- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

BEIT BRIDGE BORDER POST, South Africa — Trade unionists in South Africa and Zimbabwean exiles rallied at this border crossing last night to denounce the government of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and support the opposition on the eve of parliamentary elections today.

Residents of Zimbabwe “are living in grinding poverty, with more than 80 percent unemployment,” said South African union leader Zwelinzima Vavi, who described today’s vote as a test of whether freedom had come to Zimbabwe.

“And this is all because of government policies. The economy had broken down completely and we must stand together with Zimbabwean workers who are bearing the brunt of this,” he shouted into a loudspeaker system that carried his voice across the border.

Hundreds of protesters, most bused in by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) , marched toward a bridge across the Limpopo River but did not defy a court order blocking their original plan to shut down the bridge.

The march was to show solidarity with unions in Zimbabwe that form the main support base of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the main opposition to Mr. Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

COSATU President Willie Madisha blasted Zimbabwe’s long-serving Mr. Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, who has been accused of turning the once-model country into a mess.

“He is no longer a freedom fighter — he is an animal killing the people,” Mr. Madisha said. “We are dealing with a hero of yesterday and an enemy of the people of today.”

The opposition has been able to assemble large crowds for its rallies in spite of intimidation and threats from Mr. Mugabe, who has labeled anyone who votes for the MDC as a traitor.

MDC campaigner Nkathazo Ncube, who crossed Beit Bridge last night for the vigil, spoke of “a mood of defiance” in nearby Matabeleland, a key province in which he had spent the past two weeks.

“In 2002 and for the past three years, we have been so afraid,” he said. “Thousands have been tortured and beaten by the state militia for supporting the opposition or even for not attending ZANU-PF rallies.

“Now people walk around openly in MDC T-shirts and they say that the time has come for a final showdown.”

Mr. Mugabe, for his part, promised a “huge, mountainous victory” at a rally attended by some 10,000 enthusiastic supporters last night in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.

He rejected any suggestion of bringing the opposition into a unity government, saying, “Once we have fought in an election, a party has lost and we have won. We expect that party to respect the results.”

Most analysts predicted the MDC would be lucky to match the 57 seats it won in the 2000 election compared with 63 for ZANU-PF, which was accused of widespread fraud and intimidation. The president appoints another 30 parliament members, making the prospects of an MDC majority remote.

The opposition also charges that the government has padded the voter rolls with as many as 1 million names of persons who are either dead or have been driven into exile by economic collapse and state-sponsored violence.

Nevertheless, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai predicted victory at a rally in the eastern Chimanimani region, saying, “Five years of your efforts in fighting against this illegitimate regime may be ending tomorrow.”

Party supporters at the Beit Bridge Border Post said they expected to do well in a majority of provinces and were pinning their hopes on the 22 seats in Matabeleland, a region in which Mr. Mugabe has been accused of ordering genocidal attacks between 1984 and 1987.

Some people think Mr. Mugabe, 81, would rather die in office than step down for fear of being prosecuted over the Matabeleland charges.

The president’s campaign has been based on criticism of Britain and the U.S., which, he says, are trying to drive him from power.

Mr. Mugabe last was re-elected three years ago in a presidential ballot that was so marred by violence and intimidation that many Western countries, including the U.S., refused to recognize the result.

But the few observers Mr. Mugabe has allowed into the country this year have spoken of a peaceful atmosphere despite widespread irregularities.

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