of ambitious money exchangers vie for my attention, shouting out their exchange rates while brandishing wads of crisp new US dollars, rand and bond notes.
While Mnangagwa’s regime has delivered freedom of expression, association and assembly, Mutale says the most important thing that should result from tomorrow’s polls is economic freedom and the stabilisation of the economy.
Daily battle for survival
The sprawling and shabby jumble that is the Katanga outdoor market is one of Zimbabwe’s many manifestations of Mugabe’s misrule. It is an enduring blight on Mugabe’s political career which ended abruptly, three years short of four decades.
A group of women line a stretch of dust- and grit-filled road, selling different kinds of raw fish in 20-litre buckets. Next to them is another band of women who buy the raw fish, prepare and roast it on the spot, and sell it off to hungry customers waiting in dark and dingy canteens. The raw fish arrives daily, in trucks, from the Darwendale Dam, some 10km west of Norton.
While the women prepare the fish, others fan old magazines and newspapers in order to fend off the fat green flies buzzing around, attracted by the fetid smell hanging in the air.
The health hazards in the area are difficult to ignore. Owing to the collapse of the country’s health system, Zimbabwe is vulnerable to outbreaks of measles and cholera. In 2008 a cholera outbreak left thousands of people dead. Official death toll statistics are hard to come by, but conjectural and back-of-the-envelope calculations place the deaths at around 3 000.
But, for Mutale and the hundreds of vendors trying to grab the attention of customers, health issues are the least of their concerns.
“You think we are worried about health issues? What health issues? Those women’s concern right now is that if no one buys their fish, entire families face a real possibility of starving.”
Pointing at Temba Mliswa, a fiery former Zanu-PF politician whose campaign truck was passing by, urging people to support his bid to become the area’s MP, Mutale said: “Maybe the elections will bring us so much relief and a semblance of normality in this area that we can also start worrying about health concerns.”
But for now, he says, the battle is to find something to eat, go to bed and wake up to face another tough day brimming with fresh worries.
By now it’s Friday afternoon and while waiting to ferry passengers home from the market’s taxi rank, taxi drivers are belting out loud local music from their beat-up and barely roadworthy cars, sending out strains of melodies into the atmosphere.
Mutale, now on his way home, jumps into one of the taxis and waves as the driver starts the engine, sending a swirling cloud of smoke into the atmosphere. Draining a bottle of beer into his mouth, Mutale shouts “Goodbye my friend” and delivers his parting shot: “It is now two days before election. These elections carry the hopes of a nation that is tired of dictatorship and corruption.”
Through the elections, he says, the country will be born again, or it will be another five years of tears, broken promises and hardship for him and his family, as well as Katanga, Norton and the whole of Zimbabwe.
Whether or not the changes will be sustainable into the future remains to be seen.