To vote or not to vote: Views from Zimbabweans on their country's critical moment
t is a cool winter’s evening as the 10 of us in line at the pharmacy wait for our various ailments and prescriptions to be tended to. Suddenly, a man in his 50s with a booming voice from the back of the line starts to speak.
His conversation centres around the politics of Zimbabwe’s upcoming poll; a presidential election that will neither feature long-standing ruler Robert Mugabe nor his most prominent opponent, the late Morgan Tsvangirai.
“What makes you all think that army generals will give up their positions and uniforms to be ruled by a small boy [Nelson Chamisa]?” This question has been asked frequently, albeit with less derogatory connotations. With just eight months since Mugabe’s ouster, many wonder how willingly current President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his co-conspirators (some who have arisen to powerful positions in government as ministers and vice president) would relinquish power if the polls went the way of the MDC Alliance party and Chamisa (40), who is the candidate most likely to mount the greatest challenge to Mnangagwa (75) and ZANU-PF’s 38-year grip on power.
As the man continues with his public sermon, he looks towards a group of three younger men. Pointedly, he asks what each of them is doing to try to change the circumstances of what he sees as a forgone conclusion: a resounding ZANU-PF victory.
Though there is much talk of elections around Harare, the men’s hesitance to respond in front of an audience of strangers is nothing new. Even with public protests like the #ThisFlag movement and last year’s mass march to state house to demand Mugabe’s resignation, political conversations (especially with strangers) remain largely furtive.
I start to wonder if the three men being put on the spot might not be voting at all, much like the people I have interviewed over the past week.
In a seminal piece on why he would not be voting in the then pending 1956 American presidential elections, the late African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois strikingly asks:
“I have no advice for others in this election. Are you voting Democratic? Well and good; all I ask is why? Are you voting for Eisenhower and his smooth team of bright ghost writers? Again, why? Will your helpless vote either way support or restore democracy to America?”
The idea of a “helpless vote either way” was echoed by some people I spoke to over the past week. While over 5.5 million Zimbabweans are said to be registered to vote, there are others who have made the conscious decision not to. According to results from Afrobarometer’s latest survey on Zimbabwe, 29% of candidates (both rural and urban) believe their votes will not actually be counted. Furthermore, 44% believe an incorrect result will be announced.
‘Nothing will change’
Tanatswa* (30) works for a human rights organisation. “I did try to vote in 2013, not because I had conviction, but because I was almost convinced that I had to vote as a responsible citizen,” she told the Africa Portal.
For previous elections, Zimbabweans were forced to endure long queues and tedious registration processes that could take days of standing in line to complete. But a more efficient biometric voter registration (BVR) system that was introduced late last year has made the process far more efficient than before. One respondent, who has decided to vote this year, also mentioned the frustrating process of prior efforts to register as one of the reasons she had not voted in previous polls.
However, Tanatswa remains convinced that with or without the BVR system in place, her vote would hardly change things. “Women are treated the same [poorly] in MDC, ZANU-PF and any other party,” she said. “None of the parties holds the kinds of values that I have as a person.”
A running theme – that of a lack of viable presidential candidates who meet the different interviewees’ needs or values – was palpable. But so was a lack of belief that these citizens’ votes would contribute to any significant shifts in power.
Another unregistered voter, Ronald Munjoma (34), said he was convinced that the ruling ZANU-PF party would do everything possible to stay in power. “There is no way Mnangagwa would easily give up power after only eight months in office, considering what he went through to gain that power and position.” He added that the coup was ZANU-PF’s way of guaranteeing it would stay in power and “protect their selfish interest and continue to loot”.
This feeling of apathy was also shared by Senzeni* (29), who said that after having voted in both the 2008 and 2013 elections, he felt that with or without his vote, “the same people will still be in office and still forgetting about my existence and my vote”.
Doubts about the integrity of the electoral process were also raised by those interviewed, with alleged vote rigging and violent voter intimidation being two pertinent aspects of Zimbabwe’s elections over the last few elections.
Hoping for change
However, some still felt hopeful for a better Zimbabwe, even without their participation in the polls.
“I sincerely believe that whoever wins of the major parties, be it MDC Alliance or ZANU-PF, the economy is going to turn around if the defeated party accepts its fate,” said Shingai Kuwaza (36), who has never voted before. “Therefore, I have a highly optimistic post-election outlook.”
"I don’t feel I owe voting to other people. The state owes me many things as a citizen but actually, citizenship is not related to voting. I don’t have citizenship because I vote. I vote because I have citizenship.”
Another non-voter, Belinda* (26), noted, “I don’t feel I owe voting to other people. The state owes me many things as a citizen but actually, citizenship is not related to voting. I don’t have citizenship because I vote. I vote because I have citizenship.” She added that after an election, the government had an obligation to all citizens, and not to just those who would have voted. As a lesbian black woman, she felt that her needs are already not being met and that other citizens would not protect her rights and freedoms.
Some previous non-voters have however been swayed to vote for the first time this year. Tino Hondo (32) said that while she was eligible to vote in the greatly contested 2008 elections, she did not feel that her vote would have made any difference. “I am a 1980s child and for as long as I have lived, there have roughly always been the same faces in parliament and council," she recounted. "And despite everything, including rumours of a Morgan Tsvangirai victory, nothing changed for the masses.”
But 10 years on, Hondo, who is both excited and scared about voting for the first time, still has some doubts. “I know who I am voting for,” she said. “So my doubts aren’t about who to vote for, but more about the viability of those candidates.”
Another first-time voter, Tererai* (36), was similarly frustrated by the tedium of past registration processes. She registered to vote before the landmark “coup” and current candidates were named as the final options. She is voting because she wants to set a good example for her children.
Asked if she had any doubts about who to vote for, Tererai was not hesitant to make her intentions clear. “I am clear about one thing. I want change.”
*Not their real names
(Main image: Campaign posters are plastered around Harare as the country gears up for the 30 July elections. – Fungai Machirori)
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.