To Vote or Not to Vote in Zimbabwe

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Young people in Zimbabwe are torn. Not just about who to vote for, but whether or not they’ll vote at all. Zimbabweans head to the polls on August 23rd 2023. It may be the first or second time young people can participate in the election of a president since the end of Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule in 2017. The coup that toppled him sparked new hope. But election violence, an unstable economy and lack of reforms in the years since have jaded Zimbabwe’s youth.

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Lesedi: Elections in Zimbabwe are just around the corner. August 23rd, 2023. Young people in the country are torn, not just about who to vote for, but whether or not they’ll vote at all.

SK: My vote is an endorsement of something that I believe in, but I won’t be voting because I don’t believe in the players that are available.

ZW: I will be voting because it is my right. It is my responsibility. And I encourage everybody else to do the same.

Lesedi: The election may be the first or second time young people can participate in the election of a president since the end of Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule in 2017. Tawanda Chimhini, an elections expert from Zimbabwe, says an estimated 1 million people have registered to vote for the first time in this coming election.

Tawanda: It’s not yet clear if these people are actually young people, but uh, people that try to register for the first time are usually young people.

Lesedi: As hopeful as that might sound, voter registration doesn’t always translate into voter turnout.

TC: Hi, my initials are TC and I’m calling from Bulawayo. I won’t be participating in these coming elections. Personally, I believe my vote would not make a change.

NN: I’ll be voting on the 23rd of August because it’ll be my chance to make key decisions on the quality of life that I want for myself, my family, and my communities.

Lesedi: We asked young people from around Zimbabwe to submit their thoughts via voice notes.

TF: I’m just in a dilemma about voting at the moment.

Lesedi: Also, we partnered with two reporters from Magamba Network in Zimbabwe, and they interviewed a handful of people. Our questions were simple but revealing. Will you vote and what are the most important issues?

ZW: The most important issue facing Zimbabwe in this election is confidence in the vote. We want to vote. We are very motivated, like a lot of my friends have registered, my family has registered. We just don’t have the confidence that our vote will matter.

Lesedi: This is Radio Workshop. On this episode: to vote or not to vote in Zimbabwe? I’m Lesedi Mogoatlhe.

MUSIC 

ES: I’m ES and I’m calling from Gweru.

MRB: My initials are MRB.

SK: I’m SK.

LN: Good afternoon my initials are LN.

SN: My initials are SM.

Lesedi: You’ll notice we only use people’s initials.

SN: My initials: SN.

TF: Okay, so I’m TF.

Lesedi: That’s because Zimbabweans are afraid to speak openly about the elections – and for good reason. Elections can be dangerous, including voter intimidation and politically motivated attacks. Media outlets are reporting that violence around the upcoming election has already begun.

TF: The fear is that if we’re going to vote, is it going to be peaceful because people are afraid of violence. We Zimbabweans, we are a ticking time bomb. Every time we’re likely to explode.

MUSIC 

Lesedi: Zimbabwe is only 43 years old, and out of those 43 years, Robert Mugabe was Zimbabwe’s head of state for 37 of them. Mugabe was removed as president in 2017 during a coup. As far as military coups go, it was peaceful. No tear gas, no rubber bullets, no batons. And that’s because the demonstrators and the military wanted the same thing – the removal of Mugabe.

Kudzayi: Tell me about a time when you felt hopeful for Zimbabwe.

Lesedi: Kudzayi Zvinavashe is a reporter for Magamba Network in Zimbabwe.

ZW: Oh, this is, this one’s gonna get me killed.

Lesedi: That’s ZW. She’s joking, but not totally joking. Speaking out in Zimbabwe can be risky.

ZW: I hate that so much because, I should feel free to talk about anything without feeling like,”Oh, they’re gonna get me.”

During the coup I have never seen Zimbabweans that happy. Ever. We went from being so depressed and kind of like, there’s always this energy of everybody’s stressed. You know, people are dealing with Zim and their own individual lives. But when the coup happened and the protests were going on, the energy in town was so different. I’ve like, that’s the only time I’ve ever seen that because people kind of were seeing change coming and they were just so nice. Just random strangers would just pass you like, “Hi!” And I was just like, I’ve never seen this before.

Kudzayi: Well, okay, let’s talk about a time when you felt hopeless for Zimbabwe.

ZW: Uh, I feel like, um, right now. There should be more accountability in this country. Corruption should not be so easy and so unpunished. People should not steal $15 billion and get zero repercussions for that, right?

Lesedi: In addition to corruption, there’s Zimbabwe’s high unemployment rate. ZW says employers use it against their employees.

ZW: I don’t think you’re inspiring confidence in your employees if you keep telling them, “Well, there’s so many people unemployed who want your job, so be grateful.” It’s just like… Really?

Kudzayi: It’s like they’re doing you a favor…

ZW: And the medical situation in this country is so bad. Like how is an entire hospital like without water? Like the bare minimum! It’s so bad because so many people have died unnecessarily.

Lesedi: And if that’s not enough, ZW says inflation makes day-to-day life in the country very unpredictable.

ZW: Even if I go to my neighborhood shop right now, they don’t even display prices anymore. It’s like, like how is that normal?

Kudzayi: You find out when you get to the till. Right?

ZW: Exactly. Like an ideal Zim would have a functioning economy. You know? Like if you keep telling me it’s 5,000 today, then it’s 10,000, then it’s 15,000. I’m not even sure what that means anymore. You know, I’m not sure what money means anymore. So the economic situation, it affects my mental health. There’s no, you can’t just like be chilled. It’s, it’s, there’s always something breaking in the economy.

Lesedi: ZW says she never wanted to be that person who leaves Zimbabwe.

ZW: But at this moment, I kind of feel like I need a break. Experience some normalcy in the country where prices are not changing every day.

MUSIC

Lesedi: ZW might be committed to staying, but many Zimbabweans have left.

KJ: It’s actually recording now. Yeah. Five seconds. Yeah.

Lesedi: This is KJ and he loves Zimbabwe.

KJ: It’s like, our people are amazing. They’re warm. Intelligent. You know, everything you’d want in a people.

Lesedi: But KJ now lives in South Africa. He’s studying law and works as a site clerk for a construction company. KJ first left Zimbabwe because political and economic instability disrupted his studies.

KJ: The dream is to come and work here five years, six years, seven years, and go back home, everyone wants to go back home. So what happens in Zimbabwe is important to us politically, because obviously politics links to economics and economics links to survival of the people.

Lesedi: When Robert Mugabe finally stepped down in 2017, vice President Emerson Mnangagwa took his place. KJ remembers that eight months after the coup, Mnangagwa held general elections. It was the first time since independence in 1980 that Mugabe wasn’t a candidate.

KJ: So during 2018, I was really excited for the elections. I was super excited. I thought the elections are gonna bring in something new, something different.

Lesedi: But KJ says 2018 showed him that democracy in Zimbabwe is the same no matter who is leading. The results took three days to come out. Activists took to the streets in peaceful protest, calling for the outcome to be released sooner. The government responded by deploying soldiers and anti-riot police. They beat and shot at protesters and bystanders alike. Police confirmed the death of six people. There was speculation at home and abroad about the legitimacy of the elections.

KJ: So I feel like that’s one thing that’s stopping me from voting again ’cause I feel like my voice and the voice of millions of us in our age bracket, I do not think it’s being heard. I don’t think really people take us seriously.

Lesedi: Nearly a third of all Zimbabweans live outside the country. That could be as many as seven million people. But Zimbabwe doesn’t have a mail-in ballot system. So if you are part of the diaspora, like KJ, the only way to vote is if you make the trip home.

Kudzayi: So if you had the power, what would you change about voting in Zimbabwe?

KJ: Diaspora vote is a non-negotiable. We are Zimbabweans. We hold Zimbabwean passports. We deserve to have our voices heard.

Lesedi: He says one reason Zimbabweans living outside the country deserve to vote is because of their financial contribution. Last year, Zimbabwe’s diaspora remitted 2 billion US dollars back home.

KJ: So they’re also an industry on its own. And, um, they’re also actively participating in the economy, so they deserve to express themselves through a vote to choose their leaders to decide the future of the country.

Lesedi: KJ says it’s unlikely he’ll pay for the trip home to vote.

MUSIC

Lesedi: Even though he feels burnt, KJ isn’t entirely without hope.

KJ: We have a beautiful population. We have everything. We can make this country work in five years, K. That I can promise you. If we do the right basics. Let’s just love our country. Let’s just rebuild. Anything can be rebuilt. We shouldn’t lose hope.

MUSIC 

Lesedi: In the election next week, voters will select candidates running for local office as well as members of parliament and the president. There are 12 candidates running for president, but if there’s one thing you need to know about Zimbabwean politics, it’s that there are only two real players. The ruling party, that’s ZANU-PF, Mnangagwa’s party, and the opposition, the Citizens Coalition for Change, or CCC.

On election day ZANU-PF’s Emerson Mnangagwa will face off against Nelson Chamisa of the CCC. Media reports suggest it’s going to be a tight race between the two parties. And of course, it remains to be seen whether young people will turn out to vote. Tawanda Chimhini, the election expert we heard from earlier, is hopeful. Especially given the increase in voter registration. But he remains concerned about the overall picture of the youth vote in Zimbabwe.

Tawanda: I think one of the things that has to happen is we need to be able to realize that what we see as apathy can easily evolve into desperation. When people feel that they have no space, they’re not being accommodated, they have no say. This is how people then resort to very extreme ways of engaging with their space.

Lesedi: Chimhini told us about one study that shows young people across the continent becoming more comfortable with coups than they are with elections, and he wondered how to restore young people’s confidence in democracy.

Tawanda: I think as generations we’ve failed to strengthen institutions and processes to a point that they inspire confidence, particularly in the much younger generation.

Lesedi: Chimhini has a message for young people considering not to vote on election day.

Tawanda: The world is determined by those that show up. The world is not determined by those that stay away. If you decide to be a spectator in a world that is constantly evolving, then you’re just a passenger in a moving bus.

MUSIC 

Kudzayi: Will it be your first time, uh, casting your vote?

Brandon: Yes, it’ll be my first time.

Kudzayi: So what is motivating you to vote in this, in this election?

Brandon: Um, first of all, the reason why I’m doing it, it’s my right and I feel it’s my sense of duty and my role in my community here, you know, to take part in such events and voicing our opinions about the Zimbabwe we want tomorrow, or the Zimbabwe we want in 10 years time, you know, for our children, for our grandchildren, because ideally that’s what we should be voting for. For systems to be put in place now for future generations.

Kudzayi: You mentioned that you are still going to vote despite your, your thoughts that your vote doesn’t really matter. Why is that?

ZW: It doesn’t feel like it matters, but it feels like I should do it anyway. I should at least try. You know?

Lesedi: We collected many of these recordings in July. It’s now mid-August and a lot can happen in a couple of weeks. And so before we published this episode, we were eager to hear from Kudzayi again ahead of the election that’s just around the corner. We wondered what he’s seeing on the ground as he reports for the Magamba Network in Zimbabwe.

Lesedi: Kudzayi, thank you so much for making time to speak to me. How are you feeling about voting?

Kudzayi: Zero expectations. All we can hope is that it’s a peaceful process and indications that we’re seeing on the ground… It’s not leaning towards the peaceful side.

Lesedi: What’s the vibe in Harare at the moment?

Kudzayi: It’s the whole elections theatrics are playing out right now. The two main parties, uh, the opposition and the main one, ZANU PF, they have been aggressive and also have been doing these rallies across the country. So you find that the campaign trail has been punctuated by episodes of violence here and there. So fingers crossed it doesn’t escalate into something big or we do not lose more lives building up to the elections.

Lesedi: I asked Kudzayi how the race is looking.

Kudzayi: It’s, it’s really hard to, to get a feel of what the polls are saying because our media, just like our people, is highly polarized. So you find that everyone will be singing a tune to whoever they’re in support of. But the trend that we’ve seen in the past two or so years has been that the opposition has a huge footprint in the urban population and the ruling ZANU-PF has dominance on the rural areas. Rural areas – I think they’re used to people who come with fertilizers, who come with seeds, who come with merchandise, who come with goodies. You have to come bearing gifts, uh, that sort of thing. And ZANU-PF is really good at that.

Lesedi: Kudzayi says the mood is different this year compared to the 2018 election.

Kudzayi: In the last election, there was a bit of hope. The general messaging building up to those elections was, it’s a new Zimbabwe, we are going to vote and your vote is going to count, and let’s vote in peace. It felt like literally the future is in your hands. So people came out in their numbers to vote.

Lesedi: So whose hands, you know, does the future lie in right now?

Kudzayi: Hah. Difficult to say, but definitely not the people.

Lesedi: And what about you as somebody working in the media? Um, you know, what is your role in, in these elections and, and how do you feel about reporting in this time?

Kudzayi: The role of the media and my role as someone in the media is to say, “Look, guys, let’s go and vote. Let’s be peaceful about it. Ultimately we might be polarized, but we are tied together. We are all Zimbabweans.”

MUSIC

Lesedi: This story was reported for Radio Workshop and Magamba Network. A special thanks to project coordinator Samantha Mandiveyi. Our reporters are Kudzayi Zvinavashe and Lynette Manzini from Magamba Network. Jo Jackson is our managing producer and she also produced this episode. Sam Broun is our producer mentor. Naomi Grewan is our associate producer. Rob Rosenthal and I edited this podcast. Music by Qhamani Sambu at Edible Audio in Cape Town. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Sound Engineering by Jo Jackson and Mike Rahfaldt. Thank you so much for listening.