Zimbabwe: 'Quiet shake of the head' from wary voters

President Mugabe during celebrations to mark his 89th birthday Image copyright AP

As Zimbabwe prepares for Saturday's referendum on a new constitution, many remain wary and are looking beyond the vote to elections later in the year.

At his recent birthday party, President Robert Mugabe cut a rather lonely figure.

"All my friends gone," he said to the assembled guests. "Also relatives gone - and I continue to linger on."

Zimbabwe's leader is 89 now. Most of the politicians in his coalition cabinet are a generation or two younger than him.

But there is no indication that Mr Mugabe is planning to retire.

On Saturday, millions of Zimbabweans are voting on a new constitution. It has been a long, expensive, bitterly contested process to get the draft together.

But the main political parties here are - for once - all in agreement, and campaigning for a "Yes" vote.

Tendai Biti - a gruff, brooding, impressive man who was once beaten, jailed and accused of treason by President Mugabe's security forces - told me the new constitution was "world class".

He called it the "midwife" to a brand new Zimbabwe.

Mr Biti is the finance minister and a senior figure in the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change), the former opposition that was brought into a power-sharing government after the last elections in 2008 were derailed by violence.

If it gets approved - and there is not much doubt about that - the constitution will spell out people's rights, devolve some power and set up a system of checks and balances in order to keep Zimbabwe's elected leaders in line.

It will also give President Mugabe the chance to stay in office - with more or less the same powers that he has now - for another 10 years.

Which is perhaps why the referendum has not exactly captured the public's imagination here.

Instead, everyone is craning their necks to look beyond it, to the elections that may or may not take place in July.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption All the main parties are campaigning for a "Yes" vote

As Tendai Biti himself acknowledged, a constitution - however world class - is just a bit of paper. "It won't stop me from killing you," as he put it.

It is hard to know how much support President Mugabe still enjoys here. His Zanu-PF party is highly organised, well-funded and extremely good on the campaign trail.

But opinion polls in Zimbabwe do not count for much. Too many people shake their heads and refuse to answer.

And it is that quiet shake of the head that still strikes me most about this country.

Plenty has changed here. Hyperinflation has gone. Schools are open. The violence and chaos that stalked Zimbabwe for so long have subsided.

But fear remains. The instinct to whisper, and look away.

No-one was ever punished for the torture and killings that swept the country in 2008 and, whatever the new constitution says, everyone knows that the police, the military and the state media remain in the absolute control of President Mugabe and his party.

I took a drive out of Harare and into the countryside. Dark green fields. Bright yellow corn. Red earth and impossibly blue skies. Like a stunning, almost gaudy oil painting.

In a dip between two hills, tens of thousands of people were living in mostly makeshift shacks. I will not say where because I promised the headmaster of a local school that I would not.

He was tall, dignified, and scared. "The security services - they are clever - they will find me out," he said. "It is dangerous to talk."

His tiny private school, made of rusting sheets of corrugated metal, was struggling - too many orphans, no money, no textbooks.

He scoffed at the idea that the past few years of political stability had brought any sort of relief to poorer Zimbabweans.

"I am a churchgoer," he said. "We are brought up to believe that our leaders are appointed by God. But we are suffering. Education. Health. It's not okay."

There is still some optimism here that Zimbabwe can pull off a free and fair election later this year.

"Why not?" said Tendai Biti indignantly. "There is nothing in our DNA as Zimbabweans that says we can't."

In the lobby of our hotel back in Harare, I ran into the South African government delegation that has played a key role in nudging Zimbabwe's politicians towards the constitution and elections.

The team leader, Lindiwe Zulu, sounded tired. "We've been coming in and out of this place for almost four years now. Zimbabwe needs to start looking after its own development."

She called the elections a big hurdle, but afterwards she said, "I hope one day I'll be coming here for a holiday."

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