Harare, Zimbabwe: In many rural areas of Zimbabwe, life is laid-back and traditional. The boys herd the cattle while the girls fetch water and help with chores around the house.
At night the men meet at the local tavern, where many drink traditional brewed beer. There isn’t always electricity, but you can guarantee there is a radio nearby.
The men talk shop while listening to a football game, local music and the news. Many people in rural Africa don’t have television sets, so the radio is their contact with life outside the village.
In Zimbabwe, “listening clubs” are groups of people who meet and listen to the radio together. But with a presidential election expected in July this year, authorities have begun to take issue with these gatherings. It’s not the meetings themselves that are the problem – it’s what people are listening to on the radio.
It’s illegal for radio stations outside Zimbabwe to broadcast in this country, but Zimbabweans can pick up foreign broadcasts on any short-wave radio set they already own.
In the past, officials have allegedly tried to jam the signals – but it’s impossible to monitor what everyone’s listening to. Human rights activists and lawyers say officials don’t want people in the rural areas – where most Zimbabweans live – listening to programmes broadcast by Zimbabweans in exile. Many such broadcasts are critical of President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party.
Police have now been confiscating radios distributed by non-government organisations in rural areas.
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In the capital Harare, Assistant Commissioner Charity Charamba of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) – a busy woman who is in a rush – says she only has five minutes to talk. I am pleasantly surprised she agreed to an interview: my previous experiences with the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) have not always been good.
When asked why the police are raiding offices and confiscating radios, she says, “We have it on record some of these media houses are peddling hate speech. As police, we have the responsibility to maintain security and order in Zimbabwe.
”We banned a particular consignment of radios which were smuggled into the country. They were not paid for under the import and export act.”
She wouldn’t say who smuggled them in, but hinted that Western diplomats could have something to do with it.
Now, anyone caught distributing or listening to a particular type of radio will be arrested. It’s a small radio that can be charged by winding up or by using solar power.
Many do not consider the ZRP to be an impartial group. The perception is that they are controlled by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, and anyone not with them is labelled the enemy. That’s what Nelson Chamisa of Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC party believes. He accuses the police of trying to stop people from listening to stations critical of the ZANU-PF.
At his office in Harare, next door to the architecturally impressive Central Bank building, he shouts that “what ZANU-PF and the police are trying to do is definitely bizarre, extraordinary, outrageous and not backed by any law. It is misbegotten, misconstrued, paranoia and driven by a banana-republic mentality.”
He has summed up the feelings of many human rights activists and lawyers in Zimbabwe. Activists say the radios are meant to educate people in rural areas about the referendum on a new constitution in March and elections later this year.
Zimbabwe has four state-controlled radio stations. Two recently established independent radio stations are perceived by some here to be pro-ZANU-PF. Opposition parties say they are frustrated, and that they are not fairly represented on state radio or television.
For instance, one day the main news bulletin on state television contained a story on Mugabe’s birthday celebrations, then a piece on political violence allegedly caused by the MDC.
Zimbabwe’s power-sharing government was formed in 2009, after the bitterly contested presidential election a year before. Robert Mugabe serves as president, while Morgan Tsvangirai is prime minister. But Mugabe’s party is in charge, and although Tsvangirai’s MDC party tries to push its policies through, it is not always successful.
Mugabe – who has ruled Zimbabwe for 33 years and turned 89 years old last month – made it clear that he will not be sharing power again. He has said that he will “fight like a wounded animal” to win elections this year, although he has also told his supporters to campaign peacefully.
On the ground, there are some signs that trouble is brewing ahead of the polls. In one town, 14 MDC supporters have been arrested for political violence. In another incident, a 12-year-old boy was burnt to death in what some believe was a politically motivated attack. Police ruled out foul play, but MDC officials suspect arson.
Foreign media recently reported another police raid on an NGO office in Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, Bulawayo, and a few days ago, the office of an independent electoral organisation critical of the ZANU-PF was also raided. The police took documents, gadgets and radio equipment, saying they were looking for subversive material.
McDonald Lewanika of Crisis Coalition Zimbabwe, a Harare-based NGO, says he has been arrested and beaten by the police several times for speaking out against human rights violations here.
“The political climate in Zimbabwe is getting worse and worse. A storm is brewing in Zimbabwe,” he says. “The situation for non-governmental organisations is becoming difficult, especially given the amount of raids, arrests and disruptions of marches that is taking place at the moment.”
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Meanwhile, ordinary Zimbabweans will do what they normally do during times like these: keep a low profile. The priority for the poor is feeding their families and staying out of trouble.
When political rallies are held, Zimbabweans will make sure to attend and sit where they can be seen – because inevitably, someone will be compiling a list of those absent. For instance, at one recent community meeting just outside Harare, people gathered under a tree to hear politicians talk about the contents of the draft constitution and how they should vote on it. By the time the meeting ended some three hours later, the people knew that they were expected to vote “yes” on the March 16 referendum.
But most Zimbabweans in the rural areas are used to this. They often vote a certain way out of fear. Many want the elections to come and go quickly. For many here, election time means violence, and people hope they pass without causing too much disruption to their lives.